It Is Not War #7: Robin Hood

Yes, we’ve had a bit of a hiatus, but that’s done now. NFB is happy to continue this series, and we’ve got a humdinger today.

Ridley Scott is all about the historical epic, to the extent that he basically tried to make one about a fictional character. His Robin Hood was an attempt to make a movie that was more of a chronicle of English history then an action/adventure story like Kevin Costner made.

It’s not bad. It’s long-winded and a little pretentious but it’s got decent action and a good supporting cast. Though, Crowe’s mental accent (all of them that is, it changes from scene to scene) is probably the worst thing in my eyes. Valkyrie had it right: if you can’t do the accent, don’t try.

Anyway, today’s edition of IINW is a fight I like to call “Reverse D-Day in the 13th century”.

The Set-Up:

The battle takes place on a beach on the south coast of English. The French are arriving on boats onto the shore. Can’t really comment on the tide, but there is plenty of room. The beach is overlooked by a moderately high cliff-top, with sloping hills on either side to allow movement from above to below.

The Armies: The English forces are mostly cavalry, I’ll estimate somewhere in the region of a couple of hundred. Armoured, with swords, axes, clubs. These are mostly noble cavalry, so they’re serious business. Some peasant cavalry are also around, not as heavily armoured.

The other part of the force is archers (don’t appear to be quite longbows, but something to that effect) who are also horsed and armed, apart from the bows obviously, with blades. Say, 50 or so? The English are led by, on paper anyway, the brash, cocky King John, who despite his character flaws is still brave and competent in battle, but in reality, they appear to be led by Robin Longstride, a veteran archer of the Crusades.

The French appear to mostly be infantry armed with spears, swords and large narrow shields. Chain mail is the standard armour. Some cavalry, but not a whole lot. Few archers. They are led on the field of battle by Sir Godfrey, a traitorous English lord, with the King of France watching from a boat offshore.

The aim of the French is to effect a landing and establish a beachhead. The aim of the English is to drive them back into the sea.

So, we’ll open with a look at the advancing English forces. These guys are  arriving from the north of England and are all galloping at full speed towards the battlefield.

Problem? Well, military logic dictates that you shouldn’t have tired horses heading into battle. And one way you tire them out is riding them full pelt (with heavily armoured men on their back). The meeting place they assemble at is a chalk horse in central England. From there, to the coast. It’s a long way. If you tire your horses out on the approach they won’t charge as fast and will be slower and more ungainly when it counts. 

As it is, there is not much of a plan, or delegation of leadership. King John “will lead” but then Robin essentially takes over. This is a problem on a few levels. For one thing, the entire army sees John being led about and following someone who should be lower than him on the feudal scale. That’s not good for the chain of command (and the power of kingly authority is one of the main points of the movie.)

Moveover, Robin is (secretly) a commoner, an archer. He has no large-scale command experience, has never led an army of this size. John doesn’t really seem to object that much.

Robin’s plan is simple enough. Archers to the clifftop, horses to the beach. There is a problem with this plan and how simple it is, but I’ll get to that in a second.

The French are landing in very strangely built boats for the time period (see below). The thing about the English Channel (which a certain invading force also had to deal with 800 years later) is that its weather patterns are predominantly windy, with rough seas. It was unpredictable in 1944. Flat bottomed boats, especially if they’re made of wood and don’t have engines, are not the kind of nautical vessel you should take onto the English Channel. How these boats, with the fog and everything, are even making it to the shore without disaster is a mystery to me.

Some of them, the actual proper boats, are getting turned over in the surf. How the fuck did they make it across the English Channel if they can’t handle a few small waves?

In the Middle Ages, any kind of amphibious force was looking for a port that it can seize so it could focus on larger more stable boats for its invasion. Failing that, a small force in traditional row boats would go ahead, land in a suitable position, and secure a bridgehead. They did not try to land their entire invasion force all at once.

And further more, if this is the invasion force, it’s not that big. The intention here is that the English monarchy and barons will be too busy fighting each other to be much of a threat but still, the French appear to be landing a few thousand men. It doesn’t appear to be an army, operating far from its home base, that could actually defeat, occupy and pacify England.

Just to emphasize that point, these landing craft appear to simply be putting troops ashore. No supplies. No horse fodder. Just what they have in their hands. I suppose they can live off the land, but that only gets you so far.

