BBC News


Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Friday, 14 November 2008

The thinking man's action hero

Hamlet talks to the skull of Yorick


Rational choices, reasoned discussions, respect for lawful institutions. That's what Clive James wants from his action heroes. Unless there is an asteroid heading for the Earth, in which case send for Bruce Willis.

Britain's most successful director of Hollywood films, Ridley Scott, has plans to give us a new version of Robin Hood.

Robin Hood mascot
Robin, or a hoodlum?

In earlier news about this project, it was suggested that Robin Hood would be the bad guy and the Sheriff of Nottingham would be a fair-minded administrator whose central role would be reflected in the revised title, Nottingham.

This prospect was greeted with derision in some quarters. But I, for one, welcomed the news. In these broadcasts I have been stressing the importance of lawful institutions and here was a sign that the message was sinking in. At the very least, I had caught a mood. People are learning to distrust the image of the rebel and have begun to favour the ideal of the responsible official.

Later news from Hollywood, alas, reveals that Ridley Scott might already be starting to equivocate. The wobbling Ridley is now outlining a scenario in which the Sheriff is indeed a responsible official who invents the first equitable tax system, but Robin may not be a mere hoodlum, Robin the Hood, out to wreck a good man's plans.

Robin will be a social democrat who contributes a critical overview in a responsible manner. But he will still do so in a raised voice. The antagonism of old will still apply, even if Russell Crowe, as has been rumoured, plays both roles.

Russell Crowe at Body of Lies premiere
Russell Crowe in his latest role

For Ridley's latest blockbuster, Body of Lies, now in the cinemas, Russell Crowe put on a lot of weight in a hurry. I myself possess the same talent but I've always admired how quickly Russell can do it. He should certainly be in shape not only to play both Robin and the Sheriff, but both of them on screen together when the scene requires.

I just hope he doesn't have to resort to violence against himself just because a few armchair critics have been attacking the new concept. What we want up there on the screen is reasoned discussion. We want Maid Marian to make a rational choice. Stay with an adventurer of no fixed income and have a baby on the floor of the forest, or bring up a family in a secure castle with a sheriff who does his share of the washing up?

Let all this be laid out in the form of dialogue uninterrupted by action. If we have to retain the scene where Robin is almost defeated by the Sheriff's champion whose arrow hits the bull's-eye, let Robin's arrow not split the champion's arrow, but end up where it belongs, in the chest of a spectator, thus to illustrate the danger of lethal weapons in private hands.

Clive James

For his latest blockbuster, Russell Crowe put on a lot of weight in a hurry. I myself possess the same talent

I've also got ideas for a Friar Tuck who eats sensibly and a Little John of average height.

Having laid out these ideas in script form under the provisional title of Conflict Resolution in the Nottingham Area, I've already sent a message to Ridley Scott that I'm willing to help with the project, and I got an e-mail straight back. It was labelled Out of Office Reply but I have high hopes that he'll be in touch.

Meanwhile I continue to work on the tricky scene where Robin and his band of reasonably merry men confront Guy of Gisborne in the forest and persuade him by force of argument that there should be no relief on capital gains tax without a concomitant lowering of the basic rate.

Guy of Gisborne should be played by Hugh Grant in his terribly nice chap mode. "Well Robin, I, and I say this advisedly, I think that there's something to be said for your views, judging by that sword you're holding, and I'll tell Nottingham, or Nottie as we call him, that you…"

You know the sort of thing.

A previous collaboration between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, Gladiator, was a world-wide hit. Russell was of normal size for that occasion. It was fitting, because there was very little fast food in ancient Rome that you didn't have to hunt on foot first.

Lights, camera...

Although born in New Zealand, where he first learned to throw telephones at a moving target, Russell, like Nicole Kidman, is one of those Australian citizens who looks good in a skirt. But think how much more inspiring Gladiator would have been if Maximus Musculis could have subdued the wild animals with his powers of logic and reached an accommodation with the Emperor on an intellectual level. Instead, the action got in the way.

A meteor streaks across the sky against a field of stars
Who you gonna call?

In Hollywood, it always has, until now. And there tended to be too much action even in the Tudor theatre. Shakespeare tried to break away from all that when he made Hamlet think things through instead of just going mad with the muscle, but sure enough, Act Five was ruined with poison, sword fights, poisoned sword fights, and all the standard high concept mayhem, the early 16th Century equivalent of Go! Go! Go!, the car chase in the tunnel and the hero somersaulting towards you propelled by the flames of the exploding building.

If Shakespeare were alive now, he would follow Ridley Scott's example and make the whole thing more nuanced. Hamlet and Claudius, after taking counselling together, would sign a peace treaty drafted by Polonius.

