Robin Hood – Ridley Scott Updates A Legend

During the filming of American Gangster with Sir Ridley Scott, producer Brian Grazer approached Russell Crowe about starring in a new Robin Hood. Grazer looked forward to reteaming with the performer, with whom he had already enjoyed two successful collaborations—on A Beautiful Mind, for which Crowe earned an Oscar® nod, and Cinderella Man. For this telling, the men were interested on a unique take on the age-old legend: an origin story that explains how a common archer in King Richard’s army transformed into the legend we know as Robin Hood. Set against the backdrop of the Crusades, this action-adventure would give historical framework to the later exploits that had been covered in many other versions of the tale.

Grazer came aboard to develop and produce the project through Universal Pictures and the company he shares with Academy Award® winner Ron Howard, Imagine Entertainment. “Movies about heroes inspire me,” states the producer. “The story of Robin Hood particularly appealed to me because it is about a man who has nothing but the right cause in his mind, and the skill and resoluteness to pursue it.”

“With our film, we explain who the Sheriff of Nottingham, Maid Marion and her father-in-law are, the dynamics of the northern part of England and the barons, and how England was controlled at the time,” Grazer continues. “By the end of the movie, you also know who Robin is. The end of our movie is the beginning of all the dozens or so other films that have been made.”

Grazer found the Australian actor keenly interested in reworking the legend. He admitted an interest in the outlaw that stretched back several decades. “I was very enthusiastic,” Crowe says. “Robin Hood has always been in the back of my mind since I was a child. I was a big fan of the various incarnations I saw when I was growing up. There’s a universal connection that everyone makes to Robin Hood, which is at the core of the story: there might be somebody out there who cares enough to redress the imbalance. There’s an empowerment quality about Robin to which people respond.”

Crowe’s agreement, however, came with a caveat. “I said I’d do Robin Hood, but only if it were a fresh take,” he adds. “It is one of the longest-surviving stories in the English language. That requires due respect. I took the attitude that if you’re going to revitalize Robin Hood, it has to be done on the basis that whatever you thought you knew about the legend was an understandable mistake. It has to be different from what has come before. Take Robin and Little John, for example, who don’t get on when they first meet. When we first meet them, they have a disagreement. But that doesn’t take place on a log over a creek with a staff fight, which has been done to death. What we’ve done is to redefine the times and shift the timeline.”

Crowe and Grazer turned their attention to their only choice to helm the film: Ridley Scott. “It needed a director who could handle tremendous scope,” notes Grazer, “someone who embraces authenticity, who is interested in the milieu, the time and the political and historical events that were occurring. Ridley is captivated by all those things. If we were going to make this film, it had to be the Gladiator version of Robin Hood. I wanted to understand how brutal that time was and have it visually expressed in the most exciting and thrilling kind of action-adventure. Only Ridley can do that.”

Scott and Crowe have a partnership that dates back to their wildly successful multiple Oscar® winner, Gladiator, the film that reset audiences’ expectations of the historical epic. To date, their collaboration has also resulted in A Good Year, American Gangster and Body of Lies. When Crowe and Grazer pitched the idea to the director, he responded enthusiastically.

Scott is a longtime student of history, and his last period thriller, Kingdom of Heaven, had focused on the fall of Jerusalem 12 years before King Richard I met his untimely death. “I love period films,” offers Scott. “I started with The Duellists, and then I’ve done the Roman epic and now I’ve gone back to medieval times again.”

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With Scott on board, Robin Hood gathered momentum. The filmmakers shared a common vision: they chose to explore how a humble man could become a champion of the people, and they sought to answer that question by telling his story within a specific historical context. Elaborates Grazer: “We wanted to embrace the political and historical facts of the era: England was bankrupt, threatened both by civil war and by France, and in the hands of an inept king in John. Against that backdrop, we could explore an origin story of how Robin Hood came to be.”

To fulfill Scott, Grazer and Crowe’s vision, the men turned to screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who had been awarded an Oscar® for his previous collaboration with Crowe, L.A. Confidential. After he received a call from Scott to craft the script, Helgeland knew that what would interest him most was the chance to “humanize the legend.”

The writer explains: “Ridley wanted to tell the man-before-the-myth version of Robin Hood. Everyone knows the myth, and obviously that is an exaggeration of the real events. This myth is rooted in the downtrodden and the idea that whenever the powers that be need to be checked, a man will rise up and look after the common people. Especially in English history, it’s been an outlaw that has filled that position. What Ridley wanted to do was imagine what the real events might have been from which the Robin Hood legend sprung.”

