Though I’m not gay myself, I was intrigued once to come across the possibility that Robin Hood might have been an early gay icon: living in the forest – almost always the place of the ‘other’ in folklore – with his “merrie” (and “lustie” is another common early adjective for them, I seem to remember) band of men, with a woman accepted by all as a ‘Maid’ – which is to say, a virgin. And I think it’s worth exploring alternative views of where a legend like this could really come from.
So I’m watching Ridley Scott’s recent retelling, just the latest in a long series of versions which, while often entertaining, don’t ring true at all. Another reminder of the things I’d like to do differently if I took on this much abused legend.
I was too young for ITV’s 1980s series Robin of Sherwood but much enjoyed the books from it which I picked up in the following years, and I’ve caught episodes since, which cast Robin as a spiritual figure blessed by mythical figure Herne the Hunter, in tune with nature compared to the corrupt and greedy Sheriff; it’s easy to read a critique of 80s get-rich-quick culture into the series. In fact, a common thread of the recent adaptations – surprisingly, considering the apparently timeless nature of the legend – is just how easy it is to see how the era they were made in has shaped the productions. I’d like to go back to the roots of where legends like this really come from, what gives them form, and how they grow and develop over time. I think I can do it in a way that’ll be touching, exciting and understated, at the same time.
I grew up on Tony Robinson’s wonderful and very clever children’s series Maid Marian and her Merry Men, which grows on me more and more the more I think back to it now as an adult. This merry, and sometimes musical, farce cast Robin as a preening fool, King John as a guzzling ranter, the Sheriff (Robinson himself) as a conniver undone by mass incompetence around him and Marian’s savvy plans. The series was a delightful rewriting of conventional history.
At the same time, the seminal Kevin Costner version Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was at the cinemas – alongside an almost forgotten low-key British version of the legend – and became my unrepentant favourite film as a child. I was too young to notice its famously fast and loose interpretation of English geography, but the verve of the production, the thrilling foray into the Crusades and the focal Arab character which introduced me to Morgan Freeman all stand out in my memory, alongside Alan Rickman’s Satanic Sheriff and his witch. This was Hollywood at its overblown best – accept the total fiction of it all and it was a wonderful blockbuster.
I’m still embarrassed by the cringeworthy BBC adaptation (2006-9). If you can’t be sure you’re going to tackle an overfilmed legend properly, you shouldn’t even bother. The moments that tried to be cool were shown to us a couple of times, in case we hadn’t appreciated them enough. Set-pieces that were intended for large casts were usually reduced to one knight on a horse chasing our heroes. The whole thing was filmed in Hungary, with barely any deciduous forest or mud such as would have covered medieval England. Well-intentioned BBC casting rules resulted in several implausible black characters, including Friar Tuck and a lady in a wimple who collapsed and was accepted by all as an Abbess before revealing herself to be part of a fraudulent scheme. It’d be nice to think of medieval England as an enlightened, multicultural country. But, well, it’s not just UKIP and BNP members who might find it all a bit off-the-mark.
The Ridley Scott film (2010) has an odd structure, far removed from what screenplays usually do. Most of the first 45 minutes are in France, where Robin tells Richard the Lionheart his Crusade and plundering return to England have made sinners of his soldiers. Robin doesn’t challenge the King or Sheriff until nearly two hours in, when he proposes a sort of Magna Carta to King John fifteen years before it actually happened; something aimed more at American audiences, who are taught at school that England’s Magna Carta was a defining step towards democracy. Only then does the tyranny really start; and despite the feckless King John, the real villains are actually French deceivers orchestrating the oppression to divide the English so they can invade and conquer. Rather than being a maid, Marion is a widow, whose dead husband Robin has to impersonate; Marion dons a knight’s armour and horse for the main battle. It doesn’t feel like Act 1 ends and the central conflict is set until 135 minutes in – classical screenplay structure would have all this out of the way within less than half an hour. In fact, it’s only in the last five minutes that the movie begins to resemble anything you might have expected from a Robin Hood retelling. Even Friar Tuck fights in the main battle, where Robin inspires the English cause before consequently – finally – being declared an outlaw at the end of the film and finally setting out with his merry men, at which point, as the caption says, ‘the legend begins’. Curious, but it’s all rather confused.