And the landing site…the landing site is awful. Was there no other stretch of beach, no undefended port that could have picked? Look at it. This narrow stretch of beach, overlooked by tall cliffs, with easy access for attacking horse at the sides. It’s the perfect bit of defensive coastal geography. Heading into the landing site, the French will be under attack from above and from the sides.

Maybe they didn’t expect a fight but that is no excuse for this. Why take the risk? All it would take to mess up your invasion in this situation is some archers on the clifftop.

No, the French King should have picked his spot better. Somewhere with smooth planes behind the beach, so his men aren’t in an ambush the second they step off the boats.

As the French boats open up and the soldiers come out we find the next problem. Weighed down by armor, with ships that aren’t as far in as they can go, the French soldiers either struggle to get to shore or, if they’re really unlucky, drown. And for those who do make it to the beach, their soaking wet clothes are weighing them down, impeding every moment. Just for clarification, American GIs struggled going ashore in Normandy. They weren’t wearing chain mall or carrying shields. What chance do the French have?

It’s at this point that I should point out the other major flaw in the overall French plan. The force waiting on the beach seems to have done nothing to protect the approach. They are all just standing there, on the beach, waiting for the invasion force. No patrols, no guards, no sentries watching for any enemy. Considering the absolutely awful choice of landing site, you would think that Godfrey would have at least one guy up on  the cliffs making sure that they’re not about to be ambushed, but he hasn’t.

All the French piling onto the beach in such rag-tag fashion appear to be just plain infantry. No archers of any kind. It’s like the French are actually begging to be ambushed here, having no-one in the initial waves who could actually fire back.

The English archers on the clifftop, the perfect position to hit the French, open up. Despite the fact that Godfrey has previously warned the French of the danger, its only as the arrows are about to hit that they raise their shields. Maybe they thought he was joking.

With the English cavalry descending on the beach and getting ready to charge, Godfrey finally decides that something should be done about it and organises a line of defence. A really thin, crappy line of defence with huge gaps in the middle. Seriously, that kind of defence wouldn’t stop a 5 horses, let alone the hundred strong force heading your way. There are other French soldiers on the beach, just milling around it seems, but nothing’s being done to get them into line.

We also see some French soldiers in a brief shot here, charging. What they are charging at remains a mystery, since its definitely not the cavalry or the archers on the clifftop. I guess running around in what appears to be a blind panic is better than standing still.

The charge comes and the English cavalry smashes into the French. This battle, under these conditions, really should be over quite quickly. Having brushed through the awful French defensive line like a knife through butter, they should be able to run down every other soldier on the beach. One charge, maybe another sweep back from the other side and that’s it. The infantry are too scattered, too wet, and too unorganised to really do anything to stop them.

Instead, having charged into the French, the English slow down, stop and start engaging the infantry in melee combat. It’s bizarre, considering the advantage that they had. Now, they’re letting the infantry engage on their own terms, having eliminated their advantage of momentum.

The archers up on the cliff top have had enough. They get back on their horses and head for the beach themselves. This isn’t just the stupidity of bravado, wanting to engage the French hand to hand, it makes no military sense either. The cavalry down below are all soldiers trained in that position, used to that kind of thing. Archers are archers. They aren’t armoured or carrying the right weapons for it.

Moreover, French soldiers are still arriving from the sea, unloading from their crazy boats. The archers can still hit them, and hit them when they are especially vulnerable, unable to raise their shields to defend themselves. Instead, they ride down to the beach, committing their entire force to an unceccesary pitched battle.

On the beach, the archers/unarmored men/fat friar are doing surprisingly well against the French. This is all about believability of course. It’s hard to imagine the fat religious guy with the big stick easily besting the armoured, shielded troops. Some of the kids, this movies band of merry men, are also doing suprising well against the French armed forces.

Even though the French infantry have stopped the cavalry from making easy sport of them they still aren’t doing so well. In this scenario they’re two main things that the French can do: target the horses, who are less armoured and more reachable than the riders, or pulling the riders down off the horses. Since the horses are no longer charging, it is possible for the infantry to equalise things. But they don’t. Instead, the cavalry just wander around smacking the infantry all around them. Some of the English have been unhorsed but they all appear to have avoided breaking their neck on the way down, or being killed as they were vulnerable on the ground.

