One of the surprising things about the “tea-bagger revolution,” is that without any of the sort of in-film help kindly proffered in “Life of Brian,” it suddenly becomes much harder to hear of peasant revolts against unfair taxes and instantly hate the surely unjust, greedy lords at work cruelly starving the populace, just to fight primarily vanity-driven, foreign wars. Instead, for at least a moment or two, we wonder if there might in fact have been some justice in the taxing, and some (not starvation driven) insanity in the peasants, and further that if we continue to cheer on those we are directed to cheer for, if we’re not in some way taking in of the same very bad inputs which produced these American misanthropes in the first place.
This isn’t the first time with Ridley Scott, but despite every bit of force motioning us to despise the new king for dismissing the long-serving Earl Marshall, I cheered for the royalty. In this case I specifically cheered -- build ’dem roads! get ’dem taxes! Even if in this film universe the money’s primarily going to wars and not as the king argues, to run the country, and even if the reticent withholding northern lords aren’t withholding from the king because grain isn’t even on hand to supply their own dinner plates, let alone feed their people, but in fact because they horde away their riches in gross portions in the fashion of Friar Tuck and his stored-away barreled conglomeration of honey, I know that the royalty, the government, elsewhere --most everywhere -- has a good point: how do you do anything new with your country when well-positioned people in your own retinue judge all change as lapse of wisdom in pull of impulse and whimsy? Scott didn’t intend this, but when good people are for one, mostly old, and completely frozen in disposition -- in grimace -- and outlook, all his ostensible villains need to do is poke at their stoned faces with the slightest bit of sneer or mockery, have the slightest bit of teasing fun with them, and our sympathies should be theirs.
The film would have us believe that the greatest unearthed treasure here is the revelation that way back in the 12th-century, a man produced a document with implications so revolutionary they might stop us in our tracks, even today, if we allowed ourselves to think on them a bit. But for me it was the young to-be-king’s continuing to sex his french vixen, while his wizened, wrinkled, grandmother, impotently beamed all her supply of wrathful looks upon him. What a treasure! He understood his grandmother as just another of England’s stony looming gargoyles, who scare away with show of eternal judgment but who are born out of fear of life, of stupid ignorance and misunderstanding of anything beyond familiar reach, not lifetimes of accrued wisdom; and showed himself in tune with the slow breaking of routine and duty in favor of mischief, mirth and experimentation that marked the beginning of the English learning from the French and the Italians, which marked the beginning of the roots for the English renaissance!
Intriguingly, Scott doesn’t actually have it in for the French. They are it seems by nature driven to be smartly and ruthlessly conquistatorial and scheming -- it’s just who they are -- and they aren’t so individually self-inflating they can’t readily accept that they might function better as each one of them part of a larger state, and so at worst always have a comprehensive functioning state while England could at any turn disintegrate into a swath of broken, squabbling chiefdoms, and are possessed of an arrogant -- and actually in a way, self-diminishing -- and ultimately limited, but still formidable understanding of human tendencies. They are a formidable opponent; are right to doubt that there is anything actually really existing and worthy when the English are in mood to bash their shields and herald their virtue before them; and they serve as a test as to how well the English are embodying their in-truth potentially superior selves -- as truly uncompromised, noble individuals, obliged to a King but whose castles are their own homes, who when united can repel huge armadas and armies as can any vibrant young body, multitudes of weakness-drawn contagens. Who he has it in for are the English who don’t understand that their way to best form, is not to be seduced by French novelties, things suited really only to those of apparently unadulterated French constitution, but to uncover basic truths concerning their nobility they seem everywhere either prone to forget or cover over, or to twist into worst possible deviant forms. This means remembering / learning to be honest, forthright, brave, unrelenting, and so forth. It means boasting the soul of a stone-mason -- bearing-out truths you’d inscribe on an otherwise unadorned sword: It means life becoming about not an increasing awareness of, and adding of and an appreciation for complexities, but about refusing to add layers, life, story, to sully perfect and simple beginnings.
