Books: A Point of View: Robin the Hood |
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Robin the Hood : on a new concept of action movies

(S04E03, broadcast 14th and 16th November 2008)

"The thinking man's action hero"

Britain’s most successful director of Hollywood films, Ridley Scott, has plans to give us a new version of Robin Hood. In earlier news about this project, it was suggested that Robin Hood would be the bad guy and the Sheriff of Nottingham would be a fair-minded administrator whose central role would be reflected in the revised title, Nottingham. This prospect was greeted with derision in some quarters. But I, for one, welcomed the news. In these broadcasts I have been stressing the importance of lawful institutions and here was a sign that the message was sinking in. At the very least, I had caught a mood. People are learning to distrust the image of the rebel and have begun to favour the ideal of the responsible official.

Later news from Hollywood, alas, reveals that Ridley Scott might already be starting to equivocate. The wobbling Ridley is now outlining a scenario in which the Sheriff is indeed a responsible official who invents the first equitable tax system, but Robin may not be a mere hoodlum, Robin the Hood, out to wreck a good man’s plans. Robin will be a social democrat who contributes a critical overview in a responsible manner. But he will still do so in a raised voice. The antagonism of old will still apply, even if Russell Crowe, as has been rumoured, plays both roles. For Ridley’s latest blockbuster, Body of Lies, now in the cinemas, Russell Crowe put on a lot of weight in a hurry. I myself possess the same talent but I’ve always admired how quickly Russell can do it. He should certainly be in shape not only to play both Robin and the Sheriff, but both of them on screen together when the scene requires.

I just hope he doesn’t have to resort to violence against himself just because a few armchair critics have been attacking the new concept. What we want up there on the screen is reasoned discussion. We want Maid Marian to make a rational choice. Stay with an adventurer of no fixed income and have a baby on the floor of the forest, or bring up a family in a secure castle with a sheriff who does his share of the washing-up? Let all this be laid out in the form of dialogue uninterrupted by action. If we have to retain the scene where Robin is almost defeated by the Sheriff’s champion whose arrow hits the bull’s-eye, let Robin’s arrow not split the champion’s arrow, but end up where it belongs, in the chest of a spectator, thus to illustrate the danger of lethal weapons in private hands. I’ve also got ideas for a Friar Tuck who eats sensibly and a Little John of average height.

Having laid out these ideas in script form under the provisional title of Conflict Resolution in the Nottingham Area, I’ve already sent a message to Ridley Scott that I’m willing to help with the project, and I got an e-mail straight back. It was labelled Out of Office Reply but I have high hopes that he’ll be in touch. Meanwhile I continue to work on the tricky scene where Robin and his band of reasonably merry men confront Guy of Gisborne in the forest and persuade him by force of argument that there should be no relief on capital gains tax without a concomitant lowering of the basic rate. Guy of Gisborne, I think, should be played by Hugh Grant in his terribly nice chap mode. ‘Well, Robin, I, and I say this advisedly, I think that, that there’s something to be said for your views, judging by that sword you’re holding, and I’ll tell Nottingham, or Nottie as we call him, that you ...’ But you know the sort of thing.

A previous collaboration between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, Gladiator, was a worldwide hit. Russell was of normal size for that occasion. It was fitting, because there was very little fast food in ancient Rome that you didn’t have to hunt on foot first. Though born in New Zealand, where he first learned to throw telephones at a moving target, Russell, like Nicole Kidman, is one of those Australian citizens who look good in a skirt. But think how much more inspiring Gladiator would have been if Maximus Musculis could have subdued the wild animals with his powers of logic and reached an accommodation with the Emperor on an intellectual level. Instead, the action got in the way.

In Hollywood, it always has, until now. And there tended to be too much action even in the Tudor theatre. Shakespeare tried to break away from all that when he made Hamlet think things through instead of just going mad with the muscle, but sure enough, Act Five was ruined with poison, sword fights, poisoned sword fights, and all the standard high-concept mayhem, the early sixteenth-century equivalent of Go! Go! Go!, 5 4 3 2 1, the car chase in the tunnel and the hero somersaulting towards you propelled by the flames of the exploding building. If Shakespeare were alive now, he would follow Ridley Scott’s example and make the whole thing more nuanced. Hamlet and Claudius, after taking counselling together, would sign a peace treaty drafted by Polonius. Prime Minister Laertes would solve the economic crisis by raising the bank rate, or lowering the bank rate, or whatever it is you do with the bank rate, and Ophelia would take over as the new presenter of Countdown. Parties of foreign tourists being conducted around Elsinore, instead of stepping over bodies in the corridor, would hardly know that the royal family was in residence except when Hamlet’s voice came over the public address system. ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave I was, before I got in touch with my inner child.’

What we’re talking about here is the duty of mass entertainment to transmit constructive values. One evening last week I accidentally sat on the remote control, tuned in to cable channel 67 and was face to face with a re-run of Mr and Mrs Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie respectively. You may not have seen this movie. If you are a clinically sane person, you will almost certainly not have seen this movie. But a lot of susceptible people have seen this movie, and you fear for what they might do under its influence. Brad and Angelina play a married couple neither of whom is aware that the other is a professional assassin. Each of them keeps an arsenal in the house unknown to the other. It’s true that most wives could keep the complete equipment of a panzer division in the house without the husband ever finding out, but husbands who can keep even a pop gun in the house without being rumbled by their wives are surely very few. Brad, however, works the trick, and needs every gun in his collection when it turns out that each of the married assassins has been assigned to assassinate the other.

