In terms of film adaptations, only Sherlock Holmes beats Robin Hood for onscreen appearances. It’s hard to track the amount of times the legendary Green Man has seen off the evil King John and his Nottinghamshire crony; various sources have it at 110, possibly more. And yet, here he is again, riding into town in the rugged form of Russell Crowe, given new purpose by Ridley Scott. So we’re in for brooding intensity, finicky historical detail and gory battlefield murk, then?
‘Robin is a man who has had no experience of his father,’ begins Scott cautiously. ‘He discovers that his father had been a great spokesman for the working class… he talked about how the subjects need their king, but also that the king needs to respect his subjects – a very dangerous idea to voice, particularly in the presence of aristocracy, because you are likely to get your thumbs torn out and your head cut off, and that’s basically what happened to him. And so Robin is a man trying to search out his own beginnings, his origins, to find out where he came from.’
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of back story refurbishment, of course. Crowe points out that the Richard Greene TV series he watched as a child was, ‘hokey as all hell and pretty much the same story every episode.’ The series finished in 1960, and subsequent versions were equally strapped for storylines. ‘Everybody falls into the trap of, “well if you’re doing Robin Hood, you have to do this or that…”’ Crowe points out. ‘No, you don’t have to hit the same notes. You can take the core message and put a different take on it.’
Scott continues: ‘Did it need a new coat? Definitely. And have we done that? We certainly have. I think it’s a re-invention of the legend of Robin, and this film tells how Robin became an outlaw.’ The story follows Robin Longstride (Crowe), an archer who returns from the third crusade to find his homeland depressed by financial ruin. Connoisseurs will note immediately the change in our hero’s name – the traditional Robin of Loxley now reduced to a side role along the way. Longstride is already in with Will Scarlett (Scott Grimes), Alan A’Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Little John (Kevin Durand) – there will be no quarterstaff square offs on the Greenwood Bridge – and he finds himself elevated to notoriety as he strives to deal with his father’s legacy.
Another major change is the reinvention of Robin’s nemesis. While King John has traditionally been portrayed as a villain driven by greed, Scott’s treatment (portrayed by Oscar Isaac) is more sympathetic. ‘I thought a great starting point was to ask, “Why is the kingdom in such disarray, and why is there so much taxation?” Because of the comings and goings of Richard the Lionheart who, for 10 years, on the pretext of the name of God and the Cross, was doing “good” down in the Holy Land. In actuality, though, he was just having a rip-roaring time spending all the money from the Crown and consequently leaving the country bankrupt.’ The marauding king’s untimely death on his return from the crusades is a perfect leaping off point for Scott’s interpretation. ‘You meet a very frustrated brother in King John who is not entirely bad, not entirely stupid, his intuition was fairly correct… trying to run a country with a returning army… who arrive back in England and want to take off from where they left off. But do their families even exist?’
At his star’s bequest, the director recruited a group of Crowe’s musical buddies to play Hood’s family, the Merry Men. ‘What I wanted was a reason as to why they’re merry,’ says Crowe. ‘I asked Ridley for committed actors…who could pick up new skills… and that every single Merry Man should have a musical soul, so you know why they’re merry and when it’s that time to actually celebrate, they can celebrate.’ Praise is also saved for Cate Blanchett, Crowe’s Maid Marian, celebrated here for an almost comic turn. ‘She has a skill level that is second-to-none in my experience,’ he says, clearly full of respect. ‘She’s been wonderful to work with.’
The new film marks the 10th anniversary of Gladiator, in itself the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that has since seen Scott and Crowe work together on four subsequent films. It seems right that they return to the muddy battlefield to mark the occasion; even more fitting that it should be Bourne Farm, the location featured in Gladiator’s opening scenes. Crowe looks at it almost mythically: ‘From the moment we turned into Farnham, it was like, yeah, here it is. Here’s this place where the big part of my public life began…’
‘Gladiator changed my life,’ he concludes, ‘and you know, we’ve done some things in [Robin Hood] where we knowingly go into that territory. But as Ridley has said, if you are going to be inspired by someone, it might as well be yourself.’
Robin Hood opens at cinemas on May 13.