Gotham: Just a Small Point

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Fox’s Gotham doesn’t have a lot to do with history, but there is one small detail that catches my eye every episode, so I figured I’d explain it, because I’m guessing it slips by most viewers.

In Bruce Wayne’s study (the main set for Wayne manor), this painting hangs prominently on the wall.

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It’s The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, painted in 1784. It currently hangs in the Louvre.

David painted it in the 1780s, half a decade before the outbreak of the French Revolution. The original idea for the painting was to have it emphasize the principle of loyalty to the state and therefore to the monarchy. But the work that David actually produced was much more politically revolutionary.

The scene that it illustrates is from early Roman history, as recorded by the Roman historian Livy. According to Livy, during the Monarchy, the Romans got into a war with the Sabines. Rather than have the two armies fight each other, each side chose three warriors to fight the battle for them, with the winning side being the one whose warriors eliminated the other side. The Romans chose triplet brothers from the Horatian clan as their representatives, while the Sabines selected triplets from the Curiatian clan for theirs. In the fight, the Curiatii slew two of the three Horatii, but the third, Publius, managed to kill all three of the Curiatii single-handedly, thus winning the battle for the Romans.

David’s painting depicts the three Horatii brothers swearing an oath to their father that they would sacrifice their lives for the good of Rome. By removing the Roman king from the scene and making the elder Horatius the recipient of the oath, David made the painting about the need for self-sacrifice for the good of the community. It was one of many stories Livy tells that emphasize the idea that a good Roman puts the needs of the community ahead of the needs of the individual.

The choice of this painting in the show is a subtle way of foreshadowing young Bruce’s decision to put Gotham’s need for a crime-fighter above his own personal happiness and to devote himself to his life as Batman. And the elder Horatius naturally acts as a stand-in for Bruce’s death father Thomas. It’s a sly touch that makes its point without being heavy-handed.

Want to Know More?

You can real about the early history of Rome (or at least the stories Livy has about the period) in Livy’s Early History of Rome

The Witch: Fear and Loathing in Puritan New England

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The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers) got a lot of buzz when it came out last year, but I only got around to watching it tonight. It tells the story of a Puritan family living in rural New England struggling against a machinations of a malicious witch.

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The film is set in 1630 in an unspecified plantation in New England. It is probably Massachusetts, but could possibly be New Hampshire or Maine. William (Ralph Ineson) is a devout Calvinist who is forced out of the colony because of a never-explained theological dispute within the church of the colony. He takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and his children, who include teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harry Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and sets up a small farm on the edge of a remote woods about a day away from the plantation.

Katherine gives birth to a baby boy, Samuel, and that’s when things start to go wrong. Thomasin is watching the baby one day by the woods when he simply disappears. The film makes it clear that he has been stolen by a witch and sacrificed to make a flying ointment. So the film immediately establishes that this isn’t simply in the minds of the family. There really is an evil force hell-bent (quite literally) on destroying them, although we only rarely see it.

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Taylor-Joy as Thomasin

Although the troubles in the film are clearly caused by the witch, the film is really a study of a deeply devout and conservative Christian family trying to cope with the trauma of (literally) losing a child. Katherine grieves inconsolably and cannot stop praying, and William struggles to hold the family together and make this marginal farm thrive. But the crops do poorly, he proves an ineffective hunter, and the family’s nanny goat starts giving blood instead of milk. Mercy and Jonas’ misbehavior start to wear down Thomasin’s patience, and young Caleb, who is only about 9, tries to be the hunter his father cannot be. The family inevitably spirals down to their destruction; this is a horror film, after all.

The film really impressed me from a historical standpoint. It has a lot to recommend it. The film-makers worked hard to capture the material culture of the period, consulting with museums and historians of the period, and Eggers only filmed with natural light outdoors and candle-light indoors. Much of the dialog was lifted from 17th century documents, and the cast does a great job making the archaic language sound real. Even the children turn in excellent performances and make the dialog work.

The film tries to capture genuine 17th century Puritan beliefs of witches. Nearly everything supernatural that happens has a solid foundation in the writings and trial records of the period. The disasters that befall the family are not wild Hollywood spectacle but simple rural crises–the corn grows badly, they keep seeing a rabbit they can’t catch, something kills their dog– that prey on the family’s economic vulnerability. Witchcraft was always primarily about economic and personal disasters, and Eggers does a great job getting us to understand that.The witch’s malevolence is simply a given; she destroys the family purely because she is evil, and that’s where the family’s religious anxieties come in.

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Ineson as the strict but loving William

The film also does justice to the Calvinist beliefs of the Puritans. As William teaches Caleb, they are deeply sinful people, and only Christ’s redeeming sacrifice can save them. Caleb, understandably unnerved by the implication that his baby brother was a horrible sinner, begs his father to tell him what sin the infant committed. William replies that he does not know and that he cannot know that the baby was saved, because they must simply pray that they are among God’s Elect. As a result, what mattered for Puritans was having a spiritual experience that shows them that they truly are one of the Elect. While most movies and tv shows (cough Salem cough) treat such beliefs with contempt and assume that Puritans simply didn’t love each other, The Witch accepts Puritanism as a genuine belief system and shows how deeply William and Katherine love their children and desperately desire their salvation. But prayer isn’t enough to stop the evil assailing them because if it was, this wouldn’t be a horror film.

A big part of the reason that New England saw so may witchcraft charges is that in the 17th century, the American colonies were small and precarious. Life was genuinely hard for these people, and witchcraft provided an explanation for the various things that could go wrong. Additionally, the Puritans saw themselves as God’s tiny minority of the Elect under siege from the forces of Satan. Native Americans were understood to literally worship the Devil, so Satan’s agents lurked just beyond the tree line, unseen but waiting to strike. And witches were the embodiment of many of the moral failings that Puritans struggled against–lust, envy, disobedience to authorities, resentment. So as Thomasin tries to be a good Christian girl and cope with the tragedies befalling her family, her struggles slowly push her into the suspect category of witch.

All in all, I’d have to call The Witch one of the best historical films I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Eggers is willing to take his time building the tension for both the family and the audience. The film avoids the usual cheap tricks of horror films, like sound spikes, false scares, and gore, in favor of drawing the viewer into the growing fear and madness of the family, and making you squirm over the way the family inevitably turns against itself. It is certainly the best depiction of early modern witchcraft beliefs I’ve seen on screen.

Got a specific movie you’d like me to tackle? Please make a donation and tell me what movie you’d like me to review. If I can get access to it, I’ll review it for you.

Want to Know More? 

The Witch is available on Amazon.

If you’re looking for an introduction to New England witchcraft trials and beliefs, you can’t do better than Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a WomanIt’s hands down the best thing I’ve read on the subject.


The Admiral: Lots of Naval Battles

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In my previous post, I summarized a lot of 17th century Dutch history so I could make a post about The Admiral (aka Michiel de Ruyter, 2015, dir. Roel Reiné, Dutch with English subtitles). The film in question follows the career of Michiel de Ruyter (Frank Lammers) both as a naval commander and as a figure in 17th century Dutch politics. Because de Ruyter’s career is to some extent tied to the political career of Grand Pensioner Johan de Witt (Barry Atsma), the film also looks at him a good deal.