As Mr and Mrs Smith exchange bursts of machine-gun fire with underlying affection, the plot expands instantly into a whirlwind of Go! Go! Go!, 5 4 3 2 1, cars through the window and body-surfing on a wave of flame. Never once are younger viewers warned: Don’t try this at home. The accumulating two-way spouse abuse adds up to a story boring beyond belief. Think how much better it would have been if the two assassins could have just sat down and discussed the matter, or, even better, taken counselling together. The counsellor, Billy Crystal, could have told them that they would get even greater job satisfaction out of just behaving like a normal Hollywood married couple, the husband a standard leading man with his head on upside down pursuing a big career while his wife, a lush beauty with a mouth the size of a paddling pool who adopts every stray child in the world, pursues an even bigger career. The real excitement is in realism, not fantasy.

Sometimes the unrelenting action of a blockbuster movie makes sense. By now I have seen Armageddon five times. I find it hard to explain why. It isn’t just for Bruce Willis, although the way he can maintain a wry smirk while being blown backwards through plate glass is an inspiration to any man who spends his life doing nothing more challenging than face a computer screen that says: ‘There has been an error. Do you wish to report it?’ What makes the level of violence in Armageddon legitimate, I think, is that there really is no other way of dealing with an asteroid approaching Earth except to send Bruce Willis to drill a hole in it and blow it up with a nuke. His crew have to be tough characters of frightening aspect. But why do Bruce and his band of unreasonably merry men have to hit each other all the time? Couldn’t they save all the aggression for the asteroid? Nevertheless, you can see how things might get rough when the Earth has been left behind yet nothing else but a concerted effort by a group of dysfunctional half-wits can save it from destruction.

Back on our planet, however, the age of mindless action is surely over, and Hollywood knows it. There is a whole new climate. Reason has prevailed even in America, which has just elected a President who gives evidence of mental activity in everything he says, whereas his predecessor spoke as if he had just rammed his head through a wall for the third time shouting 5 4 2 3 1. There is no going back now to when Robin Hood could be played by Errol Flynn. Let’s leave Kevin Costner out of this, because we know that Kevin Costner was born to play a postman. But Errol Flynn was born to play Robin Hood in the old style. In an earlier programme I drew mockery for suggesting that the Australian George Lazenby was the only James Bond who looked the part, but surely the Australian Errol Flynn was the Robin Hood best fitted to wear tights. He just couldn’t understand that the Sheriff of Nottingham had a point of view meriting respect. Peace.


Luckily Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood project was postponed and revised, so that in the end Russell Crowe played only the title role, instead of climbing into drag and playing Maid Marian as well. Persuading a bankable male film star to throttle back on his power is never an easy matter, but somehow it was managed. Right up to the point where they get too capricious to be employable, however, it is common for the male film stars to hog the screen even when they are playing only one role at a time. The most common way of hogging the screen is to look about a lot while talking and indeed while anybody else is talking. Run a DVD of Body of Lies and watch what Crowe does with his head. It’s everywhere, like a hungry pigeon’s. Almost all male film actors will do this unless stopped. Ben Kingsley is practically the world champion. (See him in Species. Who needs an alien?) For a director like Ridley Scott, the downside of recognition in the industry, and in all the media, as the man in total control of his latest picture, is that he must bear the responsibility when it tanks, even if the damage has been done by a lacklustre central performance. Kingdom of Heaven might have been as exciting as Eva Green’s eyes or Jeremy Irons’s voice if only Orlando Bloom could command the screen like ... well, like Russell Crowe. But Ridley Scott chose his cast, so he must take the rap. The matter concerns me because my gratitude is eternal for what he did with Blade Runner, a supreme example of how a director fully equipped with a producer’s powers and responsibilities can bring disparate and even antagonistic elements together in a poetic unity. Just because Blade Runner was no fun to make, and a comparative dud at the box office, Harrison Ford still doesn’t mention it among his triumphs. Yes, the leading actor was as dumb as that.

A career of directing movies on the scale Ridley Scott likes to make them requires such powers of generalship that megalomania is only ever a step away, but he seems always to have avoided it, except when, very occasionally, he falls prey to the illusion that he can make a comedy. But soon he is safely back into space, the future, ancient Rome or Sherwood Forest, where the concept is high, the budget huge, the technical demands are infinite, the dialogue doesn’t matter very much, and the leading male actor, though bonkers enough to suck on his own cell phone like a lollipop in order to strengthen his facial muscles, has the wherewithal to command the central space around which, with prodigies of organizational prowess, the director knows just how to arrange everything. Only a few people can do it, and if they weren’t doing it they’d be invading Russia, so we should count ourselves lucky. Nobody I subsequently met or heard from, incidentally, admitted to having been gulled even for a moment by my concept of an action-free action movie: but they all knew someone who had.