Prime Minister Laertes would solve the economic crisis by raising the bank rate, or lowering the bank rate, or whatever it is you do with the bank rate, and Ophelia would take over as the new presenter of Countdown.

Parties of foreign tourists being conducted around Elsinore, instead of stepping over bodies in the corridor, would hardly know that the royal family was in residence except when Hamlet's voice came over the public address system. "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave I was, before I got in touch with my inner child."

Don't try this at home

What we're talking about here is the duty of mass entertainment to transmit constructive values. One evening last week I accidentally sat on the remote control, tuned in to cable channel 67 and was face to face with a re-run of Mr and Mrs Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie respectively.

Brad and Angelina, as a couple, circa 2007
Mr and Mrs Smith is best known as the film which brought the pair together

You may not have seen this movie. If you are a clinically sane person, you will almost certainly not have seen this movie. But a lot of susceptible people have seen this movie, and you fear for what they might do under its influence.

Brad and Angelina play a married couple, neither of whom is aware that the other is a professional assassin. Each keeps an arsenal in the house unknown to the other.

It's true that most wives could keep the complete equipment of a panzer division in the house without the husband ever finding out, but husbands who can keep even a pop gun in the house without being rumbled by their wives are surely very few. Brad, however, works the trick, and needs every gun in his collection when it turns out that each of the married assassins has been assigned to assassinate the other.

As Mr and Mrs Smith exchange bursts of machine gun fire with underlying affection, the plot expands instantly into a whirlwind of Go! Go! Go! cars through the window and body-surfing on a wave of flame. Never once are younger viewers warned: Don't try this at home.

The accumulating two-way spouse abuse adds up to a story boring beyond belief. Think how much better it would have been if the two assassins could have just sat down and discussed the matter, or, even better, taken counselling together.

The counsellor, Billy Crystal, could have told them that they would get even greater job satisfaction out of just behaving like a normal Hollywood married couple, the husband a standard leading man with his head on upside-down pursuing a big career while his wife, a lush beauty with a mouth the size of a paddling pool who adopts every stray child in the world, pursues an even bigger career. The real excitement is in realism, not fantasy.

Only solution

Sometimes the unrelenting action of a blockbuster movie makes sense.

Bruce Willis on the set of Die Hard in 1995
The man to call when action is needed

By now I have seen Armageddon five times. I find it hard to explain why. It isn't just for Bruce Willis, although the way he can maintain a wry smirk while being blown backwards through plate glass is an inspiration to any man who spends his life doing nothing more challenging than face a computer screen that says: "There has been an error. Do you wish to report it?"

What makes the level of violence in Armageddon legitimate, I think, is that there really is no other way of dealing with an asteroid approaching Earth except to send Bruce Willis to drill a hole in it and blow it up with a nuke.

His crew have to be tough characters of frightening aspect. But why do Bruce and his band of unreasonably merry men have to hit each other all the time? Couldn't they save all the aggression for the asteroid? Nevertheless, you can see how things might get rough when the Earth has been left behind yet nothing else but a concerted effort by a group of dysfunctional half-wits can save it from destruction.

Back on our planet, however, the age of mindless action is surely over, and Hollywood knows it. There is a whole new climate. Reason has prevailed even in the United States, which has just elected a President who gives evidence of mental activity in everything he says, whereas his predecessor spoke as if he had just rammed his head through a wall for the third time shouting Go! Go! Go!

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood
Errol Flynn as the man in tights

There is no going back now to when Robin Hood could be played by Errol Flynn. Let's leave Kevin Costner out of this, because we know Costner was born to play a postman.

But Flynn was born to play Robin Hood in the old style.

I've previously drawn mockery for suggesting that the Australian George Lazenby was the only James Bond who looked the part, but surely the Australian Errol Flynn was the Robin Hood best fitted to wear tights. He just couldn't understand that the Sheriff of Nottingham had a point of view meriting respect. Peace.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm sure that if you'd do your research, you could find a nicely reworked version of Robin Hood, featuring the Sheriff of Nottingham as "a fair-minded administrator". It would be among George Orwell's unused drafts for the output of a proposed Ministry of Heritage Truths, which at one of his early planning stages he intended for use in 1984.
Terry Stancliffe, SW19

Amusing article, but I feel I must point out that your analysis of Mr and Mrs Smith is flawed - the couple do attend marriage counselling. What shocks me about action films is the sheer disregard of the heroes for the amount of mess they leave behind for others to clean up. In fact, might the current epidemic of littering across the country be traced back to the blatant disregard of action heroes to take care and clean up any mess they make? It would be a reassuring and socially beneficial sight to see Jason Bourne turn up with a dustpan and brush, saying, "Sorry about the mess, let me put this room back the way I found it." Something for the upcoming fourth Bourne film, perhaps?
Jon Barton, London, UK