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The film, which opens in 1653 with the Battle of Scheveningen during the First Anglo-Dutch War, gets the basic Dutch political tensions correct. De Witt and therefore de Ruyter are correctly shown as representing the Republican position and therefore being in conflict with the Orangists. It’s clear that the Orangists want Prince William (Egbert-Jan Weber) to have more power in government, but the film never really gets at what is at stake for these two factions beyond which group will run the country. The film makes only the briefest allusion to the conflict between the strict Calvinist and tolerant Calvinists when de Witt says during a speech that his country is free because every many is free to decide how they will worship God. This is, in fact, a loosely correct expression of de Witt’s actual position, and it’s nice to see a historical film that actually explains what it means by ‘freedom’ (cough Braveheart 300 cough).

It likewise gets the basic facts about the Dutch conflicts with England correct. It makes it clear that commercial rivalry played a significant role in these wars, although it doesn’t connect de Witt’s party to the wealthy merchants who stood to benefit the most from long-range trade. Perhaps because de Witt is allied to de Ruyter, the focus of the film, de Witt’s motives are presented as being entirely good and without self-interest while the English and the Orangists other than Prince William himself as shown to be more self-serving and malicious. Charles II (a well-cast Charles Dance) at one point tried to bribe William by offering to make him king of the Netherlands, an offer William indignantly rejects.

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Ever wonder what Ron Jeremy would look like is he were a 17th century Dutch admiral? Wonder no more

The film is particularly proud of the Netherlands’ Republican history. It opens with the false claim that the Netherlands is the “only republic in the world”. This ignores the fact that Venice was also a republic throughout the 17th century (and had been for centuries), and that in 1653, England was a republic as well. Given that Charles II is a key villain in the story, the film-makes probably decided to ignore the story of England’s unsuccessful experiment with republicanism simply because explaining why England is a republic at the start of the film but a monarchy a few years later would be a distraction from the main story.

Not only does William refuse to subvert the Republic, de Witt orders the execution of an Orangist who was plotting with Charles. This is a reference to Johan Kievit, but in the film it’s not Kievit who does the plotting, because Kievit (Derek de Lint) is, along with Charles, the master villain of the piece. Throughout the film, Kievit malevolently scowls at de Witt, plots to remove him in favor of Prince William, supports Tromp against de Ruyter, and orchestrates the murder of the de Witt brothers. His motives are never explained beyond general villainousness.

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Kievit (de Lint) and Prince William (Weber)

The film also plays fast and loose with chronology. Although Prince William was only 3 years old in 1653, he’s an adult in the film. The film covers 23 years of actual history, but no one ages. De Ruyter’s children are still children at the end of the film. The film repeatedly compresses events, giving the sense that the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the Third Anglo-Dutch War all took place over the course of perhaps a year, instead of the 20 years they actually took. Charles II signs of the Peace of Breda (1667) and then immediately schemes with Louis XIV to invade the Netherlands, even though that happened in 1672. This makes no sense at all, since he signs the Peace of Breda because he’s lost his whole fleet and therefore cannot continue fighting.

One of the better elements of the film is that it works hard to make naval combat intelligible. It shows a half-dozen battles, and frequently cuts to a bird’s eye view so the viewer can get a sense of how the ships are maneuvering. It spends a great deal of time on the Four Days’ Battle, showing crewmen doing a wide range of jobs and demonstrating just how terrible a problem wooden shrapnel was in naval combat. If you’re looking for a movie about wooden ships and what it takes to run them, you’ll like this movie.

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Unfortunately, it also takes substantial liberties with the facts of the battles. For example, the film collapses the Four Day’s Battle and the St. James’ Day Battle into one event, moving Tromp’s decision to break the line and pursue the English from the latter battle to the former and making that decision the reason that de Ruyter lost the Four Days’ Battle, when in fact the Dutch more or less won that. In the film’s version of the Battle of Texel, de Ruyter orders Tromp to break the line, thus tricking the English into sailing too close to the Dutch coast, which causes the ships to haul over to one side, leaving them vulnerable to Dutch cannon fire and giving the Dutch a decisive victory that forced the English out of the war. That bears little resemblance to the actual Battle of Texel, which was more like a stand-off. The Raid on the Medway involved several days of cannon fire and a large group of marines, not a midnight sneak up the river with a handful of men.

So from a historical standpoint, the film is something of a mixed bag. It gets the big picture broadly correct, but fudges a lot of the details in the name of a simpler narrative. It also smacks a bit of Braveheart-style nationalistic chest-thumping, but without the histrionic speeches. However the topic is refreshing. How many movies about 17th century naval warfare have you seen?

 

Want to Know More?

The Admiral is available on Amazon.

I couldn’t find anything on Michiel de Ruyter, but if you want to know more about Johan de Witt (who was an important philosopher and mathematician as well as politician), take a look at Johan de Witt: Philosopher of ‘True Freedom’

The Admiral: More about Dutch History Than You Ever Wanted to Know

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If there’s one genre that’s absolutely been done to death, it’s the 17th Century Dutch Naval War genre. But I hope you can handle another entry into that storied category, in the form of The Admiral (aka Michiel de Ruyter, 2015, dir. Roel Reiné, Dutch with English subtitles).

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The film looks at Dutch politics and conflicts with England in the mid-17th century by focusing on the life of Michiel de Ruyter, one of the Netherlands’ greatest naval leaders. In the 17th century the Dutch were one of the great naval and commercial powers of Europe, because their wide maritime commerce network made them far wealthier and more powerful than their small size would suggest. This tended to bring them into conflict another of the major naval and commercial powers of the era, Great Britain.

17th century Dutch politics revolved around the nature of their state. In 1588, after the Dutch rebelled against Spanish rule, they declared themselves a republic. Their rebellion was couched in terms of defending their medieval rights, so they needed to adapt medieval political concepts to their new situation. Each of the seven rebellious provinces was given the right to elect a Stadhouder, or Steward, to administer it, and over the course of the next half-century, there was a tendency for one man to receive the stadhouder-ship of several provinces. In the 1640s, William II of Orange was stadhouder for five of the seven provinces. In 1648, the Dutch secured a final peace with Spain that acknowledged Dutch independence, but afterward William alienated many Catholics in the country by trying to impose the strict Dutch Calvinist Church on them and by refusing to disband the large army he had maintained.

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The Netherlands in the 17th Century

When William died suddenly in 1650, leaving only a posthumous son, Prince William, five provinces declined to elect the infant William as the new stadhouder and let the office fall vacant. Instead, the Grand Assembly (essentially, a Dutch Parliament) turned for leadership to the Grand Pensionary of Holland, who was technically only an administrator for the province of Holland, but in the absence of a new stadhouder, he came to function as a sort of Prime Minister for the Republic. In 1653 the office was given to Johan de Witt.

De Witt emerged as the leader of the wealthy mercantile faction in Dutch politics, who favored aggressive protection of Dutch commercial interests overseas, as well as moderate Calvinism and toleration. The opposing faction were the Orangists, mostly less wealthy businessmen who worried about the political dominance of the wealthy merchants and who therefore favored the rights of the House of Orange as a counterbalance. This faction wanted to see William III appointed as stadhouder and wanted a most strict adherence to Calvinism.

When De Witt signed a peace treaty with England in 1654 to end the First Anglo-Dutch War, there was a secret rider forbidding William III to ever be appointed as stadhouder, because England’s leader, Oliver Cromwell, worried that, since William was the grandson of the recently-executed English king Charles I, the Orangists might support a return to English monarchy. And since both countries were republics at the time, it seemed reasonable to expect that they would remain at peace and perhaps even develop an alliance.

