I don’t usually do movie reviews, but ever since I mentioned that my husband and I were headed off to see Robin Hood earlier in the week, people have been asking me what I thought. I guess that’s because I tell stories about history for a living. And since I’m writing about this very time and place in my ongoing world history series (Volume 3 begins in 1100, just after the First Crusade; as the movie begins, Richard the Lionhearted has just finished the Third Crusade, which took place 1189-1192) I’ve decided to write a review.

There may possibly be a spoiler or two in the following, so if you’re a stickler for surprises, you might not want to read on. But really, it’s Robin Hood; how many plot twists can you expect? (Rhetorical question. There weren’t really any.)

So here goes.

Movie: Robin Hood

Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett
Grade: Er…Can we switch over to a pass/fail grading system for this one? Because I can’t actually give it an A, but (surprise!) I’d like to at least pass it.

Negatives first.

Ridley Scott seems to have done a lot of borrowing from other filmmakers: the arrow flights from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, the beach landing from Saving Private Ryan, the swooping-down-between-the-mountains camera shots from The Two Towers. As a friend of mine remarked, maybe he needs to stop going to the movies.

More central: Robin Hood isn’t anything close to Gladiator. That movie was very closely focused on the personal crises of two or three characters; Maximus wants his family back, the emperor wants power (and his sister), his sister wants to protect her son. The political maneuverings of the Senate and the jousting for power between emperor and the people’s representatives was secondary subplot. Robin Hood reverses this plot-subplot relationship. In the foreground, the English try to get King John to recognize their rights; the personal story between Robin Hood and Marion of Locksley is the subplot.

The movie’s the poorer for it. Unfortunately for the scriptwriters, the English struggle against absolute royal power took place over a number of years; there was no one charismatic leader that whipped the common folk up into indignation against their rulers; and the rights the English were demanding didn’t actually have much to do with the common folk anyway. The Magna Charta did improve their lot, but the driving force behind its composition was the indignation of the English barons (those are the rich folk) over royal trespasses into theirrights. Aristocrats trying to bring a king to heel: not nearly as heart-warming a story.

In the scriptwriters’ hands, Robin Hood becomes the charismatic leader; the common folk get way more involved in forcing John to acknowledge their rights; and the rights themselves get transformed into something that sounds a lot like the U.N. charter. In fact, Robin Hood ends up delivering a ten-minute speech explaining how England should become a liberal western democracy.

I will not lie. I was rolling my eyes during this part. A lot. It reminded me of the scene from another Cate Blanchett move, Elizabeth, where the young heartbroken queen gazes up at a statue of Mary and decides that she’ll identify herself with the Blessed Virgin, so paints her face white and turns into the Virgin Queen. Weeelll…by the end of her life Elizabeth had definitely made the connection, but it was a gradual and lifelong process. She didn’t just make up her mind on the spot.

Gradual transformations don’t play well on the big screen, so they get turned into moments instead.

And then of course there are the smaller historical accuracies. Richard didn’t fall in battle; he was wandering around the castle without his chain mail on. French soldiers did not help tax collectors sack towns in order to get more tax money for King John. And Philip of France would never have sailed up to Dover with an attack fleet and then remarked to his helmsman, “Nah, it’s not going to work this time. Let’s just go home.”

But that sort of thing doesn’t really bother me in a movie. It’s a movie. Complaining about the lack of historical rigor in a major Hollywood release is kind of like going to eat at Chuck E. Cheese and then griping about the lack of a first-class wine list.

What were the positives? Well, Russell Crowe makes a mighty fine archer, and I could be entertained watching Cate Blanchett breathe. But what I appreciated about the movie (and the reason I’ll give it a pass) were the number of moments that gave me a vivid imaginative glimpse at what life in the Middle Ages was actually like. I write about the Middle Ages every day, and I constantly forget just how different the pattern of daily existence is.

So you want to travel from the coast of England to a town in the south? It’s going to take a long time. Your son goes off to the Crusades? You won’t know for ten years whether he’s dead or alive. You want to find out if your husband survived his journey? You’ll have absolutely no inkling until his ship docks and he walks down the ramp–or else someone else does, carrying his sword. You’re a major landowner? That means you’ll spend your days out in the fields wrestling with a primitive plow and hoping to raise enough grain to survive. And, most powerfully in this film: You’re a woman in the Middle Ages? Life is not good.

For those moments, I give the movie a passing grade. Although if I had to do it again, I might rent it instead of shelling out for a ticket.

