The One That Got Away - The Unmade Sheriff of Nottingham Epic
Ridley Scott's 2010 historical work Robin Hood united the director with actor Russell Crowe for the fourth time, following Gladiator (2001), A Good Year (2006) and American Gangster (2007). The film was written primarily by Brian Helgeland, known for penning A Knight's Tale (2001) and L.A. Confidential (1997), with story credits going to writing partners Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris of Sleeper Cell fame. The production originally launched with an original script by Reiff and Voris, written in 2007, dubbed Nottingham, and through the magic of cinema, this was effectively set on fire and its ashes collected and scattered into the set to say they used some of it. This is the story of the unmade Robin Hood film that turned the legend on its head.
I was vaguely aware of a spec script focussing on the Sheriff of Nottingham as the protagonist when the film released, having been changed and tweaked into the historical prequel we got on our screens. I managed to find a PDF of the script online last year and read it, and I was staggered at how fun and original a Robin Hood tale it was; then came the twinge of disappointment that we didn't get what was fought for so savagely by a handful of different studios. You can read the script for yourself here.
The story focuses on Crusader Robert of Thornham, a real-life soldier and administrator for the crown. The film opens with a siege of a castle in Cyprus, with Sheriff of the island, Robert, showing off his impressive scientific acumen in silently digging a tunnel under the castle to storm it with his troops. Choosing to sell the island to the Knights Templar to raise money for the trip to Jerusalem, King Richard 'awards' Thornham with his choice of sheriff of any county in England, a career move Robert is disinterested in, preferring his life in the army. He picks up the officiating office in Nottingham, finding the town overrun with crime and corruption. He takes up his duties and is a calm, fair leader, having to wade through the swamp that is outlaw bands and greedy clergymen and his fellow lawmen. A serial killer is on the loose, shooting indiscriminately, and the blame is immediately shouldered on the famous outlaw Robin Hood. In this tale, Robin is a cruel, lecherous and
slightly sadistic man, leading his band of criminals in raids of self-service, hoarding money and food while tales of their exploits spread across Nottingham; their attacks on the government are seen as a stance against them, and so the truth is bastardised into legend, with Robin reaping the reward with little effort. The Sheriff looks into him, but soon concludes that he cannot be the killer. Thornham uses true-to-life medieval forensic science to investigate crime scenes (such as tracking the trajectory and origin of an arrow) and hunting the true killer. With Richard ransomed and returned to England, as is sometimes tradition in Robin Hood stories, the film climaxes with the siege of Nottingham castle, the Sheriff finding the killer's hideout, complete with wax deathmasks of the victims, a medieval Ted Bundy, collecting momentos of his victims. The killer is Guy of Gisbourne, turned mad by carrying out dozens of killings on behalf of Prince John during the royal's reign in Ireland, now unable to stop himself from hunting people in gruesome ways. Robin is almost guilt-tripped into helping sack the town, his part in the battle becoming legendary; the film ends with his marriage to Maid Marian, and Thornham leaves Nottingham to find a post elsewhere.
The script paints Thornham in a sympathetic light; he's a severely intelligent, calmly apolitical, deeply empathetic man, who is caught between his duty to the people - feeding them, governing them - and the demands of his masters in increasing taxes; he is also responsible for bringing outlaws to justice and, despite the rumours, he won't pin the murders on Robin for cheap political points when he knows it isn't the truth. Thornham is a sheriff simply doing his job to the best of his ability, and his best is spectacular, much to the annoyance of his lazy colleagues and contemporaries, as well as to his citizens. The Sheriff actively, though discreetly, gives money to the poor on occasion to relieve them of the expectations of the new tax systems, and at the very least he abuses and advises legal loopholes that help people delay paying. He's a good and lawful man living in a terrible and lawless time. This is what makes the script such a fun and exciting read; the Sheriff isn't just the protagonist (Disney has gotten onto the villain-as-hero bandwagon lately!), but he is the hero of the story, his part lost to history for want of romantic myth.
In the script, Robin Hood is nothing special when it comes to outlaws; his only claim to fame is he used to be a minor Saxon noble, and he only has a name for himself because he's a local. He robs from rich and poor alike, hoarding food, drink, money and clothes for he and his gang of unruly mates to use as they wish. They have a comfortable life in Sherwood, largely because of this store of provisions, but also due to their reputation for cruelty; no-one travels through Sherwood without risking their lives. The Sheriff investigates Robin and is captured, but it's only because of the presence of Marian in the camp that he is let go, and even then it's largely due to the Sheriff's courage and clear fair-mindedness that Robin is comfortable with releasing him. Thornham is never coy about letting Robin know exactly what he thinks of him, but his aversion is purely moral; he dislikes murderers, he dislikes torture, he dislikes laziness and political and social indifference. He reminds Robin he could do some real good if he wishes, the kind of good people sing about, thinking this is what Robin Hood does; Robin couldn't care less.
There were big studios hunting the rights to the script, and it took a phone call from Crowe himself, asking for the role of the Sheriff, for Universal to nab the rights (within 48 hours of the script being on the table!). Against Crowe as Thornham, names like Christian Bale were being thrown around for the role of the devilish Robin. Ridley Scott was soon attached as director, but he had his own ideas of what kind of Robin Hood film he wanted to make. This is all a normal part of the filmmaking process, tweaking, rewriting, but Scott decided to trim it down to basics. In one draft, the Sheriff became so fed up with his duties and corruption that he decided to disguise himself as an outlaw and become Robin Hood; in another, he actively flees to the forest and becomes the outlaw leader; in another, Robin witnesses the Sheriff die in battle and assumes his identity, taking on the dual role. In the finished film, Robin Longstride gives the news to Walter Loxley his son is dead and, for the security of the family's land, lives on the property as Robert Loxley; the Sheriff barely features at all.
Reiff and Voris' script was rewritten by Helgeland, injecting some more traditional tropes and a more heroic Robin, which is where the duality comes from. It was handed to Paul Webb, who's changes were apparently so poorly received they were dropped outright and the script went back to Helgeland; Tom Stoppard stepped in to boost the dialogue a little, and once again Helgeland jumped back in and wrapped everything up. The completed film is Helgeland's rewrite of Stoppard's rewrite of Helgeland's rewrite of Webb's rewrite of Helgeland's tweaks to Reiff and Voris' original script. Yeah. Messy.
Crowe's role evolved from Thornham, the Sheriff of Nottingham, to the dual role of Sheriff and Robin Hood; this settled on Robin alone, the minor role of the Sheriff played by Matthew MacFadyen. It has to be said, I love the 2010 film. It was publicised as being a 'what if' movie, looking at what could have really happened in history for a Robin Hood figure to appear. This isn't strictly true though, as it associates Robin with King Richard and the Third Crusade, immediately casting the tale a few hundred years after the first ballads into Anthony Munday territory. What it does achieve, however, is taking the tradition of the last 500 years or so and turning that into a 'what if' - what if the Crusader and nobleman Robin Hood was what really happened? In this regard, the movie is fantastic. It's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness; people often criticise the heavy political element of the film as causing the film to drop its pace quite sharply. To be fair, that's kind of true, but I think that's what makes this film so effective, is that they openly display [a fictional interpretation of] the politics of the time and weave that into the plot in an integral way, tying the film into a fast-forwarded Magna Carta situation. We get a much slower, more low-key Robin Hood story than we're used to, but one with such subtle ease that it makes sense and it works.
That being said, what we're left with is a film that takes Robin Hood tropes already done to death and does them in a hyper-realistic way. This hasn't been done a lot (it's been done, but not a lot!), but it's fair to say that what's been done less is a complete revisionist take; that is the film that was originally bought by the studio, one that was over-produced and over-written to the point where it outright died - the Sheriff of Nottingham as the noble hero, Robin Hood as the lazy anarchist; Reiff and Voris' Nottingham.
The greatest tragedy is that Reiff and Voris were paid for their work in Nottingham, the script worked and reworked and a film was released, and they received story credit. For this reason, it's severely unlikely that we'll see the film as written back in 2007 appear on our screens, which is an utter shame. I adore the Russell Crowe version, but if it comes to having to choose between what we got and what we were supposed to get, I'd take Nottingham. What Robin Hood films are missing is uniqueness. Otto Bathurst's upcoming film looks worlds apart from anything we've seen before; the Sheriff is the villain, Robin is the hero, but the tone and the aesthetic of the film are what's brand-new. Nottingham is exactly the kind of remake/reboot that needed to happen when it comes to long-running properties. Unfortunately, 2008 wasn't a time when they thought radically different approaches would sell. We're still waiting for November 22 to see if they were right.
What would you like to have discussed? A big movie, an obscure show, a weird knick-knack from a forgotten decade? Let me know in the comments or send a message!
Additional information from One Room With A View at oneroomwithaview.com
Additional information from Ryan Maloney's Heraldic Criticism at heraldiccriticism.wordpress.com
Additional information from Slash Film at slashfilm.com
Additional information from Bold Outlaw at boldoutlaw.com