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Johan de Witt

Unfortunately for that, in 1660, the English ended their experiment with republicanism and restored their monarchy, bringing Charles II, the uncle of Prince William, to the throne. In 1665, tensions over trade resulted in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The English fought a massive battle with the Dutch at Lowestoft; more than 100 ships were involved on each side. After the Dutch flagship exploded, killing Admiral Van Obdam, the Dutch position collapsed and the English routed them in the worst naval defeat in Dutch history.

De Witt salvaged a desperately bad situation by appointed the commoner Michiel de Ruyter as admiral, much to the irritation of the Orangists, who wanted Cornelis Tromp, the son of a previous admiral. De Ruyter proved a brilliant naval leader. De Witt also dedicated an enormous amount of money to rebuild the Dutch navy. In 1666, the Dutch navy fought the English in the Four Days’ Battle, one of the longest naval engagements in history. De Ruyter inflicted so much damage on the English fleet that they eventually had to retreat, but de Ruyter lacked the gunpowder to pursue them.

A few months later, the St James’ Day Battle went against the Dutch. De Ruyter made a tactical error and found his portion of the fleet becalmed and unable to prevent the English from destroying a large section of the fleet. Tromp, commanding the Dutch rear, avoided de Ruyter’s mistake, broke line, and destroyed the English rear, pursuing it through the night, in the process losing all sight of the Dutch fleet and nearly being captured the next morning. Only the Great Fire of London prevented Charles II from following up on the victory.

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Michiel de Ruyter

After the battle, de Ruyter blamed Tromp for the defeat, faulting him for breaking from the line to pursue the English ships. The Netherlands split over the issue. Tromp allowed his brother-in-law, Johan Kievit, to publish his version of events. It was soon discovered that Kievit was plotting with Charles II to put Prince William into power; he fled the country and was sentenced to death in absentia. A Tromp supporter attempted to assassinate de Ruyter but failed.

De Ruyter brought the Second Anglo-Dutch War to an end in 1667 by launching an audacious raid on the English shipyard at Chatham on the Medway river, where the English fleet was laid up for repairs. De Ruyter and Cornelis de Witt, Johan’s brother, fought their way past several English fortifications, broke a chain across the river, destroyed 13 ships and stole the English flagship, the Royal Charles. Lacking any heavy ships, Charles had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Breda.

De Witt used this triumph to abolish the stadhouder-ship for Holland and get William declared ineligible for the office in three other provinces by instead giving him a key military office. This provoked growing Orangist outrage. In 1672, when the English and French attacked the Netherlands in what the Dutch called the Disaster Year, de Witt narrowly escaped assassination, and found it prudent to resign as Grand Pensionary, William was made stadhouder of the Netherlands soon thereafter as William III.

But this did not satisfy the Orangists. Cornelis de Witt was arrested on charges of treason, tortured, and sentenced to exile. When Johan went to the prison to bid his brother farewell, the civic militia in the Hague attacked the two men in what most scholars think was an orchestrated riot. They were shot, stripped naked, and hung up in a public square; the Orangist mob literally roasted their livers and ate them. Responsibility for the killings has never been pinned on anyone, but William III had acted to order the withdrawal of a Dutch cavalry regiment from the area just hours before, leading many to suspect that he may have known about the plot. Tromp and Kievit were certainly involved, and William later on promoted both men, including arranging for his uncle to give Tromp a baronetcy.

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The corpses of the De Witt brothers hanging in a town square

In 1673, the English attempted to launch of the Netherlands, but de Ruyter and Tromp fought the English to a stalemate, inflicting enough casualties that the English were ultimately forced to sue for peace after the Spanish agreed to join the war. In 1676 de Ruyter took a Dutch fleet into the Mediterranean where he fought an encounter with the French at Stromboli. It was an inconclusive battle, but de Ruyter lost a leg to a cannon ball and died, leaving the admiralty to Tromp.

In 1688, three years after the death of Charles II, William III led a revolt against Charles’ brother James II. Crossing over to England with a small force after the English Parliament appealed to him for assistance against the openly Catholic James, William forced James to flee the country, even though he was married to James’ daughter Mary. Parliament declared that William and Mary were the new monarchs. William didn’t even have to change his numbering, since he was the third William on the English throne.

Now that I’ve summarized what actually happened, in my next post, I’ll talk about The Admiral.

Want to Know More?

The Admiral is available on Amazon.

I couldn’t find anything on Michiel de Ruyter, but if you want to know more about Johan de Witt (who was an important philosopher and mathematician as well as politician), take a look at Johan de Witt: Philosopher of ‘True Freedom’

Robin Hood: The Movie That We Didn’t Get

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Over the past several posts, I’ve looked at Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott) and tried to figure out its insanely convoluted and somewhat absurd plot, as well as its misappropriation of the Magna Carta and its silly climactic amphibious beach assault battle. Nearly everyone agrees that this isn’t a good film, although it deserves points for trying to do something new with the Robin Hood story. And what makes this particularly said is that the original script was, by all accounts, a much better idea.

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The film began its life as Nottingham, a script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, who created the TV series Sleeper Cell. Their concept was to write a lighthearted movie focusing on the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is trying to locate a “terrorist” who is robbing people. The Sheriff would use what passed for forensic science in the 12th century, like following the trajectory of the arrow back to where it was loosed from. Robin is a less virtuous figure, and he and the Sheriff become embroiled in a love triangle with Maron. It’s essentially CSI: Sherwood Forest, and while it’s a totally anachronistic idea, since 12th century law enforcement operated very differently from modern American law enforcement, but it would certainly have been a very fresh take on the material, because it treated the traditional villain of the story as the hero. Given the popularity of forensic crime shows on TV, it might have been quite successful at the box office.

The Sheriff was based on Robert of Thornham, one of Richard the Lionhearted’s lieutenants, who helped lead the conquest of Cyprus during the Third Crusade and whom Richard appointed as one of the island’s administrators. The script opened with a siege of a castle, a detail that somehow managed to survive the massacre that awaited the rest of the script. They also included Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother, because she was an important figure in England at this time and she had never been used in a Robin Hood story. For a lot more about the original script, here’s an interview with Reiff about it.

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Ethan Reiff

The script became a hot commodity in Hollywood, and a bidding war broke out for it. Eventually, the Reiff and Voris earned seven figures on their script, and Russell Crowe was signed to play the Sheriff, perhaps because he shared the same agent as Reiff and Voris. Crowe’s involvement meant that the studio needed to get a director that Crowe was comfortable with, and so Ridley Scott was brought in. But Scott didn’t like the script and insisted on a substantial re-write. Reiff and Voris were dismissed from the project, discovering that they’d been fired when they learned that there was opening for a writing assignment on their own movie.

Scott felt that the script didn’t have enough archery in it and wanted the archery to be the focus of the film, because apparently the archery focus of literally every other Robin Hood story ever filmed was fresher than never-been-done medieval forensic science. Despite the fact that the script had been highly sought-after, he declared that “It was fucking ridiculous…It was terrible, a page-one rewrite.” Crowe also stated that he “just wasn’t into doing” CSI: Sherwood. So basically, Crowe and Scott decided that they knew better than the rest of Hollywood (granted, not necessarily implausible), threw out the script, and started massaging the concept into something they liked more.