To say that Scott would have the English, would have us, work against life amounting to a story, to make maturity delightful because it means a constant conversation of previous experience, perspective, with the newly encountered and just understood, is, for the most part, actually fair. His heroes are too often attractive men and woman who ultimately disappoint because they not just accord themselves with but seem trapped in code: they are trapped to be noble because they exist to show up other people’s deficiencies or fallenness, and take vengeance on them for it. But there is enough of another possibility at work in his work that I’ll certainly mention it: and that is, an argument not against change, but in favor of cultivating a state of being that makes you able to enjoy a life of mature enjoyment and development, without diverting oneself onto wayward paths opened up by the pettiest of motivations. You sense amongst his main principles, that is, self-esteem. You do. Robin Longstride is the better man for returning the sword to the family of a deceased good-hearted man, and acting without pretense while returning it. His stay in Nottingham, with Marion and father Loxley, offers what you never believed would have opened up in “Gladiator” had the turn in that movie had been to allow Maximus to return to his family -- namely, a fairly convincing show of amiability, friendship, comfort and good living, you would be hard-pressed not to kill and kill again, if such was necessary, to have some chance of reclaiming or returning to it. But since his characters for the most part seem to stop developing at some point, at exactly the same point, it seems, that they finally learn how to properly comport themselves and become wholly principled, Scott ultimately does not make self-esteem the beginnings of onward journeys, but it’s termination -- the beginning of character stasis. To be noble is to lose self-confliction, but to become a bore -- and just look what that did to the English king’s foxy vixen French wife: Plunge the dagger into yourself, my dear, you’ve surrendered your sizzle and mischief in your giving in to grandma -- don’t allow yourself to live long enough to prove an example of how others similarly vitally sexed can sabotage everything great in them to show off the knowingness and majesty in vastly too long-lived, aged owls.
What Scott does, though, is make character cementation the beginning of their involvement in his movies greatest battles -- and as such there is a sense that they’ve been molded into familiar pieces that will be involved in none the less surprising, you-never-know -- even when at some level, you do know -- military engagements. Chess pieces -- rooks, bishops, knights, pawns, kings -- that can each be downed by strategy or errant happenstance, at any instance. Where bravery and skill we find really does count, but in execution seems so much more subtle, invisible, amongst the multitudes of intentions, one-on-ones, variant goings-on, that even a charging, competent king at the front of the battle seems in need of having his bravery being recounted afterwards -- so that it can be poetically foregrounded -- to seem as glorious as we might have wanted him to be in the instant, and who could be quitted -- and not just killed -- by attendance to something else unusual or at least unexpected but not in fact out of ordinary for the occasion, like a cook experimenting away from his post to crossbow (what turns out to be) a king, or even -- for me at least -- just his bringing up of soup, for a brief time-out for harried, exhausted soldiers, at top of the castle’s turret. For Scott, battles are where we get what we would have hoped to receive in conversations between characters -- where unexpected turns are met with improvisations that show our heroes as heroic for inspired reactions to developments before them, for being able to see the battle as a story they can yet sway into some variant form rather than another. Yes, Robin’s “ask me nicely,” the whole bedchamber sequence with Marion, is an example of wonderful improvisation and discovery through conversation, but it is not Scott’s main fortay or inclination. Instead, heroes are mostly plain and stalwart in conversation -- this shows their minds already know everything they need to know, so every conversation away from the everyday is just a potential lean on them toward the bad -- and villains, those most prone to complicate what we might expect with turns toward some possibility we might not have accounted for. Villains will show that they shouldn’t be killed, because their best-loved cousin is french -- a farceful play, that seems to have swayed his french foe -- or that they shouldn’t accord their self-righteous mothers’ wishes, because though confronted with those wearing-thick plain virtue, they can easily, correctly, but still remarkably show how even while themselves undressed and in seemingly the baldest of compromised positions, they’re actually evidently right in insisting they’re not the ones foremost in bed with those shorn all decency and allegiance to duty.
In battles, everything seems tossed up and kind of random and unpredictable -- in the moment of it, and despite all experience of how these things normally go, still hard to foretell -- and so it is in Scott’s battles where everything that the healthcare-fearing tea-bagger would despise -- the chance for meaningful change and unpredictable, onward growth -- is manifested. The battles are where we still may sense Scott embraced by baby boomers who remember how the 60’s social battles were moved by sufficient expectation for change, that every twist and turn in any particular engagement might just determine exactly how the future would take shape. You could be great and fearless, and yet find yourself suddenly surprised by beginning a battle with two arrows in you that have already doomed you -- as happened to the german warrior in “Kingdom of Heaven” -- that ensures we’ll mostly just see in your perseverance just how good you must have been in the battles that built your reputation. Or in a moment of slight over-extension, be ended after a lifetime of killer-blows to everyone else -- as happened to the muslim knight, again in “Kingdom of Heaven.” You could deliver what we have been given every bit of evidence -- in battles that rain arrows just about everywhere -- to suspect as just as likely as any other possibility, a purely random shot that ends the life of a king. Your efforts may amount to cruel nothing, or make the greatest of differences. And so while I feel I haven’t much more interest in Scott, for I loathe his foreclosing of character development, his making of potentially interesting people into dull chess pieces, his most boring, dumb, and unmoving solutes to democratic principles, I still see in his work some evidence for understanding living best as being open to unexpected nuances that could lead to grandscale changes, of being open and desiring of life amounting to the surefooted engaging willingly in forays that could have them slip, for the unexpected -- and maybe even -- the better.
Photo stills: CinemaBlend.com (Universal Pictures)