Some links before we get things started. Yesterday having had been a Sunday, our joint blog had a Snippet Sunday post. Krisztina had tips for caramel tipped apples and Hallowe'en party food. Shelly had lost chapters to deal with. Lorelei wrote about witches. And the Whisk had this to say about unusual angel food cake.
And now for the last of my series of reviews on Robin Hood...
“Yes, of course we could do as you suggest. But the poacher will still have his eyes, so he can poach again.” ~ Sir Miles Folcanet
“You’re so handsome when you’re angry.” ~ Marian
“Let’s settle this on a coin toss. Heads I win, tails Harry loses.” ~ Robin Hood
Every once in awhile, two movies come out within a few months of each other with similar themes or subjects. Such was the case in 1991, when two movies about Robin Hood were released. Prince of Thieves got the lion’s share of the attention, while a British film simply called Robin Hood got overlooked. Its cinematic release was confined to Europe and other overseas locations. And yet it’s the better of the two, with my personal favourite interpretation of the title character. John Irvin, who had already directed the BBC version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, came on board as director in a story that emphasized the tensions between Saxons and Normans and presented an actor who brought the right measure of a charming scoundrel to the role.
The film opens in an England after the Crusades. Richard the Lionheart is absent from the lands, and his brother John (Edward Fox) is trying to consolidate power. We first meet a poacher named Much (Danny Webb) being run down by soldiers. He is saved by a local Saxon earl, Sir Robert Hode (Patrick Bergin) and his friend Will Scarlett (Owen Teale). Robert tells the pursuing party that he has no objection to Much hunting his deer on his land, and releases him. The leader of the party, a cruel Norman named Sir Miles Folcanet (Jurgen Prochnow), demands that he apologize in person at the court of his Norman feudal lord, Baron Roger Daguerre (Jeroen Krabbe).
Robert and Daguerre are friends, and Daguerre is pragmatic, suggesting that Robert just swallow his pride, apologize to Folcanet, and that will be the end of it. Robert also happens to have something of a spark with Marian, Daguerre’s niece, played by Uma Thurman; she’s engaged to marry Folcanet. Robert’s apology goes awry when Folcanet pushes it further though, and Robert quickly finds himself insulting his Norman hosts, declared an outlaw, and must fight his way out of the castle with the help of Will. It doesn’t take long after that before the two fall in with the outlaws of Sherwood, including Little John (David Morrissey), Friar Tuck (Jeff Nuttall), the treacherous Harry (Alex Norton), and Much, who doesn’t bat an eye when Robert is introduced as Robin Hood. And so the band of outlaws find themselves taking up arms to resist the Normans.
Irvin adapted the screenplay by Sam Resnick and John McGrath, which places stronger emphasis on the differences between Saxons and Normans in the era than other films had. The classic The Adventures Of Robin Hood had looked at that theme to some degree, but not too much, and Prince Of Thieves avoided it. In this case, it’s very much front and center, with Normans being still seen as the invading conquerors, disliked by the local Saxons, who resent being second class in their own homelands. The outlaws aren’t entirely altruistic in their motivations as to giving money to the poor; it’s more done in a realistic understanding that doing so is the best way to prevent people from giving them up to the authorities. The story also weaves in themes like justice, strained friendships, romance, pride, arrogance, nobility and the common man, and equal treatment under the law. It’s a grittier world, darker and more medieval, a reminder that the time could be a dangerous one, and Irvin shoots the film in that manner.
Much of the filming was done on location in England and Wales, and the countryside looks very British. Irvin also deliberately went for a washed out, almost black and white look through most of the film; colours are muted, and there’s a sense of bleakness and foreboding to the way the film is shot. It comes as refreshing, then, in the closing moments of the film that the sun finally comes out, and colours come into themselves, a wise touch by the director. Irvin also has a good handle on filming action, managing larger crowds of fighting adversaries and the one on one action of duels. He particularly gets creative in how those duels get staged.
The costuming and props look as medieval as the settings. You see that both in the clothing of common folk and the rich linens and attire of the wealthy. It comes across in the armour and the technology of the era, so even though the crew was not working with the larger budget of Prince Of Thieves, it still feels very much of its time, lending authenticity to the production.
The cast is largely of British or Irish origins, though there’s a bit of a continental influence in certain characters. Edward Fox gets a cameo as Prince John, touring the lands to raise taxes. He plays the part as other actors have done before and since: a vain, self absorbed, sneering man who holds others in contempt. Alex Norton turns up as Harry, a member of the band who is particularly hostile to Robin and Will from the start. He snarls and bites at every opportunity, playing the role as a greedy, backstabbing traitor who thinks nothing of betraying those around him.