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Ridley Scott

Scott brought in Brian Helgeland, the writer of LA Confidential, Payback, A Knight’s Tale, and Mystic River, to rewrite the script. The Sheriff was now Richard the Lionhearted’s lieutenant, who returns to England after Richard’s assassination, only to find that John is tyrannically trying to establish the whole concept of taxation in England and that an outlaw is inciting anarchy. So the Sheriff would be caught between two unreasonable men, trying to do what’s right. That’s still an interesting take on Robin Hood, although Scott found an absurd way to twist things. Robin Hood and the Sheriff are the same man, so the detective is chasing the killer without realizing it’s him. Given that this is the plot of Oedipus Rex, it’s striking that Scott thought what is literally one of the oldest plots in Western drama was somehow fresh.

Scott envisaged this script as the first in a series of films in which Robin battles the villainous King John repeatedly, with the storyline culminating in the signing of the Magna Carta. So that’s how the whole Magna Carta/Freedom element crept into the script.

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Brian Helgeland

Eventually, however, someone talked sense into Scott and made him realize that his ideas were dumb. In July of 2008, when filming was supposed to have started for a movie that would open in November of 2009, Paul Webb was brought in to do another rewrite, perhaps because he had written a well-received play about the 1170 assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket; Webb would go on to work on the scripts for Lincoln and Selma. In this draft, Robin becomes the Sheriff of Nottingham after he sees the Sheriff killed in a battle, and then later returns to banditry. That’s where the whole ‘Robin pretends to be Robert Loxley’ bit came from. The script also lost its humor and became much more serious at this point.

Filming started, but then Scott decided he didn’t like Webb’s script, so he brought back Helgeland for yet another rewrite during which the film took its current sewn-together form. But the script at that point was a Frankenstein’s Monster of dialog from at least five different rewrites. Reportedly, Robin’s personality veered so wildly that he seemed to have Multiple Personality Disorder. So the studio brought in Tom Stoppard to rewrite the dialog as the movie was being filmed. At this point, the script had pretty much become the exact opposite of what Reiff and Voris had penned and Crowe and Scott had signed on for. The filming process was so fraught with difficulty that it reportedly severely damaged Crowe’s relationship with Scott.

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Tom Stoppard

The result, as we’ve seen, is a movie that’s ‘fresh’ in all the wrong ways, like raw kumquats on your dinner plate (something I experienced as a child and will never forget). Perhaps, some day, someone will find a way to resurrect Reiff and Voris’ original script and get it made, not that I’m holding my breath. This is Hollywood we’re talking about.

This is, I expect, my last post on this movie. I’d like to thank Lyn R for her generous donation that made this series of reviews possible. If you have a particular movie that you’d like me to tackle, please make a donation to my Paypal account and let me know what film you’d like me to look at. As long as I think the movie is appropriate and I can get access to it, I’ll give you a review.

 

Want to Know More? 

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

It’s not like there’s a book on the making of this movie. I had to piece together the story from a host of sites across the internet. But I’ve got a lot of work to do, so I’m going to be lazy and not document my work. But the place to start is this blog.

Robin Hood: The Battle on the Beach

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After a lot of exam grading and brief digression for Westworld, it’s time to get back to the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott). The film culminates in a battle on the beach somewhere along the southeast coast of English. The evil French are launching an invasion, and it’s up to Robin Hood to help King John stop them.

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You can watch the scene on Youtube.

There is so much wrongness here it’s hard to know where to begin. So let me just count the problems.

  • The French are using amphibious vehicles to get their troops onto the shore. This is technology way beyond anything medieval people had. The earliest amphibious vehicle was built in 1787. I’m not aware of one being used for military purposes until World War II.
  • Initially, the English forces are on top of the cliffs watching the French land. They have archers, and open fire on them. But then they decide to send their troops down to the beach to fight. This is just dumb. Up on the cliffs, the French can do nothing except take casualties until they can get up the cliffs somehow. But sending troops down to the beach means that the archers need to stop firing to avoid hitting the English soldiers. So the English forces throw away their advantage for no reason at all.
  • Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) is an archer. That’s what he was doing on crusade. There’s no evidence that he has any military experience beyond that. He’s a lowly foot soldier. He’s certainly not a knight, since his father was a stonemason. So why the hell is he given command of the English forces?
  • The English charge on the beach is totally undressed; there’s no line of horses to allow a lance charge to have a massed impact. These knights clearly don’t know how to make a charge as a unit.
  • Why is Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) fighting?
  • Why is Marion (Cate Blanchett) fighting? Why did they even bring her to a battle? So she can be attacked and inspire Robin to fight harder?
  • Why does Robin jump off his horse and tackle Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong)? On horseback, he has an advantage over Godfrey; on foot he doesn’t. He immediately draws his sword, so he doesn’t jump because he has no weapon.
  • Why does Sir Godfrey suddenly turn, jump on a horse and ride off? There’s no sign the French are losing, although some of their boats are crashing together. And where the hell is he riding to? He’s riding away from the boats. Is his horse going swim back to France?

Basically, there’s no way this battle ever happened anywhere in the Middle Ages.

This review was made possible by a generous donation from Lyn R. If you want me to review a specific film, please donate $10 or more and tell me what movie you’d like me to review, and I’ll do my best to track it down and review it, as long as I think it’s appropriate.

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

A Few Thoughts about Westworld

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I’ve been watching Westworld, HBO’s new prestige series that they’re probably hoping will become their next Games of Thrones. So I figured I would take a break from my thoughts about Robin Hood to say what I’m thinking about this show. Back to Robin Hood next time.

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For those who haven’t watched the series, it’s based on the 1973 Michael Crichton thriller of the same name. It focuses on an immersive playground, Westworld, in which android ‘hosts’ simulate the Wild West of the 1870s for the amusement of human ‘newcomers’ (the paying customers). The hosts are programmed to live out a set script that repeats itself every day unless a newcomer intervenes, in which case the hosts improvise appropriate reactions. Many of the hosts offer a ‘mission’, a unique storyline that provides adventure for the newcomers. The newcomers are allowed to do anything they want to the hosts. Some newcomers choose to be ‘white hats’ (signified literally with headgear), meaning that they are ‘good guys’ and deal with the hosts in pro-social ways, while other newcomers can be ‘black hats’, meaning that they may work with the various villainous hosts or engage in whatever mayhem they chose to direct against the hosts.

Unfortunately, some of the hosts are beginning to achieve sentience. Of these, the series focuses on Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the classic Western ingenue daughter of cattle-ranchers who are fated to be murdered unless a newcomer intervenes, and Maeve (Thandie Newton), the madame of the local brothel and saloon, who tends to get caught in the crossfire when violence breaks out there.

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Wood as Dolores

Most of the rest of the cast are other hosts or the human staff who maintain the park, repair the hosts every night, and program the hosts with new stories and personality traits. But I want to talk about a third category of characters, the newcomers. Thus far the show has focused on three of them

  1. The mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) a long-time visitor who knows the park by heart and who is searching for a mysterious ‘next level’. He’s solidly in the Black Hat camp, slaughtering any host who gets in his way.
  2. Logan (Ben Barnes), another veteran newcomer who likes the park for the immoral hedonism that it allows him to indulge in.
  3. William (Jimmi Simpson), Logan’s brother-in-law and first-time newcomer. William almost instinctively gravitates toward a White Hat, despite Logan’s attempts to get him to indulge his more primitive urges. William decides to defend the confused Dolores once her awakening consciousness leads her away from her programmed story-line.
  4. We see a couple of other newcomers who don’t get names. In particular, there is what appears to be a husband and wife couple that turn up in a few episodes.
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Barnes as Logan

The series makes no pretense of actually trying to recreate 1870s America. The park is clearly built around common clichés of the Western genre: gunfights, bandits, and whiskey flow in abundance. What interests me is the show’s missions.

