By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
I hope everyone saw Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe in the title role. The BBC History channel backed it up with a two hour programme, piecing together the legend from historical fact and circumstance.
It also revealed that Scott’s movie was based on wide historical research. Russell Crowe is interviewed on the programme and he says that the most important motivator for Robin Hood, the reason for the perseverance and popularity of the legend and its most significant contribution to the society of today and tomorrow is the idea that “the balance must be righted; a balance must be restored”.
The movie itself is a rich source of political lessons. In this film Robin was a longbow man in the army of Richard the Lionhearted, a king who lived up to his name, and to whom Robin was therefore loyal. Yet, in an opening scene Richard has Robin placed in stocks for giving an honest answer in a face to face encounter. Robin is critical of Richard’s decision to behead Muslim civilians following a battle. He says that in the eyes of a young Muslim woman about to fall under his sword, he saw pity, because she knew “that in that moment God had abandoned us”. Thus Robin’s code involves the ethical use of violence and echoes the Christian doctrine of Just war. The innovation here is that the doctrine originally distinguished between Just wars and Holy wars, and in the latter, anything went. In the movie, Robin inserts the one into the other: even within a Holy war (Richard was returning from the Crusades), Just war criteria hold, and not anything goes.
This is a lesson that the movie teaches in these, post 9/11 times. The dominant ideology in Sri Lanka holds that in ‘the war on terror’ anything is permitted. Indeed there is no other way to fight terrorism. The war on terrorism is seen as a synthesis of Just War and Holy war, in which The Other is demonised and one’s own cause is not merely Just but sacred. The question then arises why this was not in ideological evidence during the two civil wars in the South, against the JVP even in its Pol Potist reincarnation. The answer obviously is that the war on terror was not simply a war on terror because the terrorist were not simply terrorists; they were separatists-and furthermore, the state they strove to secede from is not understood as a rational, secular, man-made formation but as a sacred space.
Robin’s stint in stocks is also intended to make the point that speaking truth to power is not palatable to most wielders of power, even the most courageous, and that punitive steps may follow, even if one has been a skilled warrior in the cause of the state. It also shows that there is an ineffaceable gap between the free individual spirit with its conscience, its notions of right and wrong and of justice, and the perceived interests and doctrines of the wielders of power, however brave and great in stature.
The political message gets richer and more complex as the movie goes on. Richard the Lion heart is succeeded by his venal brother John, whose gets rid of the more realistic and mature advisors to his brother and mother, and picks in their place his half-brother, a bloodthirsty enforcer who not only blazes a trail of terror against the autonomous baronies but attempts to hunt down and kill Robin who has stumbled on his plot to take the throne with the help of the king of France.
Robin is faced with a hard choice as the French fleet draws near. Forget his last experience with King Richard, a great figure, and fight for his country under the banner of the vicious, untrustworthy King John, or stand aside and watch his country invaded and probably conquered due to internal divisions generated by the drive against the barons, who have responded by raising an army against the King. If there is civil war, external conquest will succeed, but is it either desirable or possible to unite the nation under a king who is a far from virtuous despot.
Robin does not let his now-deadly conflict with the King’s high officials and by extension the King, supersede his duty to England, but his patriotism is romantic, reformist, populist and democratic. It does not dictate blindly unconditional support for the King and the political status quo. The movie presents Robin’s martyred father as an author of the Magna Carta or an early version. Picking up where his father left off, Robin pushes the envelope insisting that the King pledges himself to reforms guaranteeing a broad-based consensual monarchy, more accountability and greater freedom. In a demagogic flourish the King agrees and Robin rallies the barons, combining the Royal forces, the baronial armies and his own ‘merry men’ in a battle to rout the French invader and local collaborator and ally.
The enemy defeated and the traitor slain in a battle beneath the cliffs of Dover of the like that only Ridley Scott directs in today’s cinema (though inferior by far to the opening battle scenes in ‘Conan’ and ‘Gladiator’). Robin is held to have played the decisive role. Indeed the King is told that he owes the preservation of his realm from external threat, to the maverick archer.
Not many days after the decisive battle, the King publicly goes back on the reforms he agreed to implement (he probably considered them conditions agreed to in the face of external threat which had since been overcome). He also declares Robin of Locksley alias Robin of the Hood, the man who played a decisive role in uniting a broad bloc of diverse forces to defend the country and the realm from foreign intervention and ‘regime change’, and is no threat to his throne - indeed has no interest in it — an outlaw and places a price on his head.
Robin, his patriotic duty done despite his awareness of the domestic character of the regime, the seeds of the idea of a democratic Charter planted in the popular consciousness despite its disowning by the King, returns to Sherwood forest, a space inhabited by a counter-coalition of a ruined if democratically minded barony, freethinking Anglo-Saxon yeomanry like Robin and his veterans from the Crusades, a dissident Catholic friar and the orphaned and dispossessed juvenile delinquents who are the rural detritus of the debilitating foreign and internal wars.
Robin and his men defend this space with their bows, arrows and swords, and their legend lingers through time, as a paradigm of guerrillas with an antagonistic yet ambiguous relationship with the various levels (sub-structures) of the power structure and power wielders, sometimes at arm’s length and at other times at an arrow’s range, but always motivated by the need for individual freedom, social solidarity, a more democratic order, and above all, justice.