Popped Culture #2: Prince vs. Hood

I would apologize for the length of time since my first Popped Culture blog, only it’s not really my fault.  For the past month and more there just hasn’t been very much to write about.  I could have blogged about the greatest cultural event in the history of the world—the World Cup—but I’m saving myself for when the games start.  I could have written about Iron Man II, a surprisingly good film, but who hasn’t already seen it?  The Losers was another surprisingly solid movie (despite a botched ending), but I have the feeling that no one is ever going to see it.  Now at long last, after months without a worthy topic, Hollywood has blessed us with two historical adventures on the big screen: Prince of Persia and Robin Hood.  Prince is based on a video game, has a plot that involves a dagger that turns back time, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who although he got a lot of action in Brokeback Mountain, is largely untested as an action star.  Robin Hood comes from Ridley Scott, the director of Thelma and Louise and A Good Year (ok, ok, he also directed Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Blackhawk Down), stars action icon Russell Crowe, and is based on one of the most enduringly popular legends in the English-speaking world.  Pitting these movies against one another is a David versus Goliath sort of contest.  And David wins, hands down.

Prince of Persia has its share of problems, but it manages to be something that Robin Hood never is: fun.  The action is fresh and inventive.  The sets are sometimes spectacularly silly, but they’re always spectacular.  And the pace hardly ever slows.  It’s the sort of movie that likes to tout itself as a “non-stop thrill ride,” and for once the label fits.  What’s more, Prince has done the world an important service: after this film, no one ever need read Edward Said’s Orientalism again.  Just watch Prince, and you’ll get the idea.  The movie plays shamelessly to every eastern stereotype imaginable.  And while this could be considered offensive, it is less damning in a film based on a videogame that has no ambitions whatsoever to historical accuracy.  If Prince is historical in any sense, it is precisely in that it provides a sort of condensed history of clichés about the Near East.  Giggling, scantily clad, seductive women in harems?  Check.  An evil, scheming vizier wearing too much eye shadow?  Check.  A ruthless bandit with a gold tooth who turns out to be good despite himself?  Check.  A society of assassins who command snakes with their minds?  Ch…  wait, huh?

The amazing thing is that it all works.  Yes, the plot is ludicrous and becomes more so as the film goes along, but the movie never betrays its own internal logic.  Yes, the actors are archetypes—like chess pieces, we know exactly what moves they are capable of—but the director moves them about the board with a surprising amount of skill.  And yes, there is nothing even remotely unexpected in the plot.  Every “twist” is one that we have seen a hundred times before.  None of that matters.  Jake Gyllenhaal injects the film with such infections joy that nothing seems stale or old.  Instead, the film offers the satisfaction of watching our expectations repeatedly fulfilled.  There’s something to be said for this.  It’s better than disappointing expectations.

And that is precisely what Robin Hood manages to do.  Ridley Scott set out to reinvent the legend of Robin Hood, and much of what he does makes sense.  Placing Robin Hood within the larger context of the conflict between England and France is a good idea, as is the attempt to hew more closely to history.  Unfortunately, this is also where the problems start.  Normally, I’m not a huge stickler for historical accuracy in movies.  Even more so than with historical novels, movies are about entertainment, not history.  The imperatives of telling a good story can and should take precedence over factual accuracy.  This is all the more true when dealing with a fictional character like Robin Hood.  I fully support many of the changes made by the movie.  For instance, Ridley Scott choses to portray Eleanor of Aquitaine, King Richard, and King John as extremely English, the antithesis of the oyster-eating, rather slovenly French king.  In truth, Eleanor and her sons were every bit as French as King Philip of France.  They were all raised in France, spent a majority of their lives there, and spoke French as their mother tongue.  (After the Norman Conquest, the “English” crown did not publish its first official document in English until 1258.)  But again, I have no problem with this change.  No one—except maybe me—wants to watch a French Richard the Lionhearted.

