History on Film
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Robin Hood - Review
Black Death - Trailer
Season of the Witch
I'm a historian. Not that I make my living as one (at least not yet), but a historian I am none the less. I also like films, and I thoroughly enjoy watching historical films, or films claiming to be historical, and deconstructing them. Some people find this odd, but there it is. I am nitpicky and an insufferable know-it-all. This just as a warning.

Next Thursday (or Friday depending where you live) sees the release of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood, a film that has been written about for what feels like several years. Considering the fame of director and subject, and that Russel Crowe, who had worked with Scott before on the highly successful 'Gladiator', was soon connected with the film the interest generated is hardly surprising. Additionlly, some interesting - or if you like disturbing - ideas floated around. The film would cast the Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero and Robin Hood as the villain. Russel Crowe was to play both roles. Both ideas were eventaully abandoned. Instead the aim was to present a more 'realistic' Robin Hood.

Now, as we all know, Robin Hood is a man of legend rather than reality. He has, however, always been set in a historical context. Since Sir Walter Scott's 'Ivanhoe' this has usually been the reign of Richard I and, another debt to Scott's novel, Richard's younger brother John is often one of the antagonists. Ridley Scott also places Robin Hood squarely into a historical context, though apparently a slightly different one. While King Richard appears in the cast list, the main plot, according to the Trailer at least, takes after his younger brother John has become king.

Since it would be difficult, not to say impossible, to add realism to a legendary figure like Robin Hood, I take it that Ridley's Scott's claim to greater authenticity does refer to the historical context rather than the main character. Looking a the Trailer (repeatedly) I am not convinced he succeeded or even that he tried very hard.

What I like to know, first of all, is when exactly the film is set. There seems to be an invasion, we see boats approaching the Cliffs of Dover, which would put the story in 1216. In 1216, however, King John was forty-eight and far from healthy. His wife, Isabella d'Angoulême, whom he had married when she was incredibly young, also was in her late twenties and the mother of five thriving children. That year also saw King John embroiled in a vicious war with his barons so he would hardly have had the time to bother with one pesky outlaw.

If, however, he is still 'Prince John', as he is credited at least on IMDb, only playing at king, i.e. before 1199, he would not yet be married to Isabelle d'Angoulême and there would be no invasion. Another option would be that the plot covers the seventeen years from Prince John's accession in 1199 to the French invasion in 1216, not a prosepct that inspires me to hope for realism.

Speaking of the invasion, I am not an expert on medieval ship-building, but these ships look hardly as if they belonged into the early thirteenth century. We can also spot - very briefly - Maid (or apparently widow) Marion peering through a glass window. Glass windows were not completely unknown but exceedingly expensive and hardly to be found in private residences.

Marion claims that there are 'many wrongs to be righted in the country of King John'. This is undoubtedly true. That John was personally to blame for all of them less so. The question of law, government and the role of the king in relation to both were also hotly discussed subjects, but hardly in relationship to the common man and woman. The fact that a king needed his subjects was not exactly a novel idea, though the subjects he really had need of were the nobility. When Robin Hood demands 'liberty by law' does he want to abolish serfdom or are we going to find out hat Robin Hood was in fact the mastermind behind Magna Carta?

To search for more 'realism', I have also looked at the cast list and several historical characters do appear. N
ext to John, his brother Richard and his queen Isabella, his mother Elanor of Aquitaine makes an appearance, hardly surprising since she is a popular historical figure. The same is true for William Marshal, "that paragon of feudal virtue" as J.C. Holt called him. What does surprise me is the fact that Isabella of Gloucester, John's jilted first wife, seems to show up as well. I am curious what she is going to do in the film. Scream at John for dumping her for a younger woman? Unless 'Godfrey' turns out to be Geoffrey to Mandeville, her second husband.

The Sheriff of Nottingham on the other hand
does not seem to have a name (the IMDb lists him as 'Sheriff of Nottingham' and the official site does not mention the actor) a fact that could have been found out. (If I can pin down the time the film is supposed to take place I will see whether I can identify him.) Next to some rather generically named barons, there also appears King Philip's aide but no King Philip. 

[If I were going for greater authenticity I would also include Hugh Neville, the chief forester, Hubert de Burgh, the chief justiciar (there is a character simply called 'justiciar' but I am guessing he is fictional), and John's merry band of mercenaries, notably Falkes de Bréauté and Engelard de Cigongé. But then, I'd go completely realistic and make a film about King John rather than about Robin Hood.]

Altogether, based on the trailer and the cast list, Robin Hood looks as if it were an action-packed, entertaining film that just possibly takes itself a little too seriously and which does not really look all that historically accurate.

This said, I would be more than happy if the film were to prove me wrong and will let you know what I think after seeing the film.
[16 May 2010]
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