Robin Hood, Revised

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As heroes go, Robin Hood has always been a hard nut for libertarians to crack. His motto, “Take from the rich and give to the poor,” is anathema to any liberty-loving American. It represents redistributionist Marxism, pure and simple.

Yet the legendary Robin Hood has always been portrayed as anything but a dull, moralistic, theory-bound socialist. He’s a chivalrous bon vivante. He’s charming, brave, honest, and fair. Moreover, his targets have always been agents of the king. He steals back the taxes that have been taken from the poor and returns the money to its rightful owners. Can that be wrong? I’ve always enjoyed the way that Robin, in the 1938 movie, responds to the accusation, “You speak treason!” “Yes,” he grins. “Fluently.”

Nevertheless, considering the Hollywood popularity of our current president and his redistributionist cronies in Congress, I cowered as I entered the theater to see the new version of “Robin Hood.” I worried about what diatribes against private enterprise I might encounter during this long film. And I knew, from the trailers I had seen, that this would not be Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (1938), or Walt Disney’s, either (1973).

I needn’t have worried. Aside from one worrisome redistributionist cry — “No one should have 4,000 acres!” (well, why not?) — this new movie is

filled with inspiring lines about liberty and property. It places the blame for medieval England’s poverty where it belongs: on the shoulders of Richard the Lion Heart, who squandered England’s wealth on his crusades in the Holy Land. The film begins with Richard plundering his way through France, trying to rebuild his treasury. The connection between our current economic crisis and war in the Middle East is made abundantly clear — war bankrupts nations, and it is bankrupting this one.

What should people do when a country’s leaders are out of control? The film champions revolution, right from its opening statement, emblazoned across the screen: “In times of tyranny and injustice, when laws oppress the people, the outlaw takes his place in history.” Ridley Scot’s “Robin Hood” is not just the story of a charming thug returning cash to local villagers. It’s the story of our inherent, inalienable right to liberty.

“What we demand is liberty — liberty by law!” So say the oppressed, overtaxed barons of the northern provinces as they present King John (Oscar Isaac) with what appears to be an early version of Magna Carta. Even Queen Eleanor (Eileen Atkins) enters the anti-tax debate, warning her son John, “To milk a dry udder will get you nothing but kicked off the stool.”

Likewise, Robin advises King John, “In tyranny is only failure. Build a kingdom as you build a cathedral — from the ground up. . . . Allow every man to work, eat, and live by the sweat of his own brow.” The king who does that, he says, will have the people’s “loyalty, and their love.”

Of course, there is a better way — eliminate the king altogether. But in 1199, such an option was inconceivable. To espouse it would simply get you killed. A contract (Magna Carta) limiting the king’s power was as much as people could imagine. Change “king” to “leader,” though, and Robin’s words become sound advice for managing a business, a home, or a community.

Throughout the film, Robin’s instincts are sound. “I don’t owe God, or any man here, one moment of service,” he explains as he abandons Richard’s army to make his way home to England. “Try getting paid by a dead king,” he adds. This is quite different from Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, who stakes his life to protect King Richard against his usurping brother, Prince John, then joins him to fight in the crusades.

Another major difference in this film is that Robin Hood does not start out as the well-born Robert of Loxley. He is simply Robin Longstride, a foot soldier and archer — an extremely skilled archer — in Richard’s army. Loxley (Douglas Hodge) is Richard’s confidante and friend. When Loxley and other knights die in an ambush, Robin and his friends don their chain mail and clothing to avoid being accused of the ambush themselves. “There is no difference between a knight and any other man, aside from what he is wearing,” Robin tells his friends. Then, in a familiar twist played out in such stories as “Martin Guerre,” “Sommersby,” and even “The Man in the Iron Mask,” Robin heads for Nottingham to take the place of Sir Robert and become, eventually, Robin of the Hood.

Yes, it’s true: although the star, Russell Crowe, is 45, the same age that Sean Connery was when he played the retiring hero in the very fine “Robin and Marian” (1976), this film is a prequel to the familiar story. Lady Marion [sic] (Cate Blanchett) is also disconcertingly old for the part; Blanchett, though slender and lovely, is 51. It’s a little like watching a middle-aged diva playing Juliet. At least they don’t call her “Maid Marion.”

As the film opens, Robin’s future band of Merry Men are the village’s orphaned boys, sneaking through the woods disguised in animal masks and pilfering from the fields and barns of local farmers. And throughout the film, they lurk in the forest, shrouded by Scott’s trademark smoke and mist and foreshadowing their future role as the Merry Men. Lady Marion, Robert Loxley’s wife and soon-to-be widow, must chase the boys away herself — the Sheriff of Nottingham does nothing to protect the property rights of the villagers.

Marion fights the church with the same linguistic aplomb that Robin uses in war. With the boys stealing the people’s harvest and the church tithing their seed corn, nothing is left for planting. “The Crown has stripped us to pay for foreign wars, while the church at home has stripped us of the grain we need to feed ourselves. I don’t know which is the greater curse,” Marion says spitefully to the bishop.

In this version of the tale, in fact, the state-sanctioned church almost supplants the Crown as the enemy. “Taxes and tithes!” Marion spits out, with equal disgust for both kinds of legal exaction. When Robin and his friends stop a carriage to regain the villagers’ property, it is the bishop’s coach full of grain they are after, not the king’s coach full of gold. In a twist on Robin’s “take from the rich and give to the poor,” Robin and Friar Tuck explain, “The Lord taketh, and we taketh it back!”

The filmmakers probably took this idea from the onerous “Saladin Tithe” imposed on 12th-century Englanders to finance a new crusade after Saladin had restored Muslim control of Jerusalem. It should be noted, however, that this “tithe” did not go to the church. It was really a tax, imposed by the king in 1188 but collected by the priests, to pay for war in the middle east. It is said to have been the largest tax so far imposed in England. Anyone who signed up for the next crusade was exempt from the tithe, so one of its purposes was to enhance enlistments.

In 1194 the “tithe” was increased to 25% to ransom King Richard after he was captured in Austria on his way home from the wars. This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but the very real difference is that “tithing” suggests something optional, and taxes are anything but optional.

Robin Hood purists probably won’t like the way the filmmakers have taken liberties with the story (pun intended). Robin is now a middle-aged soldier, not a young rake. Marion is a hard-working daughter of a widow “with a thimbleful of noble blood,” not a lovely and charming ward of Prince John. Robin fights in the Crusades with Richard before he ever dons the Hood, and enters the forest to join the orphaned boys — who are much too young to be called “Merry Men.” Marion’s husband, Sir Robert Loxley, is Robin Hood’s alter ego in all the early versions of the film; in this film, however, Robin Hood is Robin Longstride, impersonating (at times) Robert Loxley. So who, one may ask, is the real Robin Hood?

I think that’s one point of this new movie. Robin Hood is an idea, a concept, not a specific figure in history. He exists wherever men and women rise up against tyranny. At one point Robin places his hand in the handprint of his father, a former stonemason, and discovers it is a perfect fit. We learn that his father had also been a champion of liberty before he was executed for his beliefs. His motto “Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions,” implies that liberty is a precious seed that must be planted again and again, until it takes root in the hearts of men.

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