Yes, Errol Flynn was a perfect Robin. I am glad intelligence is back in, but I seem to like Robin Hood as the good guy and Marian choosing to have her babies on the forest floor, so much more romantic.
Denise, Washington, US

Love the wit and agree on the over-action minimal brain input movies around. However, can they please please please come up with some new stories and not keep re-hashing things like Robin Hood (in any form) and King Kong. Like the Titanic, the movie might be good but the ship still sinks.
Wendy Gill, Aberystwyth, Wales

Sad, but true. There is romance in there being a winner and a loser, yet the real world seldom has these resolutions to conflict without sowing the seeds to another conflict in the background. The Go! Go! Go! action film can appeal to many people, while the more cerebral film that promotes the real values of real life will pass over the head of the Lowest Common Denominator without stirring a hair. Hence the first will make money up to the point where the LCD gets jaded with all the bangs and flashes.
Kelvin Walker, Glos, UK

Reason and discussion have their place in the real world, as do action and violence. In theatre (or film) those roles are often reversed for the specific reason that it is different and therefore interesting. Action films and rebel heroes may not be realistic or reasonable, but they cater to the visceral emotions that are unlikely to come up in even the most extreme arguments in parliament. Road tax just isn't as interesting on an emotional level as extreme, unrealistic situations. The claim that we as a species have grown up past enjoying the loud, brash, lewd and extreme is ridiculous. Gladiator is just as violent as Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Why should we have changed our minds so entirely since 1999? Most of all though, conflict (and not just the conflict of ideals) is interesting. Why else would WWII documentaries be so much more popular than ones about knitting?
Harry Godfrey, Boston, USA

The idea that there is a "duty of mass entertainment to transmit constructive values" is the same one that has, in the past, contributed to the censorship and small-minded criticism of groundbreaking, thoughtful and thought-provoking films like A Clockwork Orange. To provide a "nuanced" depiction of things doesn't necessarily entail removal of violence or action, as Shakespeare well realised. It's difficult to get messages across to an audience who have fallen asleep. A lot of this piece is very tongue-in-cheek... but having said that I think it makes some unsettling points.
Andy Johnson, Oxford, UK

How dare you claim to be able to improve Shakespeare, who on earth do you think you are? After reading your article through for a second time however, your erroneous views were so numerous, along with your complete inability to perceive fully any concept that was not directly compatible with your own, that I found you to be comically misguided. To coin a phrase, "you are a disgrace". Your ideal is the manipulative destruction of any past tale or concept that does not share your ruthless, binary style lust for reason. Your calculated perversion of Robin Hood is equally as deplorable as your yearning to change Shakespeare into the thespians' version of Question Time. Your recognition that the very name Robin Hood bares some relation to this tedious obsession with "hoodies" truly displays your gargantuan wit, and will surely have every Daily Mail reader rushing to your side to sign petitions, to do whatever it takes to rid the world of this modern evil with you, entertainment's very own Fuhrer, cleansing TV, radio, and any publishing media of the horrors of conflicting opinions and hoodies.
Onli Sainmann, Bournemouth, UK

Very funny. I laughed out loud. And very true. As someone suggested before, how about filling that now vacant spot on TV on Friday nights?
Mary, Glasgow, Scotland

This is all very well and good, but people coming to amicable agreements isn't really that interesting to watch. People like to watch films because they're a form of escapism, conversations in which each side respectfully compromises to reach a middle ground isn't exactly going to keep anyone in their seat for two hours. And supposing (even stating) Shakespeare would write his plays differently because of some strange notion you have is incredibly arrogant. I'm all for a bit more realism and use of the old grey matter in films, but I still want to see huge CGI explosions that threaten to tear my TV off the wall.
Geoff, Guildford

Enlightened comedic reporting - good job!
Andrew, London

"The Earth has been left behind yet nothing else but a concerted effort by a group of dysfunctional half-wits can save it from destruction." You know, he's talking about you and I there.
Sasquatch, San Diego, California

It really is not appropriate for the supposedly impartial BBC to be offering political opinions of this sort.
Paolo Caldato, London

There is and always will be a need for an action hero who just does things without thinking. To link the presidential elections to this kind of awakening is just plain wrong - Obama has simply been chosen as people are not happy with current global situation. On the movie front, consider the latest Rambo movie, it is just mindless violence but has been well received. Whatever mechanism we apply to control our primal impulses, the do need some kind of vent at times. Otherwise you are just living a hollowed existence.
Kami, Luton

Of course there could only ever be one Robin Hood - Richard Greene.
Jack Briggs, Huddersfield, Yorkshire, 53.6N 1.7W

Print Sponsor



Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast

Podcast Help

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific