How the Robin Hood myth was turned on its head by rightwingers

The wealth-redistributing folk hero has traditionally been seen as a champion of the poor. But politicians have recently used him as a poster boy for tax cuts. What message should we take from his latest film?

He robs the rich to feed the poor: Robin Hood is the original social justice warrior. He is a militant advocate of wealth redistribution. A saviour of the many, not the few. A champion of the underclass, sticking it, shooting it and slashing it to the greedy elites. Surely he is the hero our troubled times cry out for?

Fear not, for help is at hand: galloping on to our screens this week comes a fresh new Robin Hood in the form of Taron Egerton, the boyish hero of the Kingsman movies. The timing is spot-on for this expensive production, which also stars Jamie Foxx, Ben Mendelsohn, Jamie Dornan and Eve Hewson. But don’t get your hopes up. This latest effort underlines just how difficult it is to make a good Robin Hood movie. The tale has been adapted so many times that a new version risks either telling the same old story, or revamping it beyond all recognition.

Recent efforts have not served the myth well. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s 2010 Robin Hood felt as if it wanted to be a Gladiator remake. The story at least attempted to integrate myth and history (to the point where Robin inspires Magna Carta), but it jettisoned all notions that Robin and his men were ever knowingly “merry”. The glumness of the whole exercise was summed up in a BBC radio interview when Mark Lawson asked Crowe if he was going for an Irish accent in the film (because it sure didn’t sound like an English one). Crowe responded: “You’ve got dead ears, mate,” and walked out of the interview in a huff.

Before that, we had Kevin Costner’s inexplicably successful Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which brought little new to the table beyond Bryan Adams and hair product. The most entertaining thing about the movie now is Alan Rickman’s scenery-chewing departures from the cheesy script, but it became the second-highest-grossing movie of 1991. Patrick Bergin’s and Uma Thurman’s cheaper, muddier version suffered for being released the same year. Richard Lester’s 1976 Robin and Marian, with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, at least took the story to a different, albeit less dynamic, place – they could have called it Middle Aged in the Middle Ages. And Disney’s 1973 version remains one of the studio’s least cherished animated movies.

Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves.
Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves. Photograph: Allstar

Robin has fared better on the small screen, in a family friendly, Saturday-evening kind of way, via the late-00s BBC version and the mid-1980s Robin of Sherwood on ITV, which introduced into the lore some pagan mysticism and an Arab Muslim character, Nasir (played by the white English actor Mark Ryan, but it is the sentiment that counts). Robin of Sherwood was believed to be part of the original myth by the makers of Prince of Thieves, hence Morgan Freeman’s Moorish sidekick, Azeem. The tradition continues with the latest version: Foxx’s “John” is a Moor who follows Robin back from the Crusades.

The new Robin Hood manages to be the same old story and a revamp too far. Egerton described it as a “gritty, modern retelling of the story for a superhero audience”, which means a Batman/Bruce Wayne-type vigilante hero, some lavish action scenes and anachronisms including modern haute couture and roulette tables. “I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen,” says Egerton in the prologue. Instead, he bores us without the history.

Is Robin Hood’s problem the material itself? The closer one looks, the more contradictory the myth becomes. Starting with the basics (and ignoring the disputed real-life history), robbing the rich to give to the poor suggests Robin Hood is in favour of wealth redistribution. He is usually depicted as an outlaw on the side of the oppressed and overtaxed poor, whom he leads in a popular rebellion against the Sheriff of Nottingham, Prince John, the corrupt church and their rich, idle cronies. You could describe him as a Marxist guerrilla, a left-leaning populist – or perhaps even as a progressive-taxation radical.

You could question how much change Robin really wants, however. Critics may say he does little more than right the system’s wrongs on a local, superficial level, which is as good as validating it. True, he seeks to overthrow John and the sheriff’s corrupt regime, but he has no ambitions to replace it with some socialist utopia. In fact, he seeks to restore the status quo. As the legend goes, Prince John and co are only in power because his brother, Richard the Lionheart, is away fighting the Crusades. Richard is supposedly a good king who ruled fairly, and Robin yearns for his return, which closes the story in many movie versions. So, overthrowing John and the Sheriff of Nottingham will set the people free by returning them to the past. A sort of “make England great again”.

Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian.
Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian. Photograph: Allstar

There’ is also the fact that Robin is no starving peasant himself, but a nobleman. He is typically referred to Sir Robin of Loxley, a wealthy landowner. His social standing and superior archery skills (and better hair) make him the natural leader of the Merry Men. Maid Marian is also a member of the nobility – in Prince of Thieves she is King Richard’s cousin. Is Robin Hood really fighting for social justice, or just to regain what has been taken from him? He is for the people, but not of the people; a champagne socialist who practices philanthropy with other people’s money.

Scott’s version cleverly sidestepped the issue by making Robin a commoner who assumes a nobleman’s identity. Egerton’s Robin Hood is a self-professed “spoilt toff”, living it up in his manor with new squeeze Marian (in this version, she is a poor thief), until he is “drafted” to fight in the Crusades. Upon his return, he finds his property seized by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Mendelsohn, taking the Rickman route). Thus, his primary motivation is vengeance. He relishes the “robbing the rich” part, but the poor are little more than an afterthought: at one point Robin just rides around on horseback chucking coins on to the streets. Intriguingly, Jamie Dornan’s Corbyn-like Will Scarlet is the real man of the people here, although he is later exposed as an ambitious career politician. Boo! Hiss!

The political malleability of the Robin Hood myth was recently underlined by, of all people, Republican senator Ted Cruz. During a debate last year, Cruz’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, characterised the Republican’s tax-cut proposal as “Robin Hood in reverse”. Cruz countered that Sanders had “fundamentally misunderstood” the fable. “It is the Democrats who are King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham,” Cruz argued. “And Robin Hood is saying: ‘Tax collectors, stop hammering people who are struggling, who are labouring in the fields, who are working. And stop taking it to the castle to give out to your buddies.’” So the villains of the piece don’t represent the super-rich or the 1%; they represent big government.

Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood.
Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Photograph: Allstar

Perhaps Cruz had been brushing up on his Ayn Rand. In her “alt-right” set text Atlas Shrugged, one character, Ragnar Danneskjöld, condemns Robin Hood as “immoral and contemptible” and “the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don’t have to produce, only to want, that the earned does not belong to us, but the unearned does”.

As Sanders and others have pointed out, the Robin Hood myth has been turned on its head. It is the poor who are now being robbed to pay the deserving rich. In the US, it was the Trump administration’s tax cut, which scoops more future tax revenues (that could have gone towards public services) into the bulging pockets of the billionaire class (who argue they are entitled to keep more of what they have earned). In the UK, a similar sentiment has driven austerity, with its rhetoric of demonising poor people as benefits scroungers and shirkers who were taking from “hard-working people”. As James Meek wrote in the London Review of Books in 2016: “In this version of the myth, Robin Hood is a tax-cutter and a handout-denouncer. He’s Jeremy Clarkson. He’s Nigel Farage. He’s Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He’s by your elbow in the pub, telling you he knows an immigrant who just waltzed into the social security office and walked out with a cheque for £1,000.”

Perhaps this is part of why Robin Hood endures: he can mean whatever people want him to mean. Which brings us back to the question of why nobody can make a decent movie out of him?

There could be a simple answer to that. The definitive Robin Hood movie has already been made, exactly 80 years ago. Michael Curtiz’s Errol Flynn-led The Adventures of Robin Hood is one of the greatest action movies ever. Even by modern standards, it is fast-paced and infectiously fun. Filmed before the advent of sophisticated special effects, the action feels real because it is real. Stuntmen were shot with real arrows. And Flynn is the very model of dashing. It is difficult to think of an actor today who could match his abilities in sword fighting, archery, horse riding, leaping and bounding, yet also sell the courtly, yet flirtatious, romance with Olivia de Havilland’s Marian.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn.
The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn. Photograph: Allstar

The three-strip Technicolor gives The Adventures of Robin Hood a vibrant colour palette that is of a piece with the mythological setting, yet even this purest of fantasies was not hatched in a vacuum. The film was released in 1938. Curtiz, a Hungarian-born Jew, was mindful of the rise of Hitler in Europe (he would go on to address nazism more directly four years later in Casablanca). The movie’s Austrian-Jewish composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, saw his home country annexed and his Vienna home seized by the Nazis during production. Perhaps Curtiz’s commitment to telling the story was all the keener for the real-world climate of tyranny and persecution. His Robin Hood accentuates the ethnic tensions between the Norman oppressors and the subjugated Saxons. Flynn’s Robin Hood is still loyal to King Richard, but more than any of his successors, he seems to be motivated by his principles. At one point he makes the merry men swear “to despoil the rich only to give to the poor, to shelter the old and the helpless and to protect all women, rich or poor”.

“You’re a strange man,” De Havilland’s Marian says to Flynn at one point.

“Strange? Because I can feel for beaten, helpless people?” Robin replies.

“No,” says Marian. “You’re strange because you want to do something about it.”

Robin Hood can be a harmless, cathartic romp, but in times of trouble it also has the potential to be a resonant story of rebellion and social justice. If this is such a time, we’re still waiting for the Robin we deserve.

Robin Hood is out in the UK now.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Film review: Robin Hood
Merriness is in short supply, but Ridley Scott's Sherwood update is engaging nonetheless, says Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

13, May, 2010 @9:35 PM

Article image
Robin Hood | Film review

With elements of the Arthurian legend and Saving Private Ryan, Ridley Scott turns Robin Hood into a post-9/11 hero, writes Philip French

Philip French

15, May, 2010 @11:09 PM

Article image
Film review: Robin Hood

Ridley Scott's reworked tale of dispossession and rebellion cleverly reconciles disparate threads of the Robin Hood myth

Andrew Pulver

11, May, 2010 @7:26 PM

Article image
Film trailer: Robin Hood

How an archer in Richard I's army became the legendary outlaw

22, Dec, 2009 @10:48 AM

Article image
Film trailer: Cannes opener Robin Hood

Ridley Scott's retelling of how an archer (Russell Crowe) in Richard I's army became the legendary outlaw

18, Mar, 2010 @12:56 PM

Article image
Robin Hood to open Cannes film festival

Ridley Scott's revisionist take on the Nottingham icon has been announced as the opening night film at 63rd Cannes film festival

Catherine Shoard

26, Mar, 2010 @11:11 AM

Article image
Vanessa Redgrave cast in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood film
Actor to play Eleanor of Aquitaine in the film, which also stars Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett

Ben Child

25, Mar, 2009 @11:52 AM

Article image
Cannes 2010 gears up to open with Robin Hood

12 May 2010: The beach has been cleaned up, the red carpet laid down, and all is ready for the 63rd Cannes film festival to get under way tonight with Ridley Scott's Robin Hood

12, May, 2010 @4:07 PM

Article image
Cannes 2010 diary: lost in the Hood

Ridley Scott's Robin Hood has Xan Brooks reaching for a handy metaphor on the first day of the 63rd Cannes film festival

Xan Brooks

12, May, 2010 @1:56 PM

Article image
Jamie Dornan goes from Christian Grey to Will Scarlett in new Robin Hood film
The Fifty Shades of Grey actor is to play the archer in tights in a fresh take on the Sherwood legend

Catherine Shoard

20, Sep, 2016 @9:11 AM