Over the first several episodes we get to see some of the set storylines that hosts offer the newcomers. Mostly we see these from Logan and William’s point of view, but we also get to see the storylines that Dolores and Maeve fit into. The missions include

  1. Rescue Dolores when bandits murder her parents. Black Hats can join in with the bandits, and can rape and kill Dolores if they want. If no one intervenes, one of the bandits does that.
  2. Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) rides into town with a gang and shoots the place up to get what’s hidden in Maeve’s safe. Newcomers can kill his gang or, presumably, join Hector’s it.
  3. Hunt down various bandits and trouble-makers who are, of course, Wanted Dead or Alive.
  4. One minor host character offers a chance to find lost treasure.
  5. A hard-to-reach villain offers a mission to rob a group of American soldiers of a cargo of nitroglycerin they’re escorting.

What’s striking to me about this list are two things. First, it’s a very male-centric list of adventures. All of them are built around the opportunity to employ violence, either in pro-social (stop the bad guy) or anti-social (help or be the bad guy) ways. The only non-violent activity in Westworld seems to be having sex with a prostitute. Perhaps this is a reflection that the series creator decided to focus exclusively on male guests (Logan and William are obviously modeled on the two main characters in the 1973 version of the story). The husband and wife newcomers decide to pursue one of the bandits who needs capturing, but the wife either gets bored or finds the mission to0 physically uncomfortable; she rides back to town while her husband continues with the mission. There just don’t seem to be any missions that might appeal to women more than men.

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Maeve and Hector

The female hosts seem to reinforce this sense of masculine urges as the point of the park. Dolores needs to be rescued from the bad guys, while the more worldly Maeve offers the opportunity for sex and seduction. Apart from these two, we only get to see two other recurring female hosts, the prostitute Clementine and the sharp-shooting bandit Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a member of Hector’s gang with a brutal past. So all the female hosts apart from Armistice fall into very traditional feminine roles from the Western genre.

The show seems to acknowledge that the park is all about sex and violence in one episode when the park’s creator Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) comments that originally there were an equal number of dark and ‘hopeful’ missions, but no one wanted to do the hopeful missions, so they were dropped in favor of darker ones.

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Hopkins as Ford

But I don’t think the show is simply indulging in the standard HBO formula of violence and sex. Rather, I think what the show is (perhaps unintentionally) doing is demonstrating just how profoundly masculine our vision of the Wild West is. When we think of stories set in the Wild West, they are always stories of masculine violence: men seeking violent revenge on the bad guy who killed their family, men coming to town and violently protecting the defenseless residents from bandits or other villains, men drifting from town to town until they find the woman who gets them to stay and make a stand. With a few exceptions, the stories we (or rather Hollywood) choose to tell are overwhelmingly about (mostly white) men doing traditionally masculine things and saving the day.

Occasionally we get a movie about Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley, who are chiefly interesting because they act like men; they can shoot guns and ride horses well. We don’t tell a lot of stories about the female bandits like Pearl Hart or Belle Starr. Hollywood mostly bowdlerizes the rare story about Western madams or prostitutes like Poker Alice, making them into mostly sexless ‘hookers with hearts of gold’. Little House on the Prairie purported to tell the story of pioneer woman and prot0-libertarian crank Laura Ingalls Wilder, but presented her in a traditionally domestic role that rarely acknowledged the grueling physical hardships and social isolation that pioneer women struggled with. Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge the more deviant figures like the cross-dressing Charley Parkhurst, who lived as a man and drove stagecoaches for a living, or Cathay Williams, who served two years as a Buffalo Soldier under the name William Cathay after having fought in the Civil War. Black women like Williams are particularly invisible in our popular memories of the Old West.

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Cathay Williams

Westworld, however, isn’t so much ignoring the highly sexist nature of Wild West mythology  as meditating on it. I said earlier that the show isn’t just indulging the HBO formula of violence and sex, in part because there’s very little actual sex shown on-screen. Logan indulges himself with a couple of prostitutes and in a later episode he, William, and Dolores discover a massive orgy. That’s it so far over 5 episodes, when that would be about half an episode’s worth of sex on Game of Thrones. And while the hosts are frequently shown nude, as the park staff repair or reprogram them, the nudity acts not to sexualize them but to highlight their profound vulnerability to the staff’s manipulation.

With the sex considerably downplayed, the show is about violence. But it’s not just about letting us watch violence for titillation and shock. The show seems to be developing a critique about the effects of violence. Logan and William are offering us a story about the corrupting power of violence, while Dolores and Maeve both flash back to earlier ‘lives’ that ended in terrifying violence. They struggle to understand the effects of violence on their existence, a violence that matters even though they cannot clearly remember it. The original Westworld was a parable about the dangers of hedonism coming home to roost, and the new series seems determined to explore that in a far more intelligent and thought-provoking way than Game of Thrones ever has. Violence, the show seems to be saying, always has consequences, even in a place where violence isn’t supposed to have consequences.

 

 

 

 

Robin Hood: The Magna Carta

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In most Robin Hood movies, John is a bad guy because he’s A) hoping to usurp the throne from his older brother King Richard and B) collecting taxes, which is always an evil thing to do in movies. But Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott) takes a totally different approach. The first part of the movie deals with the totally legitimate transfer of the crown from the now-dead Richard to John (Oscar Isaac). John isn’t trying to usurp anything’ he’s the lawful king. And while John wants taxes, his attempts to collect the taxes aren’t really the problem. The problem is that the villainous Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) is abusing the authority John gave him because he wants to stir up a rebellion against John. So the film abandons the two standard-issue Bad King stuff that Johns in these movies do. As a result, it has to find other ways to make John a Bad King, as Sellars and Yeatman would put it.

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At the start of the film, John’s being a dick. His mother Eleanor discovers his wife Isabel of Gloucester standing outside his bedroom. She’s locked out because John is cavorting inside with Isabella of Angouleme (Léa Seydoux), the niece of his rival King Philip of France. He decides to divorce Isabel so he can marry Isabella. And in fact John did ditch Isabel just after his accession to the throne in favor of Isabella. This plotline, if we want to grace it with such a term, doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just there to signal that John’s a Douchebag with a Crown, even before he has the crown part.

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King John

Then he starts getting demanding about tax money, and sends Godfrey off to collect some. But the film gets John’s financial situation all wrong. In the film, he just seems to want lots of money because the government is expensive to run. The reality is a lot messier. John’s financial problem most stemmed from the loss of Normandy to Philip in 1204. He spent the rest of his reign trying to raise the money to finance efforts to recover Normandy. So John was, in fact, trying to recover part of his rightful inheritance that had been confiscated from him.

John’s strategy for raising money had comparatively little to do with taxation, and everything to do with what historians term ‘feudal dues’. As King of England, John was the feudal lord of the English nobility; they held land from him as fiefs, and that gave them obligations to him. These obligations were widely acknowledged, but not really codified. Among the rights that it was universally acknowledged a king had over his vassals were

The right to control the remarriage of a vassal’s widow, or alternately the right to charge her a fee to be free from that control

The right to take a vassal’s orphaned minor heirs into wardship, which allowed him to draw revenues from their fiefs until they were adults

The right to arrange marriages from heirs in wardship

The right to demand a fee (called a relief) when a vassal’s heir took over the fief

The right to demand gifts from his vassals for the marriage of his daughters and the knighting of his sons

The right to demand either 40 days’ military service a year or alternately a cash payment (called scutage) to be free from that service

It needs to be emphasized that these practices were entirely traditional, and in England dated back to the Norman Conquest in the mid-11th century. John’s father and brother had regularly demanded these dues from their vassals, and when John demanded them he had as much right to do so as his predecessors.

