This movie is almost as unfair on the French as Mel Gibson's The Patriot was on the Brits, and no less entertaining for it. I'd like to think our cross-channel cousins were aware of this and hence picked Robin Hood to open Cannes this year out of bonhomie.
The script was famously much toyed with before Ridley Scott started shooting a modernised tale of derring-do and justifyable outlawlessness, that is a sort of prequel to the legend we know, and yet shifted forward to the cusp of the twelfth century when bad Prince John is about to become bad King John.
Spotting England's weakness, Phillip Augustus prepares for invasion while a squadron of Frenchie fifth columnists are rampaging around the north in an attempt to shore up old Softsword's reputation for taxation without representation ...with a certain ammount of rape and pillage thrown in for good measure.
Cate Blanchett gives us a feisty Marion, one brief tryst short of being a true maid. Meanwhile however, two of the Middle Ages's more interesting (and more historical) female characters, John's consort Isabella of Angoulême and his mother Eleanor of Acquitaine, are disappointingly underplayed. (Another of the great figures of the Plantagenet era, William the Marshal, aka Guillaume le Maréchal, is played as an enlightened, liberal-establishment aristocrat by William Hurt.)
Now (most) English schoolboys these days will know that good King Richard was a French (only)-speaking bisexual thug who hardly ever put in an appearance in his kingdom during his decade-long reign. Danny Huston (and this alone should tell us something) gives us a subtly revisionist caricature of the Lionheart as a vain, cruel and somewhat doped-up war leader who can't help but sack one last French castle on his way home, and duly falls to a well-aimed crossbow bolt.*
John's subsequent reign, disasterous on so many levels, not only involved important steps in the evolution of limited government, it also led to the loss of Normandy, a significant step in the de-Frenchifying of the ruling class, so that two centuries later the knights of Henry V really could speak English (and thus crucially really could refuse to speak French with their enemies' ambassadors.)
But as we saw with Gladiator, Ridley Scott is another of those men more interested in messages than historical facts, and relishes every opportunity he gets to demonstrate his mastery of the hack and chop battle scene. What we get here is a veritable reverse D-Day with Phillip's enormous host landing beneath the white cliffs in medieval-style landing craft. Like everything in this movie this we'll-fight-them-on-the-beaches climax is as entertaining as it is ludicrous.
Incidentally, the end titles feature an animated sequence which concludes with a shimmering Christian cross in front of which a knight decapitates a Muslim warrior. Not sure what the relevance of this is to the rest of the plot, but maybe an earlier revision of the screenplay had some reverse 9-11 action too.
*The Wikipedia account of this mischance serves up a more interesting tale than the version here filmed:
"In the early evening of 25 March 1199, Richard was walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail, investigating the progress of sappers on the castle walls. Arrows were occasionally shot from the castle walls, but these were given little attention. One defender in particular amused the king greatly—a man standing on the walls, crossbow in one hand, the other clutching a frying pan which he had been using all day as a shield to beat off missiles. He deliberately aimed an arrow at the king, which the king applauded. However, another arrow then struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck. He tried to pull this out in the privacy of his tent but failed; a surgeon, called a 'butcher' by Hoveden, removed it, 'carelessly mangling' the King's arm in the process. The wound swiftly became gangrenous. Accordingly, Richard asked to have the crossbowman brought before him; called alternatively Peter Basile, John Sabroz, Dudo, and Bertrand de Gurdon (from the town of Gourdon) by chroniclers, the man turned out (according to some sources, but not all) to be a boy. This boy claimed that Richard had killed the boy's father and two brothers, and that he had killed Richard in revenge. The boy expected to be executed; Richard, as a last act of mercy, forgave the boy of his crime, saying, 'Live on, and by my bounty behold the light of day'"