Sep 202018

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Universal Pictures, 2010, 140 minutes
Cast: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Mark Addy, Eileen Atkins, Alan Doyle, Scott Grimes, Kevin Durand and Danny Huston
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Story: Brian Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris
Producer: Ridley Scott, Brian Grazer and Russell Crowe
Director: Ridley Scott

Historical Background

When Richard I died from complications following the removal of a crossbow bolt from his shoulder on April 6, 1199, his brother John became king of a powerful empire that included England, Normandy, Brittany, Anjou and Aquitaine. Having repeatedly betrayed Richard, John was not the ideal choice, but the alternative was Richard’s twelve-year-old nephew, Arthur of Brittany. Proving to be both a poor diplomat and a poor general, John alienated his supporters, and had lost almost all of his territories in Europe to the king of France by the spring of 1204. Confined to England, John levied heavy taxes to raise an army in order to regain his family’s lands. In particular, he charged outrageous succession fees, essentially an early form of inheritance tax. Already resentful that John’s father Henry and brother Richard had gradually weakened the barons’ independence, conflict between John and his barons was inevitable, heightened by his surprisingly vindictive nature. When John’s attempt to reconquer his lost territories ended in crushing defeat at Bouvines on July 27, 1214, and John returned to England broke and humiliated, his rebellious barons saw their opportunity. Following a brief conflict, the king and the barons met at Runnymede on June 19, 1215 where John swore to uphold the Magna Carta, and the barons renewed their allegiance to John. A mixture of specific regulations related to taxes and a broader limitation on the crown’s power, the Magna Carta was supposed to be a peace treaty but failed because John did not want a peace treaty. Roughly two months later, the barons knew that war was unavoidable but they needed someone with a claim to the throne in order to have an excuse to rebel. No English claimants survived, so they looked across the Channel to Louis, son of King Philip of France.

Plot Summary

The archers Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Alan A Dale (Alan Doyle), and the soldier Little John (Kevin Durand) are serving in Richard Lionheart’s (Danny Huston) army during the siege of Challus Castle in 1199. Unknown to Richard, Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), John’s (Oscar Isaac) trusted friend, is conspiring with King Philip of France. When Richard is killed by a crossbow bolt, Sir Locksley is returning to England with news of Richard’s death but is ambushed by Godfrey’s men. After driving off Godfrey, Robin grudgingly agrees to take Locksley’s sword back to Nottingham. Learning of Richard’s death, Queen Eleanor (Eileen Atkins) immediately crowns Richard’s younger brother John king of England, who increases taxes on the northern barons, and removes William Marshal (John Hurt) from office, giving it to Godfrey. Meanwhile, Godfrey meets secretly with an advance French invasion force, which rampages in the north, murdering, burning and looting in John’s name. Learning of Godfrey’s betrayal, John turns to Marshal, but rejects any suggestion of compromise. While pretending to be Sir Walter Locksley’s (Max Von Sydow) son and husband of Marion (Cate Blanchett) to preserve the estate, Robin learns that his father was a stone mason who preached equal rights for everyone, but was killed when he would not give up a charter that limits the crown’s power. When Longstride convinces John to agree to the charter, the barons agree to follow him to face the French invasion force at Dover. Seeing that England is united, Phillip retreats. Annoyed that everyone cheers Robin, John burns the charter and declares Longstride an outlaw.

Historical Accuracy

Wow, just wow. The script changed so much from the actual history that it is difficult to know where to start.

Let’s begin with the idea that everyone is English. The screen Eleanor learns of Richard’s death and immediately crowns John king of England, but it would have been more accurate to say king of England, duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, count of Poitiers, Anjou, and Maine, and Lord of Ireland, since John inherited a sprawling empire. The other titles were not omitted to save space for the romance between Robin and Marion, but to support the script’s portrayal of the struggle between John and Philip as a conflict between the English and the French, rather than a nasty fight between two rival families over property. As a result, everyone talks about England, even though both Eleanor and Richard considered the French duchy Aquitaine their home.

More important, the dramatic scene of Eleanor placing the crown on John’s head skips the debate over who would inherit the throne, John or his nephew Arthur, duke of Brittany. The real Richard had failed to name a successor, probably because the only options were his repeatedly disloyal younger brother and a twelve-year-old. The formidable Eleanor backed her last surviving son, and William Marshal, the leading noble in the kingdom, concluded that John, despite his numerous faults, was a better choice than a pre-teen. However, the nobles of Brittany, Anjou, Maine and Touraine felt differently, and declared for Arthur. A civil war erupted, which ended when John captured Arthur, but he managed to snatch defeat from from the jaws of victory when Arthur disappeared in captivity, supposedly beaten to death in a fit of rage by John.