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Only a douchebag sits on a throne like that

What John was doing that was problematic was finding ways to use these rights as money-raising devices to help fund a campaign in France. John took advantage of the fact that these dues were only vaguely regulated. It was unclear just how much of a relief a lord could demand from a vassal’s heir, for example, so John charged aggressive reliefs. He ordered his officials to aggressively exploit the fiefs he controlled through wardship, draining money out of them and failing to maintain the properties adequately. He essentially auctioned off the marriages of heiresses and widows, often marrying below their social station (called disparagement). He declared military campaigns, levied scutage, and then cancelled the campaign. These actions were not illegal, but they were distasteful to many of the nobles.

John’s father Henry II had built up royal authority in part by creating a centralized legal system in which plaintiffs paid the crown money to initiate various legal proceedings in royal court. John found various ways to manipulate the legal system to his benefit. Since it was his court, there was nothing illegal about, for example, imposing heaving fines for small offenses, or re-trying a defendant who had been acquitted, or ordering someone imprisoned without a trial. These were all tools that John used to coerce money or obedience out of various subjects.

What offended John’s nobles was not that he was doing these things per se, but rather that he was doing them more than they considered appropriate, and that he was doing these things against them. After nearly a decade of these practices, John’s barons rebelled and seized London. John, working through Archbishop Stephen Langton, negotiated the Magna Carta, an agreement in which John ‘voluntarily’ promised to abide by various enumerated limits. For example, the Magna Carta specifies the amount of money that can be demanded as a relief. It forbids mandatory scutage, the disparagement of widows, and so on. It establishes rules of due process in the legal system and forbids double jeopardy. And it established that if John wished to impose other financial devices, he would have to get the permission of the men who were going to be paying. In other words, if John wanted to impose taxes distinct from the feudal dues, he had to get permission from the tax-payers first. John hadn’t been collecting taxes at all; he was collecting feudal dues and legal fines. But Robin Hood movies translate the issue to modern audiences as taxes because that’s an issue we can understand.

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One of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta

In Ridley Scott’s movie, however, the Magna Carta predates John. It was written by Robin’s stonemason father about 25-30 years earlier, during the reign of Henry II. It wasn’t a practical result of negotiations; it was some sort of political manifesto that articulated Enlightenment ideas about ‘freedom’ and human equality 600 years early. It wasn’t a disagreement about the exploitation of feudal rights; it was an attack on royal authority, viewed as tyranny. Needless to say, this is total Hollywood gibberish. Treating the Magna Carta as a sweeping statement of political rights makes no sense whatsoever and situating it in the reign of Henry II rather than late in John’s reign renders it so devoid of context as to be essentially meaningless.

But the movie does get one thing right. John repudiated Magna Carta the moment he thought he could get away with it, and it remained a dead issue until his infant son Henry III inherited the throne the next year. At his coronation, the infant Henry’s representative swore to adhere to the Magna Carta, thus reviving the arrangement. Subsequent monarchs swore to maintain it, thus embedding it in English legal tradition.

This review was made possible by a generous donation from Lyn R. If you want me to review a specific film, please donate and tell me what movie you’d like me to review, and I’ll do my best to track it down and review it, as long as I think it’s appropriate.

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

Dan Carpenter’s Magna Carta is a good introduction to the document and its interpretation.

Robin Hood: The King is Dead

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Fairly early in Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott), King Richard the Lionhearted (Danny Huston) gets killed by a crossbow bolt during a siege. When Robin (Russell Crowe) tells a royal official about this, the man replies, “The king is dead; long live the king.” The same thing happens when Robin later tells the Queen Mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins, doing a not too bad Katherine Hepburn impersonation). The sentence gets said, and Eleanor immediately moves to put Richard’s crown on her son John’s head.

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“The king is dead; long live the king” is the sort of thing that people say in historical movies occasionally, but no one ever explains what it actually means. The now-standard wording was first used in 1422 in France, but the concept itself dates back further. The phrase encapsulates the legal principle, expressed in French, of le mort saisis le vif, which means “the dead seizes the living”. In this phrase, ‘seizes’ does not refer to grabbing something but rather to seisin, the legal right to possess landed property. The phrase means that the legal title to a property passes from the deceased to the deceased’s living heir at the moment of death. The instant the father dies, his son gains title to his property; there is no period where the property is left legally ownerless.

When applied to a king, the concept of le mort saisis le vif means that the crown and kingdom pass from the dead king to his heir at the moment of death, so that there is never a moment when the kingdom has no king. So the saying is really expressing that “the (old) king is dead; long live the (new) king.”

However, the concept of “the king is dead; long live the king” had not yet been articulated in England in 1199. It was first expressed as a principle in 1272, when Henry III died while his son and heir Edward was out of the country on the 8th Crusade. Fearing a civil war, when Henry died, the Royal Council declared “The throne shall never be empty; the country shall never be without a monarch.”

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Henry III of England

To understand why the Council did this, you only have to look at the previous two centuries of royal successions. In 1066, William the Conqueror took the throne of England by conquest, claiming that he had inherited it from his distant cousin Edward the Confessor and that Harold Godwinson had usurped it. In 1087, William was succeed by his son William II Rufus, even though William had an older son, Robert Curthose. Rufus’ claim, as we’ll see, was based on the fact that William I had not been king of England when Robert was born. The fact that Rufus had Robert in captivity at the time also helped the claim. When Rufus died in a hunting accident (or was it?) in 1100, he was succeeded by his younger brother Henry I.

Henry I’s only legitimate son William Adelin died in a shipwreck in 1120, and Henry spent the last 15 years of his life trying to orchestrate the succession of his daughter Matilda. But when Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized the throne and spent the next two decades fighting first Matilda and then her son Henry. Stephen finally reached a peace deal with Henry that allowed Stephen to stay king on the condition that he disinherit his son in favor of Henry. In 1154, Stephen died and Henry promptly became king as Henry II.

When Henry died in 1189, his son Richard took the throne. When Richard died, his brother John became king. When John died in the middle of a rebellion, his infant son Henry III was crowned, but it was a close thing because so much of the English nobility was hostile to John. So in 1272, when Henry died, in the previous two centuries there had only been one entirely stable father-to-son transmission of the crown (Henry II to Richard I). The Council articulated the principle of le mort saisis le vif to try to clarify the rules around the crown. Edward didn’t have to wait until his coronation to become king, because that event would be months in the future; rather, Edward was already king without knowing it.

Another Problem
Modern Americans tend to assume that monarchy always follows the rule of primogeniture, that the oldest son inherits the crown. But that’s not necessarily true. Many cultures have used other systems to determine who inherits the crown. The ancient Egyptians had no clear rule at all about which son would become pharaoh. Early Germanic society used a rather loose system in which descent from the previous king was only one of several important factors. It was just as important that the new king be a strong military leader, which means that if the old king’s son was a child he would be passed over for some other relative. Perhaps in a few decades he might assert a claim to the throne, but he wasn’t qualified yet because he was simply too young. In early medieval France, there was a strong tendency for a king’s surviving sons to split the kingdom up, so that each one became a king. As a result, the kingdom would fracture into several temporary kingdoms until one branch of the royal family managed to reunify France by conquest.

