Noticing all the movie podcasts out there, and listening to back issues, I’m acutely aware of the consensus about a lot of movies that, say, back in 2003, would have simply come and went without leaving any imprint on me other than “That was a [success / failure], wasn’t it?”.  I saw previews and TV ads for Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, but never felt the need to look into its critical reception once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be an omnipresent cultural phenomenon.  The same is true for The Musketeer, The Four Feathers, and Windtalkers. And Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.

Nottingham (Ridley Scott, 2010)

But now…there’s probably more minutes of conversation recorded and easily available about Daybreakers, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, or even The Kids are All Right or Hunger, than about almost any film from the 1980s.  If you want to, you can hear someone of any personality type trying to describe his feelings about Robin Hood, struggling with whether a brief assessment is possible, and alternating between warm feelings and total disregard in an unscripted way that isn’t found in any of the professionally-crafted reviews of Windtalkers or King Arthur.  The informal conversation about those films is lost to the ages.

In one of Jim Gaffigan’s specials he addresses the pointlessness of seeing a movie years after the opportunity to talk about it with people has passed.  He imagines being scoffed at for having, in the 21st century, just seen Heat.  [Heat is a bad example.] Maybe I’d enjoy watching The Musketeer and seeing what elements might make the film worthy of recommendation.  But why that movie in particular?  Nobody’s talking about it.  I’m not going to hear anyone talking about it.  With Robin Hood I gave it underrated-underdog status from the first frame. I remembered hearing the regret in someone’s voice as he described positive attribute after positive attribute but still classified it a failure, because it met none of his expectations while seeming to try hard to meet them. My expectations would be different.

The common message of every review of Robin Hood is “If this was trying to be a Robin Hood movie, it failed.”  And since it’s difficult for a movie called Robin Hood to deny that it’s trying to be a Robin Hood movie, that’s a straightforward case for a 2-star review.  Hard to argue that a movie is a success if it failed.

The title ruins the movie.  Even as one of the few people who went into it thinking “This will be a prequel to the Robin Hood story.  A PREQUEL”, I couldn’t help but think “Oh my great good god, this really was not a Robin Hood story.  It is honestly pretty laughable that this was called Robin Hood.”  Calling this movie “Robin Hood” is like calling Smallville “Superman: The Legendary Journeys”.  Literally, he is only Robin Hood during the closing narration of the film.

Oscar Isaac's King John, in the "insecure sybarite English king" tradition of Peter O'Toole and Jonathan Rhys Meyers

And it’s a really good movie!  It deserves the sequel that may or may not occur.  The Crusades stuff is good, the King John stuff is good, the Nottingham small-town stuff is good, the war with France stuff is good — it may not hold together perfectly but it’s all well done and it’s expertly leading up to something.  But I can’t recommend the movie to anyone because you can’t convince someone to see something they’ll only enjoy if they ignore the title.

The more I think about this the more annoyed I get.  Literally any other title would have been okay.  Call it Robin Hood Part One, Robin Longstride, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Robin Hood 0: Hypercube.  In fact, it did have a different title for most of its gestation period. At one point Ridley Scott’s Nottingham was supposed to be from the titular Sheriff’s point of view.  At another point it had Sienna Miller instead of Cate Blanchett, which would have been suboptimal.

That source [Jan. 13, 2009]:

Furthermore, Page Six reports that Crowe has demanded significant rewrites to enhance his character. “Originally the movie was about a love triangle between Maid Marian, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham,” says its source. “It is now all about Russell’s Robin Hood. Literally, 40 pages of script were redone and now are just devoted to him and his massive ego. It’s amazing.”

Ironically, the addition of all the heroic stuff for Robin Hood to do, if such a Crowe-coerced alteration did occur, made it into more of a prequel and less of a Robin Hood movie.  It also made it less of a Nottingham movie, since the two other elements of the now-absent love triangle are in Nottingham while Robin is laying siege to French castles and charging out of the English Channel with a sword.  And…Nottingham would still have been a better title.  It promises less, and it doesn’t make us think we know what to expect.

I swear, if this movie was called Nottingham the tómatómeter score would be 20 points higher.  Instead of “If this was trying to be a Robin Hood movie, it failed”, the conventional wisdom would be “Ridley Scott’s Nottingham has whetted appetites for his upcoming actual Robin Hood movie, which is going to be this generation’s defining Robin Hood experience.”  But the title was changed to Robin Hood, whether to help name recognition, to reflect the disappearance of the Sheriff from nearly all of the plot, or to avoid awkwardness of Americans wondering if they should say “Notting Ham” or “Nottingam”, we do not know.  And now…it made $310 million worldwide, but the buzz around a sequel seems limited to Kevin Durand, who played one of the not-yet-Merry proto-Men, talking about how much fun it is to ride a horse on a beach brandishing a mediæval weapon.

Notes:

  • The host of a certain podcast, to kick off a side discussion of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood, referred to it as “the Errol Morris Robin Hood“, with no co-hosts seeming to notice.
  • The evil guy played by Mark Strong is even more cartoonish than the evil guy played by Mark Strong in Sherlock Holmes.  That criticism is merited.  What’s unfair is criticism of the lack of romantic chemistry between Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.  I like to think both the actors and the characters are aware that no romantic chemistry is necessary.  They have a job to do.  Crowe is 48, Blanchett 40, and they don’t try to look younger than 40.
  • Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, it’s weird as well that that movie is called “Sherlock Holmes” with no subtitle.   But at least it’s not a prequel.  It’s not 90 minutes of a 25-year-old Holmes bare-knuckle boxing, intercut with Dr. Watson serving in the British Army in India and Afghanistan, with them meeting in the final scene as they both look for apartments on Baker Street.
  • Can we get a special edition of the DVD, identical to the version that was just released, only with every instance of the title replaced by Nottingham?  Then I could recommend it to others without mumbling an apology for its ponderosity and lack of Robin Hood antics.
  • Much of the commentary on this film has been comparisons to Kingdom of Heaven, another Ridley Scott movie about the Crusades devoid of sprightliness or scenes involving Robin Hood.  And it seems like some people who thought the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven was 10% of a masterpiece believe that its director’s cut is 90% of a masterpiece.  I’m familiar with a DVD-only director’s cut being the most popular cut of a movie among purists and fans of the director, but for Kingdom of Heaven [and now Watchmen] it seems like the DEFAULT version of the film on DVD is much longer and more complex than the theatrical version.  I thank Ridley Scott for this, just as I thank him for perfecting the art of filming dust particles in shafts of sunlight.

The Duellists (Ridley Scott, 1977)

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