Monday, May 17, 2010

Great Scott!

My wife and I watched the new Ridley Scott film Robin Hood featuring a star-studded ensemble cast and plenty of medieval violence.  I have a few rules when it comes to selecting and viewing a movie.  If it contains vampires or zombies or men in tights, I'm out.  Robin Hood wouldn't usually tickle my fancy, what with self-righteous dandies like Errol Flynn and Kevin Costner prancing around; they might hold the ladies' interest but do nothing for me.  This portrayal of Robin Hood is different.  Scott is my favorite director of all time, hands down.   His work speaks for itself: Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Hannibal, 1492, Gladiator, American Gangster, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven.  Need I say more?

Scott's Robin Hood gives us the historical backdrop.  We learn that Robin Hood has a name and a past, Robin Longstride whose father became a martyr against tyranny; and we see him at the outset of the film as an archer in Richard the Lionheart's army as it returns from the Third Crusade.  Often Robin Hood stories depict the latter as a righteous (absentee) king, but the historical facts state otherwise and the film addresses this history.  Richard I, brilliantly portrayed by Danny Huston, was a spendthrift who emptied the realm's coffers for his vainglorious exploits abroad.  The Holy Roman Emperor held him as a captive until his family paid a healthy ransom for his return.  He died rather ignominiously while storming a castle in France.  Scott and the screenwriters convey their own feeling about the king's martial prowess when in one poignant scene Robin Longstride informs King Richard that his slaughter of innocent Muslims in the Holy Land will gain him no favor with God.

William Hurt and Max von Sydow play barons whose opposition to King John's wicked reign would lay the foundation for the Magna Carta of 1215.  Historians point to this document as the cornerstone of democracy, even if they're just as quick to remind us that the barons were simply looking out for their own interests and cared not a wit for commoners and peasants.  At any rate, I got goose bumps just thinking about the "charter" mentioned throughout the film, and Scott's sense of history and drama are at work here.  Moreover, there's a twist at the end.  You think King John is going to sign the thing, but he defiantly burns it before the aghast onlookers, thereby setting up another fifteen years of struggle for basic freedoms and perhaps a sequel to the movie as well.

We of course get the stock characters from the Robin Hood saga—Maid Marian, Little John, Father Tuck, and the Sheriff of Nottingham—but with greater character depth.  Above all, we see Robin Hood (who doesn't really receive this epithet until the end of the film) in a larger political context, with the collection of taxes, divine right theory of kingship, a would-be French invasion, and the grime and filth of daily living providing the cold realties of 12th-century England.  I would like to single out two of the supporting cast: the 6'6" Kevin Durand who plays Little John and the ubiquitous bald-headed Mark Stone, likewise tall, who seems to play the villain in every quality movie these days.  These actors have quite a stage presence.

From what I can gather from the internet and DVD special features, Scott possesses the attributes that I value in anyone and that no doubt make him an exceptional director.  His attention to detail and high standards are notorious.  I read somewhere that some of his favorite movies include Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai, great flicks noted for their historical detail.  He oversees every aspect of the film from the props to the music.  Hans Zimmer often writes the score for Scott's films in close coordination with the director.  Scott and his cinematographers have the ability to encapsulate a larger complex issue in only a brief scene.  I think of a 40-second scene in Black Hawk Down which gives extra perspective on the coming battle of Mogadishu later in the day.  An aerial camera zooms in on a muezzin atop a minaret while mujahideen below pray on the beach with their Kalashnikov rifles before a spectacular rising sun.

I even appreciate those times when Scott's making a statement, as mentioned above when Robin Hood tells the king of his misdeeds during his Crusade; I wouldn't extend this appreciation to other directors.  Another instance is in Kingdom of Heaven, an epic likewise set during the Third Crusade. Scott wants to give Muslims a fair shake.  Saladin is a noble character and unlike his Christian counterparts is quite merciful.  True, Scott might have gone too far in depicting all Christians as greedy and rapacious, but I still appreciate the corrective.  Balian, the main character played by Orlando Bloom, evinces the same agnostic outlook as Scott.  Who knew?

The teaming up of Scott and Russell Crowe is a match made in cinematic heaven, as far as I'm concerned.  They've collaborated on five films, and I've seen three of them to date.  When I saw Gladiator some ten years ago I didn't know who Crowe was.  My sister recommended the film to me, but ancient Rome on the big screen evoked images of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, cheesy outfits, and exaggerated Shakespearian mannerisms.  Like many other viewers (especially male, I suspect), the movie was fantastic from beginning to end and it contains one of the most memorable and inspiring statements in recent cinematic history ("My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius...").  Notwithstanding a few liberties in the opening battle sequence, including the use of Korean bows and English long bows, these twenty minutes are vintage Scott in terms of cinematography, music, drama, and historical gravitas.  Both General Maximus and the actor who portrays him are in their finest hour.

With Alien and Blade Runner Scott set the bar to a higher level.  He masterfully weaved the sci-fi, political thriller and horror genres together.  Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, say, he brought a street-level reality to space.  The future is no less grimy and seedy than the present.  Also, these films give us a Scott trademark: strong female characters.  Likewise, Robin Hood presents us with a Marian wielding a sword and girded for battle.  By the way, another distinctive feature of Scott's work the omission of a sex scene.  He was once said that sex is boring unless you're doing it, or something to this effect.  Admittedly more of a romantic type, I appreciate leaving this sort of thing to the viewer's imagination.

I'm a big fan of the Hannibal Lecter franchise.  Silence of the Lambs and the sequel Hannibal are both great movies.  Some devoted fans might argue that the latter doesn't equal the former, but I say they're apples and oranges.  It takes a top-notch and imaginative director to make a sequel commensurate with the original.  Likewise, James Cameron's follow-up to Scott's Alien, Aliens, manages to do this more or less.  (Incidentally, it seems that Cameron and Scott exhibit the same dedication to their craft, personality quirks, and, gauging from their names, ethnic background.)

I still hope Scott will someday take on the Thirty Years War in typical Scott-fashion.  I understand that there are a number of great directors out there.  (Scott is the most successful British director in Hollywood history, I should note.)  Picking a favorite inevitably has something to do with the type of movies we like.  Scott has become a master in recreating large-scale battle sequences, but his repertoire is quite diverse.  When he directs or produces a film, pay attention.  It'll probably be good.  He knows how to draw the viewer into the world of the movie as if you're experiencing the drama yourself.  After watching Robin Hood, I just wanted to shoot the shit with Father Tuck as we poured each other a goblet or two of mead and got blinded out of our minds.