On Labor Day this Monday, a local television station broadcast a marathon of the appallingly bad BBC series “Robin Hood”. Neither historically accurate nor well-written, it is hard to believe that this travesty of a program managed to last three seasons on British television. However it allows us the opportunity to consider how we are treating our mythical heroes in the culture, and whether we ought to be more circumspect in our patronage of entertainments featuring them.
It was apparent that things were going to be very bad indeed when Maid Marian appeared, with a Katy Perry haircut and makeup, wearing trousers and spending her nights fighting what in this country we would call “the man”, as a kind of female version of Zorro. Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played by Richard Armitage – whom I genuinely like in his other work, such as “Spooks” – wears more black leather than a Hell’s Angel, and has little to do but look shiftily out of the corners of his eyes, posing no real threat to anyone. One of the most laughable sequences involving these two characters takes place in a chapel, where they are about to be married, before Robin swoops in. On the altar stands what is clearly a standard 19th or 20th century Protestant, brass altar cross with no corpus, like you might see in any Episcopal or Lutheran church. And there are no reredos, statues, or any other decoration, despite this being the very Catholic 12th century in England.
The entire series is punctuated with some of the most anachronistic characterizations you can imagine. The Sheriff of Nottingham, for example, is portrayed as an incredibly camp middle-aged man, with an insatiable fondness for young men, which seems particularly surprising coming from the BBC. One wonders why the left accuses conservatives of characterizing homosexuals in this fashion, when they are the ones making all of the films with this sort of stereotype. Then there is a woman of indeterminate ethnic origin in Robin Hood’s band of merry “men”, who is supposedly a devout Muslim but uses a man’s name, sports a pixie haircut, and wears men’s clothes, all of which would probably get her stoned to death – not to mention that she wears eye makeup so heavy that it is hard to believe she could pass for a man whenever she goes out in public.
Worst of all is Robin himself, played by what I can only describe as someone who evokes the word “chav” rather than “chivalry”. This is not the aristocratic Robin of Locksley, who fights the Saracens and remains loyal to King Richard in the hope of one day regaining his lands and re-establishing the rule of law and order in Britain, but rather some sort of moppet, who today would be down on Piccadilly in a dirty Burberry anorak coordinating the smashing the windows at Fortnum’s via his iPhone. He is an air-headed, Banksy-style faux-anarchist, whose parents spared the rod and spoiled the child, creating someone with no real intelligence who spouts leftist platitudes. Perhaps the most eye-rolling bit of dialogue this Robin Hood utters in the series is when he explains that he became disillusioned with the Crusades because he realized that the Holy Land was holy to Jews and Muslims as well. True as that is historically, the real Robin of Locksley would have had a boot up this fellow’s backside before he had finished his sentence.
It would have been very easy to turn this blog piece into a hatchet job on how this telling of “Robin Hood” is an all-too-indicative reflection of how low Britain has fallen as a nation, at least in its own estimation. Yet although those of us on this side of the pond do not have centuries of legendary figures upon which to draw to create popular mythology, we are not far behind the cousins in destroying our own, more modern myths. For example, the comic book characters of Superman, Captain America, and Spiderman, among others, have all been “killed off” of late, later to be resurrected with different, flawed personalities, or in the person of completely different individuals. And recently, the increasingly bizarre George Lucas announced that he would be releasing a new version of “Return of the Jedi” in which Darth Vader will utter a “No!” cry of regret not once, but twice in the scene where he finally kills Emperor Palpatine and saves his son.
These things matter, not because a remake or reinterpretation is by definition a bad thing, but because we use such works of mythology to inspire our children to imagine doing heroic things. Particularly for boys, the idea of being a hero of some sort is intrinsic, even if it is abandoned later on. So many of us when we were small were drawn to the idea of being a policeman, fireman, or doctor, because we wanted to save people and do dangerous, exciting things. We imagined being kings, knights, or wizards fighting monsters and evil invaders, with no thought to personal socio-political considerations about the interrelationship between different cultures. And after all, what are sports like football and so on but an organized way for boys to safely battle for their neighborhood, village, etc., just as they would have done in the Middle Ages, except with sports equipment rather than weapons.
When we water down and cheapen the message of heroism, we end up with the Robin Hood that is shown to us by the BBC. An eternal adolescent, incapable of becoming a man, he talks about saving the world, but he is really inherently selfish, and concerned with satisfying his own needs at the expense of others, just as much as if he was the shameless materialist he claims to despise. It is truly an embarrassment to the British people that this is how their broadcasting system wants them and the world to see this figure from their mythology, but of course we ourselves ought to be careful not to be supporting entertainment that does the same thing.
If you have children who want to learn about Robin Hood, show them the stunning Technicolor version from 1938 starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Haviland, and Basil Rathbone: great actors all, and all of whom understood their roles in the legend far better than the sad display which the BBC managed to throw together. Despite being as old a work of cinema as it is, do not dismiss it because of its age, but embrace its shamelessly traditional telling of the story, and seek out films like it. One of the great benefits of modern technology is that you can take advantage of archival preservation and restoration to remind your children, and indeed yourself, of the virtues of our culture using the materials that inspired our grandparents, rather than the Baby Boomer travesties that tend to flood our screens and bookshelves in the present day.