Other changes, however, are a bit more puzzling, especially considering that the new Robin Hood touts itself as a more “accurate” version of the old tale.  There are two basic rules that all historical fiction, even movies, should follow: 1) if you are going to change history, have a good reason for doing so; and 2) stay clear of overly-fictionalizing big events that everybody knows about, or you will make yourself look silly.  For instance, it’s probably not a good idea to make Robin Hood responsible for saving England from a French invasion, especially when that French invasion never actually happened.  And it is definitely a very, very bad idea to make Robin Hood responsible for the Magna Carta, only the most famous political document in the entire English language.  Thanks to Robin Hood, we now know that people from England to the United States to Australia owe the origins of their individual liberties to none other than Robin Hood and his philosopher-stonemason father (and yes, you read that last bit correctly).

That said, Robin Hood is not a terrible movie.  I was not upset that I spend money to see it.  But nor was I particularly glad that I did so.  It is one of those movies that seems much worse than it is because it is close to being so much better.  Robin Hood does a lot of things right.  The look of the movie is wonderful, and most of the changes made to the more standard telling of the tale work.  Making Robin Hood a yeoman makes sense: they were the ones who fought as archers, not the nobility.  Starting with the death of Richard the Lionhearted was a nice surprise, especially since it was more or less accurately depicted.  And best of all in my opinion, the script borrows liberally from the tale of the French peasant Arnaud de Tilh, who in the early 16th century showed up in the Pyrenean village of Artigat and took over the life—including the wife—of the absent Martin Guerre.  In the movie, Sir Robert Locksley of Nottingham plays the role of Martin Guerre, and Robin Longstride (aka Robin Hood) is the impostor, who at the behest of Sir Robert’s father and with the connivance of Marian, takes over the role of lord of Nottingham.  This is a really good idea, which provides most of the film’s best moments.  There is only one problem: in the end, Robin Hood completely blows it.

The big question of the film is when and if Robin will be unmasked.  Only one character knows his secret—Mark “I Only Play Evil Characters” Strong’s Sir Godfrey.  I don’t think it will shock anybody if I reveal that Sir Godfrey dies in the end.  Robin’s problem looks to be solved.  But not so!  A few scenes later, King John contorts his face and spews spittle while declaring Robin an outlaw for, amongst other reasons, having impersonated a noble.  What?  How did King John know this?  We are never told.  That’s kind of a big deal, since the scene where John learns that Robin is not who he claims to be is only THE MOST IMPORTANT SCENE IN THE MOVIE!

This bizarre oversight is symptomatic of a bigger problem.  Robin Hood is about thirty minutes too long.  The fight scenes drag on for so long that they eventually become tedious; I lost interest about halfway through each of them.  All this extra footage seems to have squeezed out some vital plot points.  For instance, what—other than a really sour disposition—motivates the evil Sir Godfrey to betray England to the French?  If it is power and influence, then why isn’t he satisfied when he becomes Lord Marshall of England?  If it is money, then why does he let his henchmen steal all of the gold and jewels they capture when they ambush King Richard’s men?  And speaking of these gold and jewels, which eventually find their way into the hands of Robin and his band, why weren’t they ever used to pay the taxes of Nottingham or buy the seed grain the town lacked?

The biggest problem for me, however, was the relationship of Robin and Marian.  The film does a fine job of showing us why she would fall for him.  He is handsome, kind, listens to her problems, and helps to save Nottingham from starvation—all endearing qualities.  As for why he loves her… well, she’s beautiful.  That’s about it.  She is established as a strong woman early on in the film, but Robin Hood is never around to see any of that.  Even when she shows up at the end in armour to help turn back the French invasion that never actually happened, all she does is fall down in the surf so that Robin has to save her.  So when Robin finally tells Marian that he loves her, it is far from convincing.  And did I mention that she shows up in armour for the final fight scene?  Not only is this ridiculous, but where did she find armour that fit her?

In the end, Robin Hood damns itself by trying to be a little too historical and a little too original.  Trying to tell the “true” story of Robin Hood turns out to be a bit of a fool’s errand since Robin Hood is, after all, a fictional character.  Prince of Persia has no such problems.  History, reality, and originality take a backseat to fun.  Prince may not exceed expectations, but it does an admirable job of fulfilling them.  And that’s good enough for me.

I’ll leave you with my up-to-the-minute movie rankings for 2010:
1)  How to Train Your Dragon
2)  Prince of Persia
3) Hot Tub Time Machine
4)  Iron Man II
5)  The Ghost Writer
6)  The Losers
7)  Percy Jackson and the Olympians
8)  Robin Hood
9)  Clash of the Titans




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