David Morrissey is an interesting choice as Little John. He’s softer spoken than most actors who have taken on the role, more thoughtful in what he has to say. He’s done a lot of stage, television, and film work as an actor; American television audiences might know him best as The Governor in The Walking Dead series. The writer, actor, and activist Jeff Nuttall plays Friar Tuck as many have before: a priest given to drink, boisterous in character, but also with a very clear sense of right and wrong. There’s a darkly funny moment late in the film when he and a number of the outlaws confront a dying adversary, and he proclaims: “welcome to hell.” Considering the way the outlaws look at that moment, it’s entirely appropriate. Owen Teale is a good choice for Will Scarlett, who in this case is the archer’s best friend and gets caught up in his friend’s misadventures. He plays Will as loyal to a fault, courageous, and a man who still believes in his country and wants it back.
The film changes things around with the traditional adversaries; instead of a Sheriff of Nottingham and a Sir Guy of Gisbourne, we get original creations with different relationships to the outlaws. One of them is sympathetic, the other is not. Jurgen Prochnow is unsympathetic as the Sir Guy influenced character Sir Miles Folcanet. He’s played various villains, antagonists, and complicated characters in films like Air Force One, The Da Vinci Code, and Das Boot. His character is vindictive, arrogant, and petty, a man easily enraged who takes every perceived slight personally (it doesn't help that Robin re-opens the same wound, literally). Folcanet is supremely self absorbed, and tends to behave like you might expect a rattlesnake to act. Prochnow brings all of these qualities to his performance, and the end result is a very good villain.
Baron Daguerre is more complicated, taking the traditional role of the tax collecting sheriff, but the story gives him more depth as a man torn between two people. He’s more sympathetic, pragmatic in nature. Early on we see that he and Robert are old friends, and Daguerre seems genuinely eager to see both Saxon and Norman get along with each other and move forward as one people. He’s placed into a position where he must hunt old friends, where he finds himself on the opposing side. Jeroen Krabbe, who was so good in films like Immortal Beloved and The Fugitive, plays this sense of division and sympathy in the character in just the right way.
Uma Thurman was a very good choice for Marian. When we first meet her, she’s a bit distant; Robin must get to know her first, and the audience with him, even if we already know where things will end up. She plays the role as a woman with strong opinions, giving her a courageous, impulsive streak. Her Marian is radiant, bold, even aggressive, and very much a feminist in her thinking. She takes her fate into her own hands, makes decisions for herself, and even engages in her own fisticuffs. Perhaps no blow strikes harder though, than her words at a pivotal moment in the film, words that have the effect, almost, of castration on Folcanet. They’re humiliating words.... and they leave the audience smiling. It also helps that she has great chemistry with her leading man as they share the screen.
Patrick Bergin comes from Irish stock, and his work at this period included the monstrous ex-husband of Julia Roberts’ character in Sleeping With The Enemy and the leader of the Irish terrorists making Harrison Ford’s life hell in Patriot Games. More of his work since has been done in the British isles, though international audiences might recall him more recently from Ella Enchanted, in which he played Sir Peter. He’s ideally cast as Robert/ Robin, playing the part as a man of principle and pride, giving the character the right balance of the devilish scoundrel and charming outlaw. There's a glint of the rascal in his eyes and an amused smile from time to time, just as you'd expect of the character. Robin finds himself cast out more because he doesn’t want to swallow his pride, but it’s not a pride that crosses over into arrogance; it’s a firm pride in himself and his people as Saxons. Yet even cast out, he comes into his own, believing in justice and in hopes for a better land. He emerges as a natural leader, handy in a fight, and the sort of man who uses psychology as a weapon just as easily as he does a sword and a quiver of arrows. Bergin’s take on the character still stands as my favourite interpretation of the legendary outlaw. He’s a rogue, but such a compelling rogue.
Robin Hood might not have gotten the notice that its counterpart got in 1991, but it is the much better of the two films, taking itself more seriously, feeling more authentic as it takes on themes in a full way that have never really been explored before in a Robin Hood film. It has a particularly nasty villain, a sympathetic antagonist, and a supporting cast that inhabit their roles in the best of ways. And it has a leading pair of actors playing their characters as two people who genuinely like each other even as they’re falling for each other.