Robin, seeing love interest Marian under threat, leaps of his horse (!) and gets into a private duel with Godfrey. They’re wading around in the sea while doing so, but don’t seem to be effected. Seriously, someone should get Ridley Scott, put some armour on him and make him swing a sword around in waist-high water. It shouldn’t be the medieval equivalent of a prequel lightsaber duel. It should be slow, exhausting and ultimately a little pointless as they shouldn’t be able to summon the energy to get a blow through the armour they’re both wearing. That, and no one on the battlefield, a battle that is moments from ending in complete English victory, is coming to Robin’s aid here. Chivelry and mortal combat is all well and good, but it didn’t happen on Middle Age battlefields.

Some of the remaining boats are actually crashing into each for…some reason. Not sure how. The sea doesn’t appear that choppy, and it isn’t windy. They were spaced far apart at the start of the battle. Not sure how that happened barring a dangerous change in course by one of the Captains.

The French on the beach are close to the end and the few that are still fighting are running into the surf for…some reason. I suppose they might be trying to get back on the boats but that’s pointless. Backs to the enemy, wading through water, trying to reboard the boats? Nah, that’s asking for a blade in the back. Most of the fighting is actually taking place in the water now, though without any of the limitations previously mentioned. The English could just pull back and let the archers have some easy target practice here, but that’s clearly not heroic enough.

Godfrey sees which way the wind is blowing and heads for the hills. This is just set-up for Robin’s big heroic moment where he hits Godfrey dead-on in the throat from a mile away. Of course, again, no one seems to think, in the melee of battle, that stabbing Robin while his attention is a way away is a good idea.

And I mentioned during my post on Helm’s Deep, a wet bowstring does not an accurate shot make. In reality, the string has a very good chance of snapping either when pulled back or released.

At this point the battle is just about over. King John is fighting hand to hand with the remaining French having been unhorsed. The fact that the King of England, the actual leader of this army, has been put in such peril doesn’t seem to bother anyone that much. I’m flashing back to Shakespeare here: “a horse!, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse!”. It’s a true battlefield maxim. The King didn’t fight on the ground where he could easily be swamped by infantry. The Barons and such do not appear to have done that good a job in protecting the King here (though maybe that’s the point).

The King becomes crestfallen when he finds out that the French have surrendered “to him” (Robin Hood). Just how exactly they have done so (there is no remaining French leaders on the beach) is not explained. Robin himself is just walking up the beach to the cheers of his own side. There are no French surrendering to him personally. It’s just a really odd statement to make, considering whats actually being portrayed on-screen.

Anyway, victory to the English, the remaining French on the boats choosing to “fight another day.”

So, why?

Well, my honest opinion is that Ridley Scott may have seen Saving Private Ryan and thought “I want to do that!”

Every aspect about the French assault, from the wooden Higgins Boats, to the beach landing, to the arrows shooting through the water like bullets comes straight from Spielberg’s World War Two epic. It’s so very, very obvious what Scott is trying to emulate here. And it doesn’t work, not logically speaking anyway.

The other purpose of this battle, aside from spectacle, is to reinforce the central theme of the entire movie which is “rise and rise again, until lambs become lions”. Robin is the lowly peasant who has somehow wound up leading an army under the authority of no one it would seem. The actual leader of the army (both of them actually) are shown up as muppets, unable to lead from the front, idiotic, subservient to others.

The main reason this battle gets included in this series is the baffling amount of poor decision to French make, from what most have been a hazardous crossing, to poor layout of the first wave, to the choice of landing site. It’s all so stupid and non-sensical and reflective of what warfare was like back in the early days of the 13th century.

Robin Hood. It’s fiction dressed up as historical epic but it isn’t war.

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1 Response to It Is Not War #7: Robin Hood

  1. Joe says:

    Mate, you are aware its a film. A film that you said yourself is based around a fictional character. So lets not harp on too much about the realism of the battle scenes. Kevin Costner shot two blokes at once in his version but you won’t hear me complaining about the physical flaws in that, you know why? Because it was awesome viewing! Granted the same can’t be said of Ridley Scotts version but my point is, allow a bit of artistic licence. Oh and get a life!

    Edit from blog author: This everybody, is an idiot.

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