Monday, May 3, 2010

Maid Marian, Warrior Princess?

Ridley Scott's new "Robin Hood" film, starring Russell Crowe, is one of those projects that I've been unable to work up much enthusiasm for. Back in 2007, when it was known as "Nottingham," and featured some morally ambiguous versions of the iconic characters, including a more sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham, I thought it had some promise. At least it was tackling the familiar material from a different angle. Now, three years and several delays later, the result is a much more straightforward version of the Robin Hood story. From the trailers, it looks depressingly grim, dreary, and replete with Ridley Scott's trademark shots of misty woods and gritty medieval carnage. There are also conspicuous shots of Maid Marian, played by Cate Blanchett, wielding a sword and shooting off flaming arrows in various advertisements. And that particular creative decision is what really has me steamed.

"Robin Hood" is being sold as an epic action film in the same vein as Scott's last collaboration with Russell Crowe, the 2000 hit "Gladiator." However, it recalls nothing so much as Antoine Fuqua's 2004 "King Arthur" film, which had a similarly drab color palette and yen for warfare. One notable element of that film, which most people remember even if they can't recall the film itself, was the reimagining of Guinevere as a Celtic warrior woman, often running around half-naked and painted blue as she fought Roman invaders alongside her rugged Arthur. This was probably the most extreme example of a traditionally passive female character getter a modern upgrade into a much more physically active film heroine, but certainly not the only one. Recently, with older properties like "Alice in Wonderland" and "Sherlock Holmes" coming back in style, we've been seeing more and more of them.

It's telling that for the screenwriters of these action-adventure spectacles, their first inclination when modernizing old-fashioned leading ladies is putting swords in their hands and sending them off to knock some heads. I'm not sorry to see the damsel-in-distress cliche go, but I'm not keen on seeing it replaced wholesale with the aggressive, battle-hardened "Xena: Warrior Princess" archetype either. Make no mistake that I love a good kick-ass heroine, and Maid Marian could certainly stand to be tougher than we've seen her onscreen so far. There is textual basis in several of the Robin Hood legends that Marian was a tomboyish adventurer who could handle a sword and a bow. But when Ridley Scott is having her don armor and ride out into battle with Robin, the way she does in this new version, I have to roll my eyes.

It worries me that the masculine ideal of strength, with its emphasis on brute physicality, is the only sort of strength that seems to matter in these movies. Of course, in big, mindless, action films this is to be expected to some extent, but the insinuation that an admirable heroine must be physically strong, violent, and combative is troublesome. There are plenty of other ways of enriching Maid Marian's character and keeping her involved in the story. 1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," though much maligned, had a very active Marian played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who had most of the face-to-face confrontations with the Sheriff of Nottingham up until the climactic battle scenes. Several other modernized versions, including the BBC television adaptation and the early drafts of "Nottingham" had Marian's loyalties divided between Robin and other obligations.

Filmmakers have been struggling with similar female characters for a while now. One case that received a lot of publicity was Arwen Undomiel, the elf princess from "The Lord of the Rings," played by Liv Tyler. As she was the female lead but had a dearth of good scenes in the books, director Peter Jackson inserted her into scenes where she wasn't originally present, notably the chase sequence in the first film where she brings Frodo to Rivendell. Jackson intended to insert Arwen into battle sequences as well, including the massive siege of Helm's Deep where she would have actually done some fighting, but negative fan reaction prompted him to seek out an alternate storyline for her. As a result, we got some of the most beautiful scenes of the trilogy, where Arwen's flashbacks and future visions spur her decision to stay behind in Middle Earth.

"Robin Hood" hasn't been released in theaters yet, so no one knows how far they're going to push the concept of Marian as mercenary fighter - but the marketing images certainly want audiences to think she'll be in the thick of it. I guess it's a necessary evil in this day and age, where the action in action films is so omnipresent, there's no time for the quieter moments the gentler heroines once inhabited. Ridley Scott very well could pull off a decent effort, but I still have no interest in seeing his version of Marian - rather, I have no interest a "Robin Hood" where his version of Marian is necessary.

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