Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is just a “common archer” at the start of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. He’s also a Crusader, riding along with King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), bashing down fortress gates, slamming enemy soldiers, and drinking hard on the nights after. Before a first battle scene, he and his comrades roar with agreement when the king urges them to fight “Like the bells of hell!” No matter that this curly-cue speechifying is nonsensical: they’re sent in to bash heads. Yay!
A few minutes later, Robin’s uncommon side emerges, when he actually refutes the king’s campaign—the same campaign Robin just waged, that very afternoon. Because this film is laying out how Robin became an “outlaw,” it has to give him a minute to articulate his dis-ease with his lot. He knows he’s good at killing people, but maybe, as he tells the king, their cause is not so just and their deeds not so pure as they’ve been led to believe. Maybe, as Robin puts it, their pursuit of power in the name of God has actually left them “godless.”
It’s telling that Robin makes this pronouncement just after he’s appeared running a shell game, that is, light entertainment following the battle. The scene’s patent symbolism is jumpstarted when fellow Crusader Little John (Kevin Durand) accuses him of cheating. When Robin somehow proves that his shell game is honest (because everything he does is honest), they fall to blows, just as the king happens along. Intrigued, Richard asks these manly men their opinion of his own war-making. When Robin brings up the little problem of the massacre of the Saracens (which occurred historically in 1191 and left 2700 dead), remembering that a Muslim woman looked at him with pity, knowing he was sacrificing his soul and morality to commit such an atrocity, well, the king is not educated but is instead offended. Robin and his new friend Little John land in the stocks.
This episode establishes Robin’s change, from “common archer” who goes along to “hero” who fights for… Muslims’ rights?
At any rate, it also sets him up to be a worthy romantic partner for Marion (Cate Blanchett), here transformed into a hardworking farmer in Nottingham. Robin’s arrival at her doorstep is framed in a decidedly odd way. Following his escape from the stocks, he and the merry men—Little John, Allan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle), and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes)—head over to Nottingham with the purpose of returning Marion’s dead husband’s sword to his father, Walter (Max von Sydow). It’s a little complicated and exceedingly symbolic: suffice it to say this sword business leads Robin to face his own daddy issues, feel bonded to father-figure Walter, and see in the monarchy system an inherent problem, one that leads him actively to redistribute wealth.
Walter sets Robin on this course with a Return-of-Martin Guerre-ish scheme to keep his/Marion’s farm from the tax-collecting Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen). That is, Robin will pretend to be Walter’s son and Marion’s husband (also named Robin, and gone for 10 years, so no one notices the difference). After a few minutes of feisty resistance (she threatens to “sever [his] manhood” if, he comes near her bed at night), Marion sees that this other Robin is really a nice and noble man, unlike her angry husband, whom she knew for one “short but sweet” night.
Robin’s nobility is of course contrasted with the abject badness of the royals and their emissaries. In addition to the briefly seen sheriff, Robin battles the odious Godfrey (Mark Strong), an assassin dispatched by King Philip of France (Jonathan Zaccaï), who plans to conquer England flat-out. Godfrey’s evil is made glaringly visible when one of Robin’s arrows slices his cheek: the resulting raw and stitchy wound recalls Sergi López’s in Pan’s Labyrinth (Godfrey goes so far as to shave with a knife blade while peering grimly into a mirror, just like that iconic villain), and gives him a personal gripe against Robin.
Robin’s goodness is equally plain, not only in his physical prowess and dedication to his men and mission, but also in his power to inspire. Again and again, people here worry about loyalty. Queen Eleanor (Eileen Atkins), mother to Richard and his younger brother Prince John (Oscar Isaac), upset when John decides to govern by bullying, declares that Richard “commanded loyalty, not by fear.” John observes that his brother was a brutal killer, a point the film makes clear too. What the film doesn’t sort out is how one sort of brutality is okay when another isn’t, except for the most obvious point: it’s okay when Marion stabs a man about to rape her or Robin kills anyone, anytime. By the same token, Godfrey’s violence is always bloody and bad.
This simplistic moral split carries over to anything Robin says or does. He inspires his community (even before it is his community), with a speech designed to convince the barons to resist John’s efforts to control/own everything. “You run a country like you build a cathedral,” he yells, “From the ground up!” His odd reference to a cathedral here almost highlights that the film actually doesn’t spend a whole lot of time noting the era’s notorious state-religion confluences (i.e., the Crusades). Robin does befriend Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), cutting a deal so this self-described “not very churchy” friar can maintain his mead- and grain-alcohol-making business, while also ensuring the king doesn’t collect the seed grain the local church reps are supposed to collect for the royals as taxes.
If this alliance doesn’t sort out all Robin Hood‘s power dynamics, it does underscore Robin’s pragmatic willingness to barter. This, along with his guilt over his Crusading, makes him the film’s resident true leader, less abhorrent than the French and English kings, both obsessed with “filling [their] coffers,” and both prone to visceral yuckiness (whether involving sex or oysters, in two different scenes, each man wields a knife, clumsily). Though he throws in with one king against another, Robin will, by film’s end, see that neither can be trusted. And so embraces his outlaw status, asserting that stealing from the rich and giving to the poor will set things right. We might imagine how that works out.