Look, I know I ought to hate this movie. But though I found it long, I enjoyed pretty much every one of its 140 minutes. Yes, it plays havoc with history. Even though Robin Hood is just a figure from ‘folklore’, and therefore a big blank as far as real history is concerned, we all have a a sufficiently strong sense of the ‘real’ Robin Hood that it can be offended. But Robin Hood is meant to represent someone striking back against murderous arbitrary power sucking all the surplus from the common working man. Insofar as the movie is meant to set up his subsequent life of righteous banditry, it does it pretty well*
Instead, history took its heaviest blows at the level of kings’n’queens international politics. A French-versus-British angle was daft just 130 years after the Conquest – the two Kingdoms overlapped, surely, and the Channel was not the great barrier against being overrun by the French that it was to become. And why was King John (superbly cast, incidentally) shown burning up a copy of the Magna Carta before the barons?
Nevertheless, I enjoyed a sense of historical realism behind the nitty-gritty of the film – the sense of struggle and risk in medieval life, and how this must have interplayed with the rules of society at the time. To put it in dull, economistic terms: the surplus produced by the farming economies of the time must have been so precarious, so subject to nature’s whim, so vulnerable to uncertain property rights, that I could understand how inhumane feudal rules and power structures were necessary. Anything that guaranteed order of some sort, including the Mafia rules of feudalism, must be better than anarchy.
The other point I was fumbling towards is this. We use Robin Hood as a metaphor for anything that takes from the Rich and gives to the Poor. So when Brown put up taxes on higher incomes he was being Robin Hood. However, this is using the state to take from the rich to give to the poor. As League of Ordinary Gentlemen points out, in medieval times to be rich WAS to be the state. Hence the temptation for numerous right-wing thinkers to adopt the Robin Hood character instead. They link to a NYT piece by AO Scott:
You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!
LoOG are right that the strongest message you can get from the movie is about abuses of power, and its importance in economic relations. For me (predictably) it weakens the right of the Robin Hood Taxation people to use that image in their campaign. As Tim Worstall and I have argued tirelessly, such tiny transaction taxes end up landing on you and me. In Robin Hood’s time the transaction tax would be the equivalent of a duty on grain, beer and mead, which King John claims as being aimed at big Abbey brewers**, and really ends up on the ordinary peasant. He’d be aiming an arrow at it.
*Though I doubt there will be a sequel: having seen so many castles stormed and Frenchmen thrown lustily into the sea, let alone the origins of habeas corpus, the derringdo against the Sherrif of Nottingham will seem rather quaint
**on this subject, look at the madness of recent micro-economic tinkering on breweries via a letter to the FT
The taxpayer now provides a small brewer producing around 5,000 hectolitres of beer with an annual duty subsidy of about £170,000 (and even more for those brewing stronger beers). The relief is so highly tailored to the small brewer that those brewing slightly more are likely to be in the position that even if they could brew their beer for nothing, their duty bill would still make them more expensive than a microbrewer.