Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" was an eagerly anticipated film that ultimately failed to impress many viewers. Scott's historical epic films often find themselves the focus of "History Channel" specials capitalizing on public interest in the film and serve a twofold purpose: educate and promote. Scott's film, a look at the origin of the Robin Hood legend was supplemented by a "History Channel" special titled "The Real Robin Hood" a look at the character, a staple of literature and film, and whether he actually existed in the first place.
Utilizing a strong blend of first-hand dramatizations, supplementary CGI animations, expert interviews and the inevitable commentary from those involved with the film as well as film clips, "The Real Robin Hood" is a surprisingly competent documentary for a largely promotional program. First and foremost, the interviews with cast and crew, including Russell Crowe, Ridley Scott, and Cate Blanchett, are much better than one might expect. No one here is an expert on Robin Hood, but all parties demonstrate an enthusiasm for the subject matter and lend their own theories on the actual existence of the character, which is perfectly acceptable given that is the main question posed, but largely unanswered by the feature. The only negative aspect of the promotional nature of the feature, is the inclusion of footage from the film; at times it corresponds to what is being talked about, but a number of times it's merely thrown in their to meet the quota, likely a studio mandate.
Fortunately "History" goes to the extra effort of filming their own dramatizations for places where the film doesn't (or is unable) to provide a visual representation of events. Of course, a documentary would be nothing without expert testimony and "The Real Robin Hood" employs a wide variety of historians who cover a broad range of topics from general medieval history, to specifics such as literature and language of the time to military tactics. The military expert is particularly memorable, wielding replicas of period weapons and discussing their usage with much enthusiasm. In all honesty, "The Real Robin Hood" is more of a concise look at medieval England than a hard-hitting examination of Robin Hood.
For viewers wanting a definitive answer as to whether Robin Hood existed, this show won't provide one. The historians can't come to a proper conclusion, mostly because the history is too fuzzy. Yes, the legend is based in fact and appropriate context (for instance, their where two possible inspirations for the Sheriff of Nottingham, both crooked as a politician), but there is stronger evidence for Robin Hood being more of an idea than one man. Frankly, this notion sets well with me and the quality of the program and the historical information I took away from it made the viewing a worthwhile experience.
Narrator William Hurt plays his role as he should, treating the experience as a learning event and not cheap promotion. Still, "The Real Robin Hood" is meant to sell viewers on the movie and if one were to edit the unnecessary film footage and interviews from cast and crew that sometimes repeat theories proposed by the actual scholars, then the program would be noticeably shorter than it's nearly 90-minute runtime. At the end of the day, the separate release of this program is questionable, as it would have been a great extra on the DVD and Blu-Ray release of the feature film.
One can't begin to fathom how shocked and pleased I was to find "The Real Robin Hood" was a 1.78:1 ANAMORPHIC transfer. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, after years of ho-hum, non-anamorphic transfers, "History" has finally got with the program and, at least here, released a proper anamorphic disc. The main feature is a consistently solid looking transfer, with some heavy digital noise during a few location shots under low lighting conditions, but for the rest of the runtime sharp looking with moderate detail. Colors are very earthen and stone, an odd choice for a documentary, but thematically fitting with the subject. The film clips from Ridley Scott's film are 2.35:1 and quite stunning. No other technical hiccups such as aliasing (a common occurrence on "History Channel" discs) or edge enhancement.
The English 2.0 audio track is crisp, clear, and distortion free. William Hurt's rich voice has a hint of oomph to it, while the score makes it's presence felt without ever overpowering speakers. It's a very solid stereo track, although the film clips do sound a little lifeless, for obvious reasons.
While "The Real Robin Hood" doesn't prove that Robin Hood existed, it does give viewers a good taste of medieval history and customs. This program likely won't teach history buffs anything new, but for the casual viewer, it's a solid documentary. While ultimately promotional, it's far and above your average offering. "History" gets my respect for finally releasing an anamorphic DVD, a trend I hope continues, although I really wish they had just licensed this documentary to Universal for the DVD release of "Robin Hood." While a good program, the film clips don't make repeat viewings a tolerable experience and for those whose appetites are hungry for more medieval information, are better served seeking out a more expansive documentary or series. Rent It.