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Scott R. Larson





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Building façade in Cannes, France

The King’s English?

The new Robin Hood movie (for which there are spoilers below) has been encountering tougher critical going than I expected. Especially after the love fest over the previous Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe collaboration Gladiator ten years ago, which led to 12 Academy Award nominations and 5 statuettes, including for Best Picture and Best Actor.

But then we saw the critical love affair with Scott and Crowe (Scrow?) take a dive with their 2006 romcom A Good Year, which I actually liked very much. They certainly were kinder to the French in that one than in their latest. Oddly, most of the BBC commentary on the new movie (and even that of some American organs like The New Yorker) has focused on Russell Crowe’s accent. On-air wags have been having great fun spinning backstories for his character, frequently involving sojourns in parts of Ireland, Britain and the outback of Australia with perhaps an uncle from some far-flung corner of the British Empire. As an erstwhile linguistics student, I am not uninterested in the accents used (or mis-used) by actors, but I have to say that I wasn’t particularly bothered by Crowe’s enunciations. To me it was a generic hero accent. Let’s face it, if the screenwriters and he had somehow managed to replicate the authentic speech of the place and time (Nottingham in 1199), it would likely be unintelligible—even to most currently existing English natives. When making historical dramas, filmmakers and actors typically get around this by finding an equivalent modern accent or going for a kind of generic vaguely British-sounding accent.

It’s interesting to note, incidentally, that of the six principal players in Robin Hood only one (the always compelling Mark Strong, born in London with the name Marco Giuseppe Salussolia to an Italian father and an Austrian mother) is actually English. New Zealand-born Crowe mostly grew up in Australia, where Cate Blanchett is also from. Max von Sydow (who, the BBC’s Mark Kermode has insisted more than once, does a better northern English accent than Crowe) is Swedish. William Marshal is played by American thesp William Hurt. And the delightfully self-absorbed and hedonistic Prince John is played by Oscar Isaac, an actor with a rich mixture of heritages who was born in Guatemala and grew up in Miami. Not even the most rigid quota system in the world could have produced the kind of diversity that comes from a world-class director just accumulating the best talent he can find.

Robin Hood, of course, does not attempt to relate true history. Robin Hood himself is a medieval folk figure who may have originally been inspired by a real man or by a number of real men or just made up by somebody. In the many movies about Robin Hood, he is usually cast as the nemesis of the real-life Prince John, who is invariably sucking the kingdom dry while acting as regent in the absence of his brother King Richard I (the Lionheart), who is off for years during the Third Crusade.

John and Richard were, of course, real people. They were both sons of Peter O’Toole. I mean, they were sons of Henry II, who was notably played in two high-profile movies by O’Toole during the 1960s: Becket, in which an off-hand remark made out of frustration results in the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Burton), and The Lion in Winter, in which the aging Henry wrestles with his wife (Katharine Hepburn) and family about the succession. There’s an irony in Henry being so closely identified in the movies with an Irish-born actor. For one thing, Henry was the first monarch to call himself King of England (as opposed to King of the English). For another, Henry is famous for accepting Diarmait Mac Murchada’s request to restore him as king of Leinster. In the process Henry declared himself Lord of Ireland, thereby kicking off eight centuries of English domination of the Emerald Isle.

There is also irony in the fact that kings like Henry II, Richard I and John Lackland are played by actors using proper English accents. Going back to Henry’s great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, these kings were Normans, called Plantagenets or Angevins, alluding to Anjou in northern France, where they had come from. In other words, ethnically these kings were pretty much French. In fact, although Richard was born in Oxford, he was said to have spoken little or no English and spent only a small part of his life in England. Details that Scott’s Robin Hood gets right include the fact that he personally participated in the Third Crusade (along with King Philippe II of France) and (here comes a spoiler) that he died in France in 1199 while laying siege to a castle. In other words, there was no triumphant return to set things right, as depicted by an uncredited Sean Connery in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (or, for that matter, by Patrick Stewart in 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights). Connery himself had played Robin Hood in Richard Lester’s 1976 film Robin and Marian which, like the new film, approximates the historical facts of the death of King Richard, played in that film by another Irish actor, Richard Harris. As with Scott’s film, Connery’s Robin Hood was returning from the Crusades and was a somewhat older than we usually see him. Some historical versions of Richard’s demise are actually a bit more interesting than how it is portrayed in Scott’s film. The arrow that struck him did not kill him outright but led to gangrene after a surgeon carelessly mangled it during the removal. The archer who fired it was brought to Richard and turned out to be a boy, who was seeking to avenge the deaths of his father and two brothers. As he died, Richard had time to put his affairs in order and organize his succession, as well as to pardon his own killer. One account says that the boy was flayed alive and hanged anyway after Richard had died.

While his brother John may have been no saint, neither was Richard. He exacted a huge amount of taxes from his subjects to finance his ultimately unsuccessful Crusade in the Middle East. And while there, he had an entire garrison, including women and children, massacred—just to make a point. He was subsequently suspected of involvement in the murder of the newly crowned King of Jerusalem, a rival to his own protégé.

In a way, Scott’s Robin Hood is a continuation of an alternate history that he began in his 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven, which tells of the same Third Crusade (also called the Kings’ Crusade) which Robin and Richard return from. The hero of that movie, played by Orlando Bloom, is called Balian, which was the name of a real European noble who was born and lived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But, while there are some parallels between the real Balian and Bloom’s character, his story is mostly made up or borrowed from other historical figures. In the end, Bloom’s character returns to France where he meets, guess who, Richard the Lionheart heading the opposite way toward the Crusade. Robin Longstride doesn’t seem to be with him, and Richard is played by Iain Glenn (an actor who, like Connery, is Scottish). In Robin Hood, Richard is played by Danny Huston, and I’m not even sure of his nationality. The son of legendary American director John, he was born in Italy, but seems to have lived just about everywhere.

There is one more detail that ties Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood together. They both feature a key fictional character named Godfrey. In the former, he is a crusading knight played by Irishman Liam Neeson. In the latter, he is a traitorous knight played by the aforementioned Mark Strong.

-S.L., 20 May 2010


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