In the realm of pop culture analysis, like with most things, a lot of attention is given to few, and little attention is given to most. There are countless analyses of The Shining, ranging from ruminations on cinematography and set-design to theories about its depiction of Native Americans and its links to the moon landing, but there are zero of such hefty examinations of any of the last forty copy-paste, mid-budget, action-shlock Bruce-Willis-movies. This, of course, is quite natural; it’s far more interesting to examine well-put-together pieces of art than those stitched together with neither care nor love. Still, I believe even broken clocks are right twice a day, and that the mindless middle of culture can say as much as its soaring peaks. While I can’t change the fact that good movies get more attention than mediocre ones, nor do I want to, I do think that, once in a while, a bland piece of cinema can provoke a genuinely interesting conversation. The sheer surprise of finding something worthwhile in the drab mud of a middling action movie is a well-known pleasure to all those who love turning their brains off for a few hours while watching things unnecessarily blow up, like myself.
To get the ball rolling, or just to push it a few inches before abandoning it again, I will examine the 2018 incarnation of Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst and written by Ben Chandler and David James Kelly. This isn’t a good movie, it is entertaining in some parts, boring in most, and frankly, quite ugly. While the premise ‘John Wick with arrows’ sounds quite alright, the lack of interesting characters, engaging plotlines, or well-thought-out set-pieces doomed this movie to become the flop it ultimately became. Nevertheless, sifting through the movie’s lifeless colors and the meaningless quippy dialogue any post Marvel’s Avenger movie is doomed to have, something truly spectacular can be found hidden among the muck of this film.
If you’ve seen this film, and I am assuming you haven’t, you might think this diamond in the rough, this bright star in the mat black sky of the film, is its blatant Communistic message. The pure and intense clarity of this film’s politics is initially shocking (Robin Hood triumphantly shouts “I’m guessing you’d be up for a little redistribution of wealth?” to inspire the working class to break their chains and eat the rich) and its obvious hate for religion (the villains are higher ups of the church who giggle about inventing hell to suppress the rabble) is interesting in its own right, but it is far from really thought provoking. While the novelty of a hundred-million dollar Hollywood movie praising the virtues of Marxist philosophy is surely a fun one, the paradoxical nature of such a product quickly renders it meaningless.
No, the true standout feature of the film is the visual language it deploys during the crusade-scenes. Robin of Loxley, the movie’s titular hero, is drafted into the third crusade, also known as the King’s Crusade, by the Sheriff of Nottingham in a ploy to seize his lands. We immediately cut to Loxley, 4 years later, dressed in tattered rags sloppily draped over his tense body, eyes flitting from street corner to street corner in the Kebrit Peninsula of Arabia. What follows is, at first glance, a deeply ridiculous action scene. Loxley and his brothers in arms are ambushed by Saracen (Muslim) forces, who, using guerilla tactics, slaughter them. The historical accuracy of this scene is laughable, until you realize what it is trying to do. Rather than synchronically viewing the crusades, it views them, with the benefit of hindsight, almost a thousand years later, diachronically. This is one of the cleverest things I’ve seen a film do, period. Allow me to explain.
The film’s opening set piece isn’t an accurate depiction of what the crusades were like, nor is it trying to be, rather, it views these violent Christian voyages within the context of modernity. From the first Crusade in 1096 to the Gulf War, from the King’s Crusade to being dubbed ‘the graveyard of empires’, the Middle East has been in perpetual war with the Christian West for nearly a thousand years. Still, the fighting continues to this day. The film portrays this harrowing fact in a staggeringly brilliant way, by relying on the audience’s prior knowledge of the visual language Middle-Eastern war films.
After the immense success of The Hurtlocker and many films like it, depictions of the modern war in the Middle East developed their own unique visual language, like Westerns and Vietnam films had done before it: A perpetual beige tone covers the screen at all time, like the sandstorms raging over the bloodied deserts these films overdramatically show; cameras swinging wildly from rooftop to rooftop, like the uneasy gaze of the soldiers below scanning for the glint of a sniperscope; harsh closeups of the actors, reddened and muddied, breathing sporadically, pinned down behind a wall slowly crumbling to pieces under a barrage of gunfire. Anybody who even passively follows movies knows this style, even if only subconsciously. So when this exact type of filmmaking is used for scenes during a crusade, you notice it.
Here, in Robin Hood, the m16’s and Kalashnikovs are traded in for longbows; the narrow alleys of Bagdad become the slim streets of Jerusalem’s outskirts; the obligatory scene of soldiers pinned down by a mini-gun-turret, is replaced with the knights begging for ‘cover’ hiding from a multi-arrow-ballista, which acts suspiciously like a modern day sub-machine gun; the bombing-run/drone-strike sequence is replaced by the commander signaling the ‘stone-throwers’ to bombard the city with catapults. The camera pans and whips from side to side according to the tenants of the gritty action-genre it is imitating, the colors are consistently ugly and light-brown. The whole scene is so obviously a spoof of modern action movies, it boggles my mind how many reviews I stumbled across ridiculing the scene for its unrealistic elements. Of course it’s unrealistic; it is drawing the audience’s attention towards the fact that the wars depicted in those action films full of car bombs and sniper-duels that have normalized the Middle-Eastern conflict to the point of banality have been going on for hundreds of years, and will continue to rage on for a long, long time. All Western ‘peacekeeping’ missions to the region are just the latest instances of bloodshed in a long, long, long history of Christians going to where they don’t belong based on lies of power-hungry politicians. Young men like those now bleeding to death in that faraway sand, have been bleeding there for the last thousand years. Death perpetuating death, perpetuating more death for a thousand years. This is nothing new, nothing special, but just as horribly tragic as it was in 1189, when Robin Hood is set.
Robin Hood conveys this message: the holistic view grimly shows the prevailing cruelty of the West in the East, not through some painfully obvious voice-over asking the audience ‘what in God’s name have we done?’, or meekly stating the question ‘are we the bad guys?’ while showing muscled men smugly handling their phallic machine guns. No, it portrays this truth through a respect for the audience by trusting viewers to be aware of other Middle Eastern war films, and by allowing them to think for themselves.
This stroke of brilliance was lost on nearly everybody because of the bland, forgettable film surrounding it. Fair enough. But still, I hope people start to analyze the middle-of-road with the same attention they do the masterpieces, even if it is just once in a blue moon. In my experience, no matter how ‘meh’ movies get, somewhere in their production there is always someone who cares deeply for the art, if not the product. By judging the movie as a whole we forget these unsung heroes who fill their days by creating splashes of genius in the drab gray of products made merely for profit. Beauty surrounded by uncaring nothingness is still beauty, and like all beauty, it deserves to be examined, admired, and loved.
written by Arthur Mulder