Michael, Robin Hood (2010)
Ridley Scott’s Robin Hoodtakes on the task of retelling the story of a famous 12thcentury English outlaw, amidst major events and the lives of major people in English History. To name a few, King Richard the Lionheart and his famous Crusade, King John I and his infamous reign, tensions between Kings and Barons, and tensions between the English and French. There are speculations as to whether Robin Hood himself was a real person, but I will not be addressing this. Instead, I will address and challenge Scott’s contribution to popular historical interpretations, including opinions on Richard’s Crusade and the representation of King John. Overall, is this movie a useful contribution to our historical understanding of 12thCentury England?
On Richard’s Crusade:
The story opens on the way back from Richard’s Crusade, specifically at Chalus Castle, where he died. In this scene, we see Richard’s concern for his legacy- how would people remember him, his rule, and his accomplishments? From what is known of Richard, it seems as though this was always a concern of his. Richard’s love of conquering and Crusading is something that often characterises him- I mean it is literally the hill that he died on. This depiction by Ridley Scott is useful for our understanding of the life of Richard the Lionheart. From a purely historical analysis, Richard’s time in the Holy Land and the representation of his character seems to be, accurate.
Scott uses the tail end of this Crusade to develop an idea that in my opinion is a product of modern thought however, rather than a reasonable application of our knowledge of the time. Today’s opinion of the Crusades is (from what I have experienced) very much a negative one, and I think that Robin Hood reflects this modern opinion more than it reflects a 12thcentury archer’s opinion. When asked by King Richard whether God will be pleased with the Crusade, Robin Hood responds, defiantly, that God will not be pleased. While this response couldcertainly be characteristic of an average archer in Richard’s army, I’m not sure this opinion wouldhave been popular at all. Richard the Lionheart’s Crusade in comparison with other crusades ended relatively peacefully with a temporary peace treaty between himself and Saladin. This seems like a tactic to get a modern audience to empathise with Robin Hood, giving him modern morals and ideas- thus making him appear to have elevated morals. Robin recounts the events at Acre as though Richard ordered the massacre of the prisoners outside of any discernable military goal. As Allen and Amt suggest, taking, ransoming, and killing prisoners was not something unique to Richard’s circumstances. Furthermore, Baha ad-Din’s first hand account of these circumstances suggests that Richard’s decision came after failed negotiations, and perhaps in an attempt to avenge his own fallen men. Was it possible that soldiers shared Robins opinion? Yes, of course. Would it have been popular enough that a common archer- noble-hearted as he may have been- would speak his mind against Richard’s Crusade, knowing the consequences may be severe? I am inclined to say no.
The character of King John portrayed in Scott’s work seems to be another reflection of popular historical thought, rather than a completely accurate portrayal of history. Without any prior knowledge of the insanity that was the Angevin Empire, this movie portrays King John as an irresponsible, naïve, and unqualified king. I’m not saying he was notany of these things, but the way he is portrayed in Robin Hoodseems to exaggerate his actions in an attempt to make him seem worse. This is especially apparent in the burning of the charter, which can only be assumed to be the Magna Carta. Though King John did eventually evade his word in the Magna Carta, as far as I have seen there is no evidence that he burned such a charter.
The circumstances surrounding this charter in the movie are set in such a way that John’s character is easily attacked. He requires the assistance of the barons to deal with France, and so promises to sign a charter protecting baronial rights- only to burn it in front of them when the time came to sign. This goes past simply refusing to keep his word, there is a certain elevated sense of defiance that comes with burningyour word. In reality, the Magna Carta was signed to avoid a baronial uprising- an attempt to ease internal tensions. In sum, Ridley Scott does not portray King John in an unreasonably inaccurate light, but he does exaggerate some aspects of his reign for the purpose of making him seem as evil and perverse as possible. As a result, this depiction of John supports the popular historical idea that King John was a nasty, vile man in a manner that is not necessary. Why misrepresent how John betrayed the English barons when the way he truly did it has proven to soil his name already? I ask this rhetorically, clearly this was done for additional drama- I just don’t think it was necessary.
Robin Hoodis an interesting interpretation of English history, because though Robin himself is an Englishman, neither the English crown nor the French crown compel the audience to favor either nation. Robin and other barons struggle with King John to form a unified defence against the French, though of course the underlying theme is the baronial tensions with the king. It focusses on a humble mason’s son who unified the English in their time of need and forced the surrender of French invaders. In the movie when the French surrender, King John asks William Marshal who the French were surrendering to, to which Marshal responds “him,” pointing at Robin. This was not a victory for King Phillip of France, nor was it a victory for King John (in a manner of speaking, he of course would have been pleased that they defeated the French), it was a victory for the common Englishman.
So, is Robin Hooduseful or problematic?
Problematic, yes, though still useful. I believe this movie is appealing to a broad, modern audience because it is an interpretation motivated by popular modern opinions on historical events. Robin was critical of Richard’s crusade (as I would suggest most people are today), specifically the massacre at Acre. As I have discussed, he leaves out crucial aspects of the circumstances surrounding the massacre, and the role it played in Richards campaign against Saladin. This is not to say that any massacre is justified, but that a soldier who survived the extreme military competence that was Saladin would have perhaps been less critical of tactics used against such a successful military leader. Scott’s representation of John achieves a similar goal. Prior to studying Medieval British history, to me John was the king of such incompetence that he was forced to sign the Magna Carta. Robin Hoodsupports this conclusion and takes it to another level in the manner that he betrays his promise to the barons. Despite this, in my opinion, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hoodmay be useful in provoking people to become interested in history. Robin Hood is a character well known to many, set to live during exciting, consequential events for British and European history. So long as it’s audience is inclined to research the true context surrounding these events, Robin Hoodcan be a useful tool in a modern understanding of British and European history.
Allen, S.J., and Emilie Amt, ed. The Crusades: A Reader.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
Robin Hood. Directed by Ridley Scott, Produced by Universal Pictures. Toronto; 2010.
Hollister, C.W., Stacey, R.C., and Robin C. Stacey. The Making of England: To 1399. 8thEdition. U.S.A. Houghton Mifflin Company: 2001.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Pic, 2014.