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Maid Marion: No Longer a Helpless Virgin but a Mature and Independent Woman

June 5, 2010

On May 14th, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood opened in theaters worldwide to indifferent and some would say dismal critical reception. Not one for epic period piece action flicks, I had no intention of seeing the film, especially after reading its mediocre reviews. But then last weekend, stranded in a “dry” town outside of Boston at a family reunion of sorts, I found myself oddly suggesting the movie to my similarly worn-out family members one evening. Even more surprisingly, not far into the 130-minute long film, I found myself beginning to really enjoy it. Maybe it was the heat, the two and a half hour graduation I had just attended or the tension that always arises at such events when divorced parents are involved, but the Robin Hood I watched last Saturday night was entertaining, eloquent and dark—fit characteristics considering the story’s setting smack dab in the heart of England’s Middle Ages. Even more fun, for me at least, was the film’s unbridled commitment to strong female characters. For a story about bow and arrow wielding mercenaries combating an evil dictator, it surprisingly passed the Bechdel Test, staging important conversations between the current Queen of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Prince John’s Queen-to-be, Isabella of Angoulême, as well as vibrant village scenes, where Robin and Marion engage in dialogue with the men, women and children alike. It furthermore touted Chomsky-esque politics, as Robin and Marion work together to unite people from below to fight the power above.

Most pleasurable was the film’s female lead: Marion as played by Cate Blanchett. While both Ebert and Roeper, in their independent reviews, appear openly puzzled by her casting in this role and the film’s take on the character—Ebert writes “Blanchett plays the role with great class and breeding, which is all wrong” and Roeper can’t seem to get passed either of the lead actors’ ages—I found this new Marion refreshing in her mature displays of strength and independence. In the perhaps most well-known and comparable version of this story, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Robin “flirts” with Maid Marion and supposedly earns her devotion by slapping her ass with a sword before dashing away from the men on his tail, and the film’s concluding fight scene is a blow-by-blow battle for her virginity as Robin rescues her from rape and forced marriage at the hands of the corrupt sheriff. While the other filmic renditions of Robin Hood are not quite as atrocious, Maid Marions of the past have most general been dimwitted virgins, blindly head-over heels for their vagabond lover, which leads me to question any sentimentality held for older versions of the tale. Marion Loxley in this film, on the other hand, is no maid but a widow, who having run a large farm independent of a husband for a decade, is hesitant to relinquish trust to an unknown, though admittedly handsome, stranger.

Having witnessed her husband’s death, Robin Longstride, played by Russell Crowe, meets Marion as the messenger of the bad news. Her dying father-in-law, recognizing that his land can no longer lawfully be passed on to her now that she is husbandless, forges a plan by which Robin is to pretend to be his son and her husband for business sake. Marion and Robin, though mere acquaintances, must thus act like husband and wife, from jointly greeting the villagers to harvesting land side by side to sharing a bedroom. Marion does not immediately warm to Robin’s presence. The first night after the plan is hatched, Marion invites Robin to her room and directs him to the pillows on the floor near the hearth with the dogs before threatening, “I sleep with a dagger; if you so as much move to touch me, I will severe your manhood.” Needless to say, a friendship quickly develops, as the two bond over similar political passions, namely the cause of the working people and the belief that every man and woman should have the right to own a home and the opportunity to provide sustenance for their families. When Marion complains of the lack of seed to plant the next harvest, it is Robin who utilizes a combination of bribery, trickery and good old fashion violence to get the church/government’s horded grain out of the hands of the rich and into the soil of the poor. And when Robin rushes to lead the Englishmen into battle against the invading French, it is Marion who gathers all those deemed unfit to fight but still of courage and talent and leads them to join the soldiers in battle. Thus, Robin and Marion become united simultaneously through political justice and sexual attraction. They demonstrate a mutual respect and share passion both intellectually and physically. One is not dependent on the other but they grow together as their relationship develops, sharing the responsibilities that come with leading a revolution.

Contrary to what critics say, there is more to this film that blood and guts (though there is plenty of that too). There is a respectable take on a previously stereotyped and weak female lead. There is character development, beautiful cinematography, and leftist politics to boot. While boredom and stress may have lead me to the film, I doubt that anyone who loves great storytelling and seeks strong filmic female role models will leave anything but exhilarated.

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