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Crowe and arrow: He's the latest to play Robin Hood

A cross-dressing Marxist? Che Guevara with a bow and arrow? The leader of an all-male socialist collective squatting rent-free in the prime real estate of Sherwood Forest? From a certain perspective, it's hard to imagine how Robin Hood never became a villain, rather than one of the more resilient heroes in Western culture.

But when Ridley Scott's new "Robin Hood" opens Friday, it will mark nearly two dozen times since 1912 - when a silent movie version of the Robin of Loxley legend was produced in Fort Lee, N.J. - that the age-old story will hit the screen. Forsooth: How Merry will be the Men?

Russell Crowe has been cast as Robin, so a certain, shall we say, intensity seems inevitable (the film was not being screened for press at the time of this writing). Cate Blanchett is Maid Marion; Mark Strong plays the evil Sir Godfrey; Oscar Isaac is the throne-usurping Prince John, and the eminent English actress Eileen Atkins is Eleanor of Aquitaine (historically, the mother of both Prince John and Richard the Lionheart, played by Danny Huston).

While there's been some confusion swirling about the plot - Robin, back from the Crusades, actually pulls a shift as the Sheriff of Nottingham before heading back to the woods - the basic themes remain the same. Except Robin doesn't wear tights.

And those themes have permeated Western narrative so completely that we barely see them, any more than we notice all those star-crossed lovers who can be traced back to Shakespeare, or all those tragic egomaniacs who are rooted in the Greek. Crowe's Robin Hood, like every other modern version, will be all about fighting corruption, stealing from the rich to give to the poor and otherwise defying a modern political agenda. What distinguishes one Robin Hood from another is in the narrative tweaks - Kevin Costner's being a Malibu-inflected veteran of the Third Crusade, for instance (1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), or being hilarious (1993's "Robin Hood: Men in Tights"). 

In like Flynn

While the roots of any real-life Robin Hood are shrouded in historical mist - he's mentioned in the 14th century poem "Piers Plowman," and actual Robin Hood narratives date to the early 16th century - the iconic Hollywood version remains "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), starring Errol Flynn at his most heroic, audacious and charismatic.

It's through this version, directed by Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca"), that the various myths and legends sort of coalesce: The crusading King Richard (Ian Hunter) is a captive of the Moors; his brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), seizes the English throne with the complicity of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (the dithering Melville Cooper). Maid Marian - a late-inning addition to the Robin Hood mythology - is played by Olivia de Havilland, and an all-star lineup of Hollywood "types" (Eugene Pallette, Una O'Connor, Alan Hale) make up the medieval supporting cast, clad in lushness and Technicolor.

It's not insignificant, either, that the 1938 film gives voice to the anticlerical sentiments so evident in the mythology: The Bishop of the Black Canons (Montagu Love) is pure evil, while the Merry Men's hard-drinking, hard-eating and rather lapsed Catholic chaplain, Friar Tuck (Pallette), is the picture of gravelly goodness.

Robbing from the rich

It's not as if Robin Hood and his fight-the-power mythos invented the David-and-Goliath-style narrative - that goes back to the Old Testament and, yes, David and Goliath. Hood is, however, the progenitor of the theme of the aristocratic, highborn or empowered character who enlists in the cause of the lowly and oppressed (there are a thousand examples, "Avatar" being just one of them). And he does own the franchise - via the Curtiz movie, if not the original narrative - of the conceit involving a team of specialists brought together by a common cause to fight an injustice.

The characters are always archetypal: When Disney made its animated 1973 version, "Robin Hood," Robin was a fox (so was Marian, to pre-empt any scurrilous accusations of interspecies dating), Little John was a bear and King Richard was a lion. You see a variation of the same idea pop up in Japan via "The Seven Samurai," and its Hollywood knockoff, "The Magnificent Seven" (directed by John Sturges, who brought a similar idea to "The Great Escape"). It's "The Dirty Dozen," and "The A-Team." It's a device, but one that casts an appealingly fantastical light on a very basic democratic ideal - that there is power in numbers, and that by unifying the many and diverse, justice might be achieved.

Robin Hood is English by birth - as are Scott and cast members Atkins, Strong, Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Matthew Macfadyen (Sheriff of Nottingham) and Douglas Hodge, who plays Robert of Loxley. (Crowe and Blanchett are Australian.) By virtue of virtue, however, Robin Hood is American: Democracy. Diversity. Defiance of unlawful power. We like him. He's us. Every few years, a filmmaker gives us an opportunity to watch a bunch of sword fights, and to say hello to ourselves.

Was John really a royal pain?

The requirements for making any Robin Hood movie include bows and arrows, sword fights, castles, moats, anachronistic pronouncements about democracy and, of course, an evil Prince John: After all, the story needs someone to seize the throne of England in King Richard's absence, tax the nobles, oppress the commoners and give Robin a reason to rebel.

In actuality, John was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (see "The Lion in Winter"), occupied the throne for years after the death of his brother, Richard, and signed the Magna Carta (albeit, under duress). In the new "Robin Hood," he's played by Oscar Isaac ("Body of Lies"), who said he tried to get beyond the cliches that have long surrounded this controversial, if not entirely failed, medieval monarch.

"I did a lot of research," Isaac said, "and John never catches a break. He's got this reputation of the most horrible king of all time, but you know, his brother went off to fight the Crusades and left behind a bankrupt country. There was no money. John had to enforce this intense taxation, but he didn't have a lot of choice."

He said that while the "Robin Hood" characters remain archetypal, and the movie's strictly an adventure, he was as interested in fleshing out Prince John as Ridley Scott was in re-creating the gritty detail of 12th century English life.

"What I tried to do was understand he had the reputation as the worst king of all time," Isaac said, "get inside his point of view and make a case for it. It was a challenge."

So was the action, and not just the stuff involving men in tights. One scene involved the great Eileen Atkins, who plays John's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (the same character Katharine Hepburn played in "The Lion in Winter"), slapping Isaac's face. "We did it so many times, and she hit me so hard," the actor said, "that her hand was swollen, and I needed makeup to cover my red nose. There's a reason she's a dame."

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