Showing 16 comments
  • Jennifer Dempsey

    Thank you for posting this, Susan. For those of us who may not have recognized the historical inaccuracies, this will prevent a great deal of misunderstanding.

  • Kelley Maroules

    Thank you for giving me a basis to talk with my daiughter about before we see the movie. We were interested to see this as we embarq on our journey after the crusades. Sometimes seeing things, even if it is on a screen, can be a strong reminder of the advances in history and how blessed we are to live today.

  • Nick N

    Well perhaps you do not write many movie reviews because Lord knows you are busy, but I am thinking perhaps you should. Not only did I get a good sense of the movie and if I want to see it or not, but the historical references you can post from one viewing is astonishing.

    Now maybe my wife might not appreciate it when I point out inaccuracies but I always enjoy at least comparing, and maybe a little mocking if there is just too much of a stretch. Like you stated, I do realize it’s just a movie and not a documentarty, but it’s always a little fun to compare their stories to actual historical facts. It does not ruin my experience though, considering “Braveheart” is still my favorite how could it.

    I hope that you will consider doing more reviews, especially on historically based movies or shows, and I look forward to your next book. I enjoy the first two volumes and they will be great for my kids as they get older. Thanks for all of your wonderful writing and we look forward to the next dose.

  • A Daring Adventure

    Oh wow, Susan! Love the historical background in the movie review. Honestly, these things about which you’ve talked wouldn’t have crossed my mind. Love hearing your take on it – you know so very much that you can turn a Russell Crowe movie into something educationally rich!

  • Mary Jo Tate

    Excellent review, Susan. The Chuck E. Cheese analogy is spot on and priceless! Do you think the same analogy works for a movie adaptation of a book that takes extreme liberties with the book? I can never quite make up my mind on that, but usually decide to appreciate them as two separate works of art.

  • Carla

    Good review! We went to see it and I had similar thoughts. I did think that I’d like to show my kids the castle seige scene and also the scene where the boats appear in the English Channel–not because I thought it was necessarily accurate, but because I think that it is very difficult for our kids to imagine what “attack by sea” in the Middle Ages looked like.

  • cathmom

    My husband summed it up this way: Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood was a good movie with bad acting. This new one is a bad movie with good acting.

  • Ellen

    Informative review. Historical accuracies in movies bother me greatly (it’s a character defect) because so many people walk away thinking that’s how things actually *happened*. I’ll wait for the rental version anyway. Theatre etiquette being what it is, I’d rather enjoy a flick in my quiet home — and eat my own (less expensive) popcorn.

  • Emily

    This was very helpful. My husband and I were considering going, and now I think we probably will. Nice to know the inaccuracies ahead of time.

  • Media Smarts

    I will agree with you, Susan, for quite a bit of this. However, I wrote a bit more positive, shorter review that might interest you. Thanks for the review! Here’s my website: http://mediasmartsreviews.blogspot.com/

  • Elle M.

    Nice analysis. I’ll add it to our Netflix queue. I’m curious about your take on other “historical” films, including earlier versions of Robin Hood (the Kevin Costner one I haven’t seen since it was on the big screen comes to mind). Now that you’ve done this once, I hope you’ll consider doing more, at least with this genre of film. It’s also helpful in terms of choosing what to show the kids and for the discussion following the viewing.

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    I remember reading the books by Sharon Kaye Penman set around the story of Simon de Monfort, the Magna Carta and the decades long struggle to hold the crown to the restraints it put on the crown. So much that I’d never heard of, perhaps because it is easier to frame Runnymeade as an triumphant end rather than a messy beginning.

  • Hélène

    Ok, the middle ages ended in 1100? Cuz I thot the 3rd adult hst bk ur writing came after the 2nd and the 2nd bk is titled middle ages…or did I miss something here? 🙂

  • Emily Miller

    Funny commentary on the historical license. I felt similarly about the movie: enjoyable, but too heavy-handedly political to change my life. I had a hard time not laughing when they decided to mix Robin Hood up with the Magna Carta. But great setting and acting, as you said.

  • Charlene Hardin

    Thanks for the review. On another, completely off topic note, and assuming you read this comment, have you ever seen Terry Jones Medieval Lives? If so, what did you think of it? Pass or fail?

  • DebbieQ

    My assessment in a nutshell! And I love (cough, cough) how Cate Blanchett shows up on the beach ready to fight, having shown the boys who live in the woods how to ride horses and fight ON the horses and have ridden on said horses all the way to the coast. It was entertaining.

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