This article was first published in Idea magazine (May/June 2010) and on Culturewatch.org. © Tony Watkins, 2010.
The legend of Robin Hood has an enduring fascination, and not just for small boys with bows and arrows. For over seven centuries, he has been an icon of struggle against unjust authority and of defending the interests of the poor. Now Ridley Scott is bringing yet another version of the story to the big screen, starring Russell Crowe in the title role. Since the first cinematic outing for Robin and his merry men in 1908, there have been dozens of films and television series about the heroes of Sherwood Forest, and they have been the inspiration for dozens more. Scott says the last good one was in 1938, with Errol Flynn in his most memorable role.
It’s impossible to be certain about the truth behind the Robin Hood folklore, and Scott’s version expands the story to a grander level than merely robbing the rich who pass through Sherwood Forest. In his film, Robin has been an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s army in France. After Richard’s death, Robin returns to Nottingham where things are in a bad way. Richard’s crusades have virtually bankrupted the country, and King John (Oscar Isaac) has imposed heavy taxes to replenish the nation’s coffers. The task of collecting these taxes around Nottingham falls to the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen), who oppresses the common people in the name of King John. Robin is soon not only fighting the Sheriff on behalf of the poor, but fighting for liberty itself. He laments that ‘the laws of this land enslave the people to its king, a king who offers nothing in return.’
Every age finds some resonance in the Robin Hood story, but it seems particularly timely to be revisiting it now. We too live at a time when the national coffers are woefully empty and taxes are the principal way of refilling them. But it isn’t so much the crippling taxation that echoes our own day. Rather, it’s the way the wealthy and powerful do very well for themselves while ordinary people bear the brunt of the financial crisis. The Sheriff of Nottingham is the archetype of those who corruptly feather their own nests at the expense of honest, hard-working people who just want to be able to get on with their own lives. In the public imagination today, this is exactly what MPs and bankers have been doing while allowing the economy to go into meltdown, resulting in job losses, financial hardship and higher taxes. We’d like to have a folk hero like Robin hiding in the forest, or maybe Hyde Park, where he could waylay passing bankers and steal their bonuses to distribute among the unemployed. Somewhat less exciting, but rather more practical, is the recent call for a ‘Robin Hood tax’ on bankers’ bonuses.
The idea of robbing from the indulgent rich to feed the poor is not found in the early Robin Hood ballads; it comes much later when he is reinvented as a nobleman. But from the beginning he has been seen as an anti-authoritarian figure. Or rather, he is hostile to corrupt authority. He despises exploitation, oppression and injustice. In his medieval setting, that is what tragically brings him into conflict with the church as well as the Sheriff. Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) becomes one of the Merry Men because he, too, has no respect for the church authorities.
The trouble with Robin Hood is the way he achieves his goal: he is a very violent hero, especially through Ridley Scott’s eyes. In this version, even Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett) takes up arms, clearly in an attempt to offset the machismo in traditional Robin Hood stories. In the earliest tales, Robin is anarchic, operating on his own terms and entirely in his own interests. In this new film, he realises the need to move beyond his own concerns and to channel his combat skills to fight tyranny.
Robin Hood has immense appeal in a society marked by distrust of authority, cynicism about politicians’ integrity, fear of tougher security measures impeding our freedom, and growing antipathy towards organised religion. It’s no wonder that we keep returning to this champion of the downtrodden and enemy of injustice. In many ways he stands for values that are in line with those of the Bible (see Proverbs 14:31, for example), and he’s an inspiring example of the lowly shaming the proud and mighty, and of the need to stand firm against injustice, whatever the cost.