When Marshal counsels compromise with the rebellious barons, the screen John decides to discipline them. If the barons were rebelling, where did John get his army? This is not a minor question. In theory, the feudal system was simple. The barons derived their authority over their lands from the king in exchange for paying taxes and contributing troops when necessary. In reality, John used money from taxing the barons to pay for mercenaries, ending the traditional dependence on barons to supply troops.

Philip’s dastardly plan seems to be working until Marshal’s spy notifies him that two hundred French troops have landed in England and are riding with Godfrey. Apparently, a spy is necessary because no one else has noticed that the men with Godfrey speak French, not English. Instantly grasping Philip’s plot, Marshal explains it to the audience by telling Eleanor that Godfrey has betrayed John, and is leading French troops to anger the northern barons, in order to start a civil war, thus leaving the coast defenceless against a French invasion. Oh, dear, that is just silly. Aside from the deliberate misrepresentation of the factors that caused the barons to revolt against John, it is unclear why Godfrey betrayed John. What exactly is Godfrey getting out of the deal with Philip? John had already made him the second-most powerful man in the kingdom, and Philip wanted the throne of England for himself.

 By the way, the real John would have said, hold my beer you amateurs, I’ll show you how to stir up trouble. Aside from pursuing the wives and daughters of his barons, he sought every possible excuse to slap heavy fines on nobles, loading them down with crushing debt that they could not possibly pay off, thus leaving them vulnerable if he ever decided to call in the whole debt. While the Angevin (Richard and John) and Capetian (Philip) families were the dominant powers in Europe, they had constantly shifting networks of alliances both inside and outside their respective territories. If an enemy baron or knight fell into the hands of one of the families, they were usually ransomed to increase the royal treasury, but treated well, since they quite likely would be an ally during the next stage of the endless wars over territory. John proved to be something completely different, and threw them into dungeons, where they frequently starved to death. This vicious approach not only denied him the ransoms, but turned their relatives into determined enemies.

I understand that director Ridley Scott wanted to compress the sixteen years of John’s reign before the barons’ revolt that led to the Magna Carta, but I would have preferred a montage to this. And I loathe montages.

Credit to Scott, the siege of Challus Castle is an impressive affair, although there are way, way too many defenders. While a cook kills the screen Richard with a lucky crossbow bolt during an attack, the real man’s death was quite different. Challus Castle, an unimportant castle with forty defenders, was being besieged by his men, and Richard took time out of his busy schedule of running a massive federation of loosely connected territories to supervise the proceedings because he lived for war. Venturing close to the lines after supper, he was wounded by a lucky crossbow bolt. Surgery was needed to remove the barbed bolt, it was done by torchlight and the wound festered until it became clear that he would die.

By the way, archers were rare at the time, crossbowmen were much more common. More important, where are the trebuchets that were vital for each siege?

The Magna Carta is a key plot point, but none of the specific clauses are discussed. It is true that the Magna Carta was based on an earlier version that had been produced a few months before the actual charter, but the idea that Marshal or the northern barons had signed a charter intended to guarantee equal rights for every man is simply ludicrous. The real barons were hard men who fought for the right of the barons to oppress their subjects, and resented both the king’s predatory treatment of them and the crown’s steady efforts to rule the peasants directly, rather than through the barons. Yes, the real William Marshal did sign the Magna Carta, but as a witness, since he was representing King John during the negotiations.

Wait, wait, wait, there are more inaccuracies. The film opens with the statement: “Lacking wealth or glory, Richard Lionheart is plundering his way home after ten years on Crusade.” The fictional Richard is unhappy, and apparently regrets his actions during the crusade. Believing that Robin is honest, he asks the archer’s opinion of his crusade. When Robin comments that the massacre at Acre angered God, he and his friends end up in the stocks. Not sure why the script refers to Richard’s crusade. He had been one of the three main leaders, alongside Philip of France and German Emperor Frederick Barbossa, and they had simply been answering the call from the pope.

