Saturday, 19 June 2010

Robin Hood and the importance of Genre

The new Robin Hood film is out by now, and I don't know why but I really don't want to see it. On the face of it, it looks like the kind of film I like; Big epic scenery, questy things, gigantic battles etc. The Prince of Persia film (which seems similar) I really do want to see, but somehow the very idea of going to Robin Hood makes me cringe a little.

Probably because every time someone says "Robin Hood" this is what I see in my head:

We're men, menly men, men in tights, tight tights!

Robin Hood has had the piss taken out of him so many times that you simply can't do a serious version any more. Not unless it's really, really good. To get Robin Hood taken seriously you need amazing action, Godfather-style drama, and a quick gripping pace. Which I'm not convinced Russel Crowe's version has. If it's not careful it'll just be a montage of scenes which have already been parodied interspersed with Monty Python Moments and the occasional Blackadder joke.

I think half way through watching the trailer for the third time I finally twigged why it wasn't grabbing me. It's not a fantasy epic. It's trying to be a fantasy epic, it's trying so hard it hurts but it isn't, it just isn't. It's historical fiction.

I'm all for breaking down previously defined boundries, but when it comes to genre some of those boundries are there for a reason. You can have thousands of evil foe being slaughtered to the accompaniment of a cackling evil overlord in fantasy because none if it is real. It's escapism. But you can't get away with that in historical fiction because everyone actually exists (or existed). There are no minions in Historical fiction (although you can get pretty close with Nazis) each dead enemy is a person with hopes, dreams, families and ideologies of their own.

The other problem that comes across is with the way of thinking. In fantasy your heros can have whichever moral leanings they want (such as in the rather hilarious case of Mal in Firefly, who happily kills people but is so utterly anti-slavery). In Historical fiction they are bound by the thoughts of the time, which means when you get Robin Hood standing up and vowing to fight for freedom, truth, justice, womens rights, anti-communism, and the American Way it all looks a tad contrived.

Historical films do not stand and fall on their battle and action sequences, they succeed on strength of character, plot and drama. Gladiator was a political intrigue with awesome acting, very memorable character scenes and Joaquin Phoenix. It was not 'epic' in the sense that it didn't rely on sweeping panoramas or battle scenes to exist. It had sweeping panoramas, of the awesome kind, but it didn't use them as a prop, just to help you sink into the atmosphere created by the narrative. The battles were close and personal and not gratuitous. The action was tight and slick and there was the occasional speech but none of the speeches sounded contrived. It was Historical Drama with a touch of the epic thrown in and it worked.

Robin Hood is a fantasy epic set in Medieval England. I'm not convinced it will work.

Also people are getting more cynical about heros nowadays; random strong-men just turning up, killing people and then talking about justice don't hack it the way it used to. People point out the families of the henchmen, the dubious moral double-standards (Stargate is the best for those). The more recent Star Wars episodes were laced with politics and moral messages, because young lads from the desert flying planes into large state-owned structures based on their own hokey religions just doesn't make such a good story as it used too. Robin Hood is hard enough as a hero anyway, given that he's no more than a glorified thug in a green hoody, and King Richard is hardly the epitome of goodness given that his illegal war in the middle east is the reason his brother keeps hiking the taxes up.

Robin Hood is the guy in the background. And King Richard is the guy in the front. And Nick Clegg is the Sheriff of Nottingham :p

It's very hard, while watching the trailer, to convince yourself that you're not watching Lord of the Rings. There are mistreated peasants being chased by human-looking Uruk Hai, and that obligatory bit where lots of people get mercilessly killed for no particular reason other than to show that the bad guy really is bad. There's a Woman In Armour (TM), Nazgul-type-things in cloaks, very atmospheric woods, the only difference is that the sweeping panoramas are several times more boring because it's England rather than New Zealand.

I can't help thinking though, that if they'd set it in Generic-Fantasy-Olde-England and made it about some guy called Jack Cloak fighting evil King Mark whilst secretly supporting Mark's older brother who was fighting the Romulans or whatever I might be able to enjoy it. That would be pure fantasy escapism, with very little associated moral worries (like - if King Richard is all that good why is he taxing people dry to invade a country that isn't his and try to get all the inhabitants to convert to his religion?) You also wouldn't be worried about all the historical inaccuracies, or be sniggering every time someone inadvertently invokes a Holy Grail joke ("help, help I'm bein' repressed!") because the whole setting is made up and rather ridiculous. You can just enjoy.

I'd appreciate the thoughts of anyone whose actually seen it though. Was it that bad? Or did it manage a passably good story?