In the 11th century, French nobility began to embrace the system of primogeniture as a way to prevent the breaking up of family property between multiple sons (which tended to drive the family into poverty over a few generations). The kingdom came to be seen as something that couldn’t be divided, so it should pass to the oldest son. But what about a case like England in 1087? William the Conqueror was king of England, but his oldest son Robert wasn’t heir to the kingdom when he was born because William acquired the kingdom after Robert’s birth. So it made sense to William I that he should divide his property between Robert, who inherited William’s French territories, and Rufus, who got England.

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An even messier issue occurred when Henry II died. Henry had four legitimate sons who had survived to adulthood: Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John. Henry declared his eldest son his heir and had him undergo a coronation ceremony; for that reason the son is often called Henry the Young King. But the Young King died in 1183, while his father was still alive. The system of primogeniture was not yet fully in place. As long as the Young King was alive, there was no disputing that he ought to inherit everything. But now that he was dead, did everything have to pass to Richard, or was there room for Henry to make other arrangements? Ultimately Richard’s political strength compelled Henry to accept Richard as his heir.

But when Richard died, things were murkier. Under normal circumstances, Richard’s heir should have been his younger brother Geoffrey. But Geoffrey had died in 1186, leaving a young son Arthur. Under strict primogeniture, Arthur ought to have inherited from Richard. But Arthur was two generations removed from Henry II, while John was only one generation removed, and the rule of primogeniture was not yet so solidly in place as to exclude John’s claim by proximity to Henry II. Furthermore, Arthur was only twelve years old, while John was an adult.

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In 1190, Richard had designated Arthur was his heir, but as he was dying in 1199, Richard declared John his heir, acknowledging that the boy would not be able to stop John from claiming the throne. The idea that the king had to be a strong military leader still mattered and Arthur clearly wasn’t. But Arthur (or perhaps his mother Constance) wasn’t happy with this. Arthur sought support from King Philip II of France, who played Arthur off against John.

In 1202, when Arthur laid siege to Eleanor, Richard and John’s mother, John caught Arthur’s forces by surprise and took him prisoner. In 1203, Arthur died in captivity under mysterious circumstances. There are various stories of what happened to him. Various stories have him stabbed to death by John and thrown into the river or being starved to death. Either way, John’s claim on the English throne was secure.
So when Robin gives Eleanor Richard’s crown and she promptly puts it on John’s head, Ridley Scott is glossing over a whole lot of details and putting an anachronism in her mouth.

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

If you want to know more about some of the kings mentioned here, David Douglas’ study of William the Conqueror is as old as I am, but still a very good biography, while Frank Barlow has written a nice work on William Rufus. W.L. Warren has written excellent books on Henry II (English Monarchs) and King John (English Monarchs)For Richard, you might look at John Gillingham’s study of Richard I

Robin Hood: A Whole Lotta Plot Going On

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I haven’t been able post in a long while because my husband and I just bought a house and spent most of last month moving and tackling moving-related stuff. But I’ve finally clawed out the time to tackle a movie, namely Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott). Regular reader Lyn R. made a generous donation to the blog and requested that I review it. So Lyn, this is for you, and thank you again from your donation.

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As I’ve already explored, all the evidence points to Robin Hood being a 14th century fictional character rather than a real historical figure. Most Robin Hood films situate the story in the 1190s, at a point when King Richard the Lionhearted is away on crusade. His brother Prince John is making trouble by governing England unjustly and demanding harsh taxation, which forces Robin Hood and his band out of outlaws into resistance against him. Usually, Richard arrives home and puts a stop to John’s hijinks right at the end of the film.

But Ridley Scott’s film follows a very different story. It opens right at the end of Richard’s reign, in 1199. As the film’s prologue text tells us “King Richard the Lion Heart, bankrupt of wealth and glory, is plundering his way back to England after ten years on his crusade. In his army is an archer named Robin Longstride.”

Right away the film is confused about the facts. Richard departed for the Holy Land in 1190, and left for home in 1192. On his way home he was shipwrecked on the Dalmatian coast, wound up falling into the hands of an enemy, and was held for ransom, finally being released in 1194 after a substantial ransom was paid. He returned to his French lands that same year and was back in control of England quickly, although he spent very little time there. So the typical Robin Hood film ends sometimes in 1194 or 1195, after Richard returns to England after his imprisonment.

But in Scott’s telling of the events, Richard (Danny Huston) has apparently spent four years in captivity, based on a comment his mother Eleanor (Eileen Atkins) makes to Prince John (Oscar Isaac), meaning he was released in 1196 and then apparently fought his way westward, plundering as he went, which is total nonsense. By 1199, he still hasn’t gotten to England and is laying siege to Chalus Castle in France. Robin (Russell Crowe) has apparently been in his service the whole time, which raises the question of what Robin was doing while Richard was in prison for 4 years. Were he and the rest of Richard’s army just killing time somewhere in Germany? That seems to be what the film intends, because no one in his army has been home since they left, including Sir Robert Loxley (who is NOT Robin Longstride).

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Robin fighting in the Siege of Chalus

The film loosely follows the actual events of the siege of Chalus, which was a minor castle held by one of Richard’s recalcitrant vassals. During the siege, one of the cooks fires a crossbow bolt and hits Richard, fatally wounding him. (In reality, the injury itself didn’t kill Richard; rather the wound became gangrenous and he died more than a week later in the arms of his mother Eleanor.) So as a result, most of the movie takes place after Richard’s death during the reign of King John (1199-1216). That alone puts the film in a different category from pretty much all other Robin Hood films I can think of. There’s no Richard waiting in the wings to swoop in and stop John and lift Robin Hood’s outlawry.

After Richard dies, Robin and his friends Little John, Will Scarlett, and Alan A’Dayle (a name that makes me violently stabby, because it’s pretending to be the Irish O’Doyle) decide that they are sick of fighting and want to get home to England, so they desert and ride for the English Channel before the cost of a ship’s passage becomes unaffordable.

But unbeknownst to them, King Philip Augustus of France (Jonathan Zaccai) is plotting with Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong), one of John’s henchmen. Not realizing that Richard is dead, they hatch a convoluted plan to ambush and kill Richard and then turn England against the new king John so that Philip can invade and conquer England. This is a stupid plot because a far smarter thing to do would be to capture Richard instead of killing him, and then invade England in Richard’s name, claiming that John is trying to usurp Richard. This is the first, but far from the last, time the film has more plot than it can handle.

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Mark Strong as the villainous Sir Godfrey

But Richard is already dead, and instead Godfrey winds up ambushing Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge), who is taking Richard’s crown back to England. He mortally wounds Loxley but then Robin and his men intervene and drive him off. Loxley makes Robin swear to return his sword to his father Sir Walter (Max von Sydow), and then dies. Instead, Robin decides to impersonate Loxley, I think so that he and his men can get free passage to England. They wind up having to deliver Richard’s crown to London, where Eleanor declares John king and immediately crowns him. (In reality, it wasn’t entirely clear that John was the heir. Maybe I’ll do a post on that later.) John, having instantly become a Douchebag with a Crown, decides that instead of rewarding Robin/Loxley with a ring, he will demand that Robin/Loxley go to Nottingham and get the taxes Sir Walter owes him.