The idea that Richard would be unhappy during a siege seems unlikely, the man lived for war. More important, the description “lacking wealth or glory” is honestly bizarre. After several years of brutal raids and harsh sieges, the real man had reclaimed most of the territory taken by the French king during his lengthy imprisonment while the huge ransom was raised, and had just signed a peace treaty with Philip. He was literally at his peak when he died. Furthermore, Richard had been relatively popular. Following his release from captivity, he had journeyed through the Angevin lands on the continent, and returned to England for a month, where he was greeted with surprising warmth despite the colossal ransom, likely because the alternative was John.

Another major inaccuracy is the suggestion that England is bankrupt. Disregarding Eleanor and William Marshal’s claim that times are hard, so there is no more money to tax, the fictional John justifies heavier taxes on the barons with the statement that Richard left him a broken country. Later, Marion complains that Richard bankrupted them to pay for his foreign adventures and the church takes the rest. Even though England and the rest of the Angevin territories had been squeezed over a period of ten years to pay for a crusade, then Richard’s ransom and finally a massive military campaign to retake territory occupied by Philip, England was thriving. Spared war for forty years, the kingdom was peaceful and prosperous. In fact, the period around the time of the charter had witnessed great changes in transport and technology, especially in spinning, weaving and dyeing, which fueled the cloth industry. A better understanding of physics enabled architects to build castles and cathedrals several stories high with huge open spaces filled with light, rather than the smaller wooden buildings with gloomy interiors. Stone walls permitted fireplaces with chimneys, piped water, latrines, corridors, and rooms.

Even though the film is called Robin Hood, I honestly have the impression that Scott wanted to make a movie about England during WWII, since all of the men are away fighting in France, and everyone fears invasion. Eleanor is angry that her son John is sleeping with a French princess, rather than his wife, thus angering Philip, who wants an excuse to invade England. Look at the French landing at Dover, the French invasion force with their landing boats seem to be a reverse D-Day. Speaking of the medieval landing craft, I won’t mock them, they are cool and the least silly thing in the movie.

Not sure if the script missed any national monuments. The English forces meet at the White Horse, and ride to the cliffs of Dover. Hm, maybe they could have thrown in Stonehenge somehow?


A band of orphans called the Lost Boys routinely steal from Marion until she encounters them and discovers that they are all sick, so she tends to them. While hunting, Robin is caught by the Lost Boys, and saved by Marion, after agreeing to teach them how to be better outlaws. Did Scott want to make a Peter Pan movie but fail to obtain financing, so he just took the bits he liked and wedged them into this movie? This is a genuine question, Peter Pan was the leader of the Lost Boys. After John declares Longstride an outlaw, Robin and the Merry Men join Marion and the Lost Boys to live in a socialist paradise in Sherwood Forest.

The climatic battle is great but it is probably best to listen to Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech while watching the battle. The main charge is joined by Marion and the Lost Boys because adolescents with sharp sticks are needed in combat against armored men.

One of the main themes of the movie seems to be when in doubt, don’t trust the French. All of the raping and pillaging in the north is done by the French, not English. Later, Godfrey’s French troops lock up the villagers in a building which is set on fire.

I like Friar Tuck (Mark Addy), he knows how to party. While drinking with Tuck, the merry men make the very pleasant discovery that there are a lot of lonely women. The dance scenes are the best part of the movie, since Alan A Dale is played by Alan Doyle, lead singer of the Canadian folk rock band Great Big Sea. At one point, Tuck innocently asks Little John why he is called ‘Little’ John, and Little John, suspecting that Tuck is making a comment about his manhood, replies “I’m proportional!” Scenes like that make me think that there was an enjoyable, earthy story buried under all of the heroic posturing, especially since the script was written by Brian Hegeland, who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale (2001), which was so much fun.

I will admit that I was never bored. To be fair, the many battle scenes are great, but the movie is dragged down by a lame script.

Wow, wow, wow, just wow, how could sane, presumably sober people come up with this? Ironclad (2011) probably had a tenth of the budget but even it got most of the history right.

  • kevin hardy

    I abhor this movie. It is a historical atrocity. You found the medieval landing craft cool, I literally broke out laughing in the theater. It amazes me how no one can top Errol Flynn after all these years. And I am definitely including the newest abomination coming up soon.

    • historyonfilm

      There is no denying that it was ridiculous but I enjoyed much of the movie. Like you, I am not looking forward to reviewing the newest version, it looks horrible.