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Richard the Lionheart in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” June 11, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in movie commentary, movie review.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

I have written about Ridley Scott’s work before. I enjoyed the “Kingdom of Heaven,” and wrote a fact-check article about the movie, but took care to say my point was simply to inform movie-goers what the accurate history was, not to denigrate the film. We all know Ridley Scott plays with history. Roman Emperor Commodus did not die in the arena at the hands of a dissident general. The Christian surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 was not a cause for any sort of feel-good rejoicing among western European Christians. That’s okay. We accept this as a trade-off for entertainment.

My extensive review of the “Robin Hood” movie, including a detailed synopsis is posted at my website. As someone familiar with this time in history, I found less to like about “Robin Hood” than “Kingdom of Heaven.”

On this blog post, I will limit my comments to Scott’s treatment of Richard the Lionheart, a major character in my upcoming novel, The Swords of Faith. Richard is a hero in most versions of the Robin Hood legend. Robin Hood’s loyalty to Richard is one of Robin Hood’s more celebrated qualities. Scott depicts Richard as a brutal, authoritarian figure, not much different from his successor, King John—both part of the exploitive ruling class.

Richard the Lionheart was a complex figure. For many years, he was considered a hero, the epitome of bravery and chivalry, contrasted with the incompetent, despotic rule of his brother John. Richard’s legend has taken a beating recently, a beating that continues with this film. Historians correctly point out that Richard spoke French, not English, that he spent little of his rule in England, and that the Crusade he led failed to capture Jerusalem. We can add to that his clumsiness in negotiations with the more sophisticated Saladin. But I think a total deconstruction of the Richard legend, as if holding him up as an example of a “bad Christian” of history, suffers from the same folly as his over-glorification. Richard was a complicated man with admirable qualities, and with not so admirable qualities. He was a man who made mistakes, including the slaughter of the hostages taken with the capture of Acre, as referred to in the movie in a poignant scene movingly acted by Russell Crowe. I think we learn more with a balanced look at Richard (and this is how I attempt to portray him in The Swords of Faith.)

The History Channel offers an excellent documentary that addresses the accurate known history surrounding the Robin Hood legend. The program surveys the legend—when it first started to appear, and how changing times reflected changes to the legend. This program is made with the full cooperation of key participants in the movie “Robin Hood,” and the program’s producers cleverly intersperse clips from the movie that retain historical accuracy in the context of the point they are making. Jonathan Phillips, author of a new book on the Crusades, Holy Warriors, makes a particularly impressive appearance in the documentary with incisive, accurate and authoritative comments about the times of Richard the Lionheart and the Crusades.

The only quibble I have with the History Channel program are a few Russell Crowe comments about Richard the Lionheart. Crowe clearly agrees with the less flattering view of Richard. He refers to Richard wanting to sell London but unable to find a buyer. This is a silly distortion of a comment Richard made at the time he was trying to raise money for the crusade. Richard was aware of comments made about how mercenary he had become in his efforts to raise money—selling offices, even taking money in exchange for the renunciation of the crusading vow. Richard, in response to critics, and to emphasize the importance of the fund-raising efforts, no doubt in jest, proclaimed “I would sell London itself if I could find a buyer.” Crowe also says Richard spent “the vast majority of his time as king” on crusade. If we include the time he was held for ransom, Richard was still gone less than half of his reign on the crusade. As is pointed out in the History Channel documentary, Richard spent a lot of time in France trying to recover significant holdings taken from him by King Philip of France while Richard was on the crusade. Crowe further described Richard as “an assassin for the Pope.” By this description, all military leaders could be described as “assassins” for their leaders, governments or causes. The statement sounds striking, but has little meaning.

Ridley Scott refers to inserting Robin Hood into Richard’s return from the Third Crusade. The History Channel production quickly veers off from this statement. I have commented in my review of “Robin Hood” about the historical inaccuracy of this insertion, particularly at the siege that led to Richard’s death. This again serves to stack the deck against Richard, an idea I do not find particularly helpful in the understanding of a complex time, a time used in the propaganda of present-day fanatics who try to invoke those times to support radical, destructive causes. When we learn accurate information about the Crusades, we can quickly realize that in contradiction to al-Qaeda propaganda, the current situation in the Middle East is not the Crusades. (I have addressed this at length in my essay, “No It’s not the Crusades.”)

I don’t mind some wandering from history in the movies to tell a good story. This has become accepted in our pop culture. But there is no doubt, when viewing the History Channel documentary, that the key participants in “Robin Hood” are trying to offer profound commentary about our world by looking at the history. If this is their objective, then accuracy becomes important. Turning Richard into a villain by doctoring the history does not make their points convincing.

Items mentioned in this blog; links for purchase at Amazon:

Kingdom of Heaven, director’s cut
Holy Warriors by Jonathan Phillips

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