Brian Helgeland, Magna Carta, Medieval England, Medieval Europe, Paul Webb, Ridley Scott, Robert of Thornham, Robin Hood, Russell Crowe, Tom Stoppard
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.
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 Marion. 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.
The script became a hot commodity in Hollywood, and a bidding war broke out for it. Eventually, 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.
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.
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.
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.