Meanwhile, At Nottingham

Apparently Loxley is the Lord of Nottingham, because Sir Walter lives in a castle there. Nottingham itself is depicted as little more than a manor, with a small village of perhaps 200 people outside the castle and the fields in easy walking distance. It seems to have been a great city at some point because there is a massive ruined archway that characters ride through repeatedly.

In reality, Nottingham was a much more substantial settlement. Already by the 9th century it was of local importance, and by the 1080s it had a population of perhaps 1,500 people, making it by medieval standards a modest-sized town. By 1300, it had maybe 3,000 residents.  Additionally, the castle was just plopped in the middle of some fields, which is a dumb place for a castle because it’s not very defensible; the real Nottingham castle is located on a rocky outcropping above the city. So the film’s depiction of Nottingham is entirely wrong.

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Where is there a ruined archway in the middle of the fields?

Marion (Cate Blanchett) is Loxley’s wife, or rather widow. She is the daughter of some minor knight who for reasons never explained managed to marry Robert Loxley, who is clearly an important figure, since he is the heir to a castle and a close confidant of King Richard. A week after the wedding, Loxley left to join Richard’s forces, and Marion has been living, childless, with Loxley’s blind father Sir Walter. As the semi-evil but largely pointless Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew McFadyen) points out, because she has no children and her husband is thought dead, when Sir Walter dies, she will be penniless because the Crown will claim the castle.

In case you couldn’t guess, THIS IS NOT HOW MEDIEVAL LAW WORKS. As Ranulf de Glanville, the leading English legal scholar of the 12th century lays out in his Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England, when a man marries a women, he is required to give her a dower, property that becomes hers and is intended to support her when she becomes a widow. If Robert did this formally, he would have had to designate a specific property to serve as the dower; if he did not designate a specific property, she automatically gets 1/3 of his property as her dower. The dower property remains in Robert’s hands and out of his wife’s control, but in this case, since he’s out of the country, it would be in Sir Walter’s hands. If Loxley is assumed dead, the dower would now be in Marion’s hands.

Complicating this is the fact that Walter seems to be a vassal of the Crown, although that term is never used. This means that the castle and its manor are probably a fief that Walter holds (enjoys the use of) but doesn’t actually own. When Walter dies, the fief ought to pass to Robert, but if Robert is already dead, it would revert back to the Crown, which still probably has to honor Marion’s status as Robert’s widow and acknowledge whatever dower property she has a claim to. I say probably, because while Robert is the heir, he was never the vassal for the property, so maybe John could be a dick and just ignore Marion’s legal rights. More likely, what John would do is exercise his legal right to control the remarriage of Robert’s widow and sell her marriage to a man who wants to become the new fief-holder. John did that sort thing a good deal during his reign. So Marion would have a problem when Walter dies, because she either has to accept a marriage arranged for her by John or else pay John a sum of money for the right to control her own remarriage. But even if John tries to seize the fief when Walter dies, Marion still gets her dower property and won’t be thrown in a ditch.

And all of this raises the question of why the hell Sir Walter hasn’t remarried to have another son to act as his heir. Apparently he’s surprisingly unconcerned about things like carrying on his family line or taking care of his son’s wife. Given that he was once an extremely important man politically, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

To make matters worse for Marion, there are bandits around Nottingham, and Marion is apparently the only defensive force. She knows how to use a longbow (a century before the English adopted that weapons, but that’s the least of the film’s anachronisms), but despite that, at the start of the film, bandits break into the storehouse and steal all the seed-grain, so Marion has no grain to plant in the fields. The local church has grain that has been tithed to them, but the priest insists that that grain goes to the archbishop of York. Why the archbishop of York should have a claim on the grain from the village church of Nottingham is unexplained, since medieval Nottingham was part of the diocese of Lincoln n the archdiocese of Canterbury, but who knows? Medieval clergy just make up the rules as they go, remember?

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Cate Blanchett as Maid, err Wife Marion

Enter Robin

Robin and his men show up as themselves, having apparently forgotten that Robin is supposed to be pretending to be Robert to get John’s taxes. Robin turns over the sword and tells Walter and Marion that Robert is dead, but Walter promptly proposes that Robin pull a Martin Guerre and pretend to be Robert. In exchange he will give Robin the family sword.

Are you starting to notice that this film has way too much plot? The film gives Robin not one but two different bouts of pretending to be Robert Loxley. Godfrey has tricked John into allowing him to rampage around England collecting taxes in a brutal fashion in order to incite the barons of England against John. And Philip’s troops have snuck into England to help Godfrey. But William Marshall (William Hurt) has warned Eleanor about what’s going on, and Eleanor convinces John’s wife, Isabella of Angouleme (Léa Seydoux) who is Philip’s niece, to warn John of what’s going on so John can stop it. But John’s a Douchebag with a Crown and doesn’t want to negotiate with his barons. And meanwhile, Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and Robin/Loxley orchestrate the theft of the church’s grain when it is being shipped to York, and then they sow the grain in the middle of the night.

But Wait, There’s More!

As it turns out, Sir Walter knew Robin’s father. How he connects the two men is unclear, given that he can’t see and Robin’s father has been dead since Robin was a little boy (he only has faint memories of the man). Apparently the connection is that both were called ‘Longstride’, because the movie mistakenly thinks that people had hereditary last names in the 12th century.

Spurred on by a clue written on the sword’s hilt, Sir Walter tells Robin that his father was a mason who built a monumental cross in Nottingham. But he was also a political revolutionary who wrote a charter of liberties for a group of barons, the same group who are now rebelling. Why a common stonemason would be able to write or to lead a group of nobles is never explained, and is pretty silly. But it turns out that Longstride Sr anticipated the Magna Carta by about half a century, since he seems to have been active in the 1160s or 70s. Sir William now has the charter, and he sends Robin off to the meeting of the barons and John. So Robin/Loxley proposes that John accept a charter of liberties that will establish equality so that John can be stronger because the people will love him, because 12th century Englishmen think just like 21st century Americans. John agrees and the barons call off the rebellion just in time for Robin/Loxley to lead their troops to rescue Nottingham from Godfrey’s men, who are plundering the village, killing Sir Walter, trying to burn people alive and trying to rape Marion.

When that’s done with, the film still isn’t over. Robin/Loxley leads everybody, including the bandits and Marion and Tuck, halfway across England to Dover, where King Philip’s troops are trying to stage the most absurd amphibious landing in cinematic history. Robin and Marion both suddenly discover that they know how to fight with swords from horseback, so they lead a charge on the beach and foil Philip’s invasion and force him back to France, and everyone lives happily ever after except that John is Douchebag with a Crown and burns the Magna Carta and outlaws Robin Loxley aka Robin of the Hood (cuz apparently Nottingham is in the Inner City) and that’s how Robin Hood became a bandit and almost established American democracy in 1199.

There’s a lot for me to comment on here, so we’ll be dining out on this movie for several blog posts.

This post was made possible by a generous donation. If you have a movie you particularly want me to review, if you make a donation and tell me what film you want me to review, I’ll do at least one post on the film, assuming A) I can get access to the film somehow and B) I think it’s appropriate for the blog. (If there’s an issue, I’ll let you pick another movie.)

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

If you want to know more about Robin Hood, the place to start is J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood (Third Edition). It’s a really good exploration of the historical issues with the Robin Hood legend. But if you want to dig a little further, take a look at Maurice Keen’s The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, which discusses Robin Hood as well as several other real and folkloric outlaws.