Almost all adaptations give us a stone castle for Nottingham, but there wasn’t one there until almost 1500, and none make any use of the excellent geography of Nottingham where the castle sits at the top of a sheer cliff in which you can also find the oldest inn in England. Plenty to explore there, to this day. And the modern productions bear little resemblance to the medieval mindset, language or culture – just what we assume those must have been like, considering the way people think, talk and behave nowadays. Also, most assume that Robin is indeed somehow connected to nobility (at ‘Locksley’) despite Robin being an ace archer and this probably being an invention of much later writers to suit their prejudices. There’s loads to improve on, and lots to shed beautiful light on.
So, here’s what I’d do with the legend. It might raise a few eyebrows, and still be a lot closer to the truth of how this legend began than any of the other recent versions…
- With Richard the Lionheart’s senseless Crusade underway in the less than Holy Lands, nearly all of the violent and powerful men of England are away murdering innocent foreigners. A curious new status quo has emerged at home in their absence – abuses of power are taking place under the weak and insecure reign of Richard’s brother John, but in many pockets the local nobility have the freedom to rule in their own way.
- The nobles of Locksley are particularly liberal. More aware of classical history and culture than most of their peers, they have welcomed a culture in which the amity and love between men is welcomed and accepted. But appalled clerics pass word back to the corrupt local Sheriff who uses Christian piety as a front for a savage repression of the Locksleys and the people living under their rule, as a ruse to seizing their wealth.
One local serf, Robin, has proven himself – and earned the affection of his peers – as a talented and entertaining young archer. When he shoots a knight’s horse in the leg to prevent the murder of a local mother, Robin is made an outlaw, and the resulting massacre of his neighbours sees the survivors join him in a guerilla campaign against the Sheriff’s lumbering armoured forces in the forest.
- Robin and his caring friends turn their ingenuity and the resources of the forest against the Sheriff’s decadent, materialistic, lumbering local armoured knights, who labour in the local mud and rain against an enemy in tune with nature – who are living lightly off the king’s deer and other fruits of the forest, using bird calls to communicate, and able to disappear into the forests at will as they ambush their enemies and thwart the repression of local peoples. They take back what the knights have plundered locally, and – having no need for money themselves in their sustainable lifestyle – return whatever they can to the people who it was plundered from. There are no major battles between the guerillas and their powerful enemies, but the survival of Robin and his friends remains a light of hope to the oppressed local people.
- The affections between Robin and his followers are well-known and much teased by local peoples, and are a particularly galling affront to the local church and nobility; Robin’s followers find a surprise ally in local Friar Tuck who is appalled by the crimes being committed in the name of Christianity by the Sheriff’s men. So well-known are the sentiments of Robin’s followers that when a young virgin, Marion, cheekily joins them in the forest, her chaste reputation is completely safe.
- Among Robin’s followers is the minstrel Allan-A-Dale, who turns their soggy adventures into hilariously heroic exaggerated ballads. Allan is in love with Robin, and they snuggle up to each other at the end of every night to save their body heat through the winter. When Robin dies of a chill, Allan vows to ensure that Robin will live forever through his songs, and begins to travel the country singing popular songs about Robin which give hope to local people throughout the worst of the oppression that follows when John becomes king, not realising that the hero of the songs is actually already dead.
The whole of the film is written and performed in authentic Middle English, and takes a lyrical tone, led by Allan’s ballads and songs. The differences between this language and modern English will not impede the storytelling, as screenwriters like myself are trained to express story beats through images more than through dialogue. This combined with the joyous cadences of a language that was not to be officially recognised by its French-speaking rulers for centuries to come, can result in an enchanting and authentic experience for modern viewers, able to experience at last the world through medieval English eyes. The result is a touching, sensitive and authentic film that explores the true nature of legends and their origins and evolution.
So there it is. That’s what I’d do with the Robin Hood legend. Would it work? Would it be enjoyable and beautiful? Should I see if I can raise interest in this or try crowdfunding? What would you do?
Add any comments you have below!