Helgeland’s first partnership with Scott would prove a powerful experience. Helgeland remarks: “When there are catapults and phalanxes of guys trying to set castle gates on fire and men are concerned with God—what he is and for what reason he has led them into battle—Ridley’s on ground that he finds intellectually stimulating. The film benefits from it.”

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In the script, from a story by Helgeland, Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, we are introduced to archer Robin Longstride as an infantryman in the ranks of King Richard’s army as it returns from the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. Richard—in a bid to reclaim monies paid to the French king who held him hostage as he returned from his Crusade—is laying siege to a French castle. As history records, during the siege Richard suffered a neck wound from an arrow and died soon after. This shattered his mother, Eleanor, and resulted in the crown being passed along to his younger brother Prince John.

Beginning his story with the moment of Richard’s death, Helgeland imagined Robin, who has suffered a restless childhood overseas, seizing an opportunity to return to his native England for the first time since he was five. After he lands on its shore, Robin discovers a nation crippled by poverty and robbed of its men by Richard’s reckless bid to fund his wars. The specter of French invasion looms on the horizon, and Richard’s incompetent brother is content to let his people suffer while he fills his coffers.

It was important to the team to show how demolished the English economy was and how bleak the country had become. They wanted to present how Robin’s arrival coincides with John’s heavy taxation: citizens were being targeted to pay beyond their means and given little in food, clothing and shelter. Robin’s defiance of the ruling class equals not just stealing grain and giving back to the people of Nottingham, but also inspiring his countrymen to take charge of their destiny.

Scott reflects: “Everyone talks about Robin Hood robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, but we felt it was relevant to choose a point in medieval folklore when the environment is on the edge of starvation and neglected by the crown. The hierarchy is the enemy, and the everyman who will come against them is Robin Hood. Within that idea, we have not forgotten the expectation and the romanticism of the legend. Is there humor in this? Yes. Is there a lot of action? Yes.”

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Key to Helgeland’s tale is the birth of the Magna Carta, the great charter signed at Runnymede in 1215 after the uprising by the English barons against King John. In many ways, this moment defines the birth of England, freeing its Anglo-Saxon population from the harsh rule of the Norman kings. “There’s a place for the Magna Carta in our film,” states Grazer, “not only as a historical event, but also as a cinematic point.”

Supplements Crowe: “We have a situation where the man who basically invented taxation is the same King John who signed the first version of the Magna Carta. We have a period between 1199 and 1215, and it felt like that was the ideal breeding ground for revolution…or the birth of a revolutionary figure. As much of the film is predating the Magna Carta, then it’s possibly the birth of a nation as well—the birth of England and everything that is great about it.”

Establishing a backstory for Robin was fundamental to understanding why he would become champion of his people. In the tale, Robin discovers that his father was stonemason Thomas Longstride, a well-known public speaker and the principal author of what was to become the Forest Charter (Carta de Foresta). This precedent to the Magna Carta provided rights, privileges and protection for the common man against the aristocracy. Richard’s predecessor, Henry II, saw Longstride’s political stance as treasonable and had him murdered in front of his young son.

To prepare for this role, Crowe read more than 30 books about Robin Hood and the late 12th and early 13th centuries. “Robin is a witness to that death at the age of five,” explains Crowe. “He is then left in a monastery with the Templar Knights in France. His guardians [Loxley and Marshal] go off to the Crusade, but several years later when they come back, he’s not there. He’s had a very hard time, been treated badly, and he’s gone with the one piece of equipment that he was left with, his father’s cuirass. You can imagine a small child dragging around a fully grown man’s chest-plate armor.”

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When we are introduced to Robin during Richard’s siege in France, he has no knowledge of life before his father was killed. “He’s suppressed the memory of watching his father die,” says Crowe. “In his mind, his mother and father just got rid of him and stopped loving him. That’s what has been on his mind for 35 to 40 years.

“But now he’s close to England again,” Crowe continues. “Here’s a guy who’s traveled across Europe and all through the Middle East. He’s seen a variety of different ways that people live, and when he gets back to England he’s surprised that this seems to be the most suppressive place. We follow a man on a journey of self-discovery. Along the way he begins to remember his past, and his quest solidifies. He realizes fate has overtaken him, and he has joined in something much larger than he thought it was. In the process of finding out who he is, he takes up his father’s work where he left off.”

With the producers, director, star and screenplay set, it was time to cast the supporting players of the production, beginning with the fairest maiden in all of Nottingham.


Directors, Filmmaking, Hollywood, New Movies, Summer 2010


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