The new Robin Hood film, directed by Ridley Scott, has a lot to offer. Fine performances by Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett and William Hurt. Convincing computer generated images. Good battle scenes. What it lacks is fidelity to history.
This may not seem such a large defect. Historical dramatists from Shakespeare to Schiller have been less than chronologically faithful to the surfaces of history. Personages have been combined. Events have been reordered. Yet these story tellers strove, at least, to essentially depict the forces that moved history and the actors who strode the historically stage.
This striving may still be still be occasionally be found. HBO’s Tudor series is certainly trashy. Here, too, persons are combined and events reordered. But the makers of this series have tried to be historically fair.
Yet a recent trend in historical films has been toward an almost total disregard of history’s complexities. Glaring examples of this are the Elizabeth films also starring Cate Blanchett. The historical Elizabeth was in many ways a successful monarch. She was easier to like than her father Henry.
But she had her faults. While she did not formally persecute Catholics, she looked the other way when nobles in her realm did so. She patronized pirates. And she allowed her cousin Mary of Scotland to be executed on flimsy evidence.
The recent Elizabeth films have whitewashed this monarch. They have acted as propaganda pieces five hundred years after the event. Elizabeth’s faults are glossed over. Mary of Scotland is depicted as a being guilty of conspiracy.
The Russell Crowe Robin Hood film gallops even further against historical accuracy. It depicts Robin Hood not as a merry outlaw but rather as a political philosopher. It is Robin Hood, in this film, who creates the Magna Charta.
The anti-Catholicism of the Elizabeth films continues in ROBIN HOOD. Bishops are shown as being hostile to the common people. Even the laid-back Friar Tuck says, “I am not a churchy churchman,” thus explaining why he can be on the side of good.
History’s realities, if presented, would have disrupted the picture presented in this film. For the most enlightened man in England during the time of King John was the Archbishop of Canterbury: Stephen Langton. Langton was a cardinal and friend of Pope Innocent III. Above all, he had had a distinguished career as a theologian and biblical scholar at the University of Paris.
Upon assuming his chair at Canterbury, Langton was alarmed to see John’s abuses of power. The barons of England were angry over John’s usurpation of their authority. Being skilled politically, Langton served as an intermediary between the John and the barons. And Langton envisioned that a charter was necessary to clearly establish legal rights.
The resultant Magna Charta was to go far beyond the intentions of the barons who pushed John to sign it. These barons were thinking merely of their own rights. They did not know that it would legally establish the rights of all persons. Yet Langton must be given credit for both this charter and, to a considerable extent, its consequences.
It is an essential error to give to Robin Hood the role that Stephen Langton historically assumed. Both men were confronted with the Antigone problem, which is: What do you do when the laws of land are unjust? Robin Hood chose to work outside the law, and he remained popular for it.
Stephen Langton chose a far different solution to the problem. Through learning, thought and persuasion, he remained within the “system”, but strove to improve the laws. This was the less glamorous and more difficult route to take.