Saturday, February 19, 2011

Robin Hood Analysis Part II – A Pointless Middle

(SPOILERS:  Robin Hood)

Last post in my analysis of Robin Hood (story by Brian Helgeland and Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris, screenplay by Brian Helgeland) I identified the Catalyst as when Robin gets Loxley’s sword and the king’s crown and decides to return them to England.  But I didn’t mention where the end of Act I was.  That’s because the end of Act I is a problem in this movie.

I often refer to the end of Act I as “the point of no return.”  My friend Gregg Rosen calls it “the hero takes on the problem.”  My friend Don Hewitt says it’s the point where “the hero decides to…”  All are good descriptions of what ought to happen at the end of Act I.

I think as written Robin Hood attempts to combine the Catalyst and the end of Act I.  Robin has made a decision and taken on a problem.  The trouble is it doesn’t really feel like a point of no return.  He can still walk away.  We’d also like to have an idea of the challenges to come and we really don’t.  Again, this isn’t a movie about returning a sword.

Anyway, on to the middle of the movie.  The two biggest structural symptoms in the middle of the movie are lack of forward momentum and that fact that Robin isn’t very active. 

There’s a screen time issue for our hero – we spend almost as much time at the English court watching the machinations of John, the Queen and the Chancellor as we do with Robin and Marion at Nottingham.  Meanwhile in Nottingham Robin is never particularly challenged in any way.  Whose story is this?  What’s it about?

Let’s look at what specifically Robin does.  He returns the crown, drawing the attention of Godfrey.  Not bad, although Godfrey doesn’t really do anything about it except declare that Robin knows too much.  Next Robin goes to Nottingham to return the sword.  At about the halfway mark of the movie Robin agrees to continue playing the part of Loxley so that Nottingham won’t be returned to the crown once Loxley Sr. dies.

This is a pretty good twist.  It gets Robin potentially involved in the other, political action and could put him in danger.  The first problem, however, is that it comes an hour into the movie.  The second problem is that it doesn’t actually end up putting him in any danger.  His identity as Loxley is never once challenged.

We continue with Robin and Marion flirting.  There’s a bit of action where Robin robs a church wagon that is taking grain out of Nottingham so they can replant their fields.  Finally Robin leaves Nottingham to attend the meeting of nobles and make a big speech to King John that gets him to make a deal with the nobles.  Meanwhile, Godfrey attacks Nottingham.

Okay, that’s the end of Act Two – Godfrey’s attack.  It also is problematic but I’ll get to that in a second.  Let’s look again at the Second Act.  Basically what we see Robin do is travel (boring), flirt with Marion and steal some grain from a minor character to solve a minor problem.  It’s all subplot stuff!  This is a movie about the fate of England and our main character is busy with inconsequential events.  Don’t get me wrong, the romance with Marion is a very good subplot, but it’s not the point of the story.  We need Robin to get involved in the main action.

Okay, now to that end of Act Two.  Let’s leave aside the implausibility of Robin showing up and making a big speech to the King without any of the nobles pointing out he isn’t really Robin Loxley.  And let’s deal with the problems of John’s antagonist role in a later post.  The end of Act Two (if the ending will be happy, which this one will be) is supposed to be the moment of failure.  The point when all seems lost.  We know Robin will win in the end because it’s a Hollywood movie, but we sure can’t figure out how.

Well, Robin convincing John to sign a charter of rights certainly isn’t a moment of failure.  Godfrey’s attack on Nottingham could be.  Things sure look dire for Marion and her people for a few minutes.

But then Robin rides in with his troops and easily defeats the French soldiers.  Godfrey’s already left so Robin can face him at the end of the movie.  But with a little quick action Robin has solved all his problems again.  Marion and the town are safe.  Sigh, for a moment it looked like we might actually have some drama.

The ease with which Robin solves his “failure” at the end of Act Two is a huge problem, but the movie has an even bigger one.  We still don’t have a coherent through line.  Is this story about defeating the French?  Getting John to sign a charter?  Protecting Nottingham?  In short, the Dramatic Question is muddled.

From here Robin and his troops ride to the coast to join the battle against the French invaders.  There’s a huge battle scene and Robin ends up fighting Godfrey one-on-one, and – in a rather contrived bit of action – saves Marion again.  I’ll talk about all this in more detail in a later post but, for now, let’s ask what Dramatic Question this ending answers.

It would seem the Dramatic Question is “can Robin save England from Godfrey and the invading French.”  That is workable.  It wouldn’t be my choice for a Robin Hood story, but then this isn’t my Robin Hood story.  Let’s assume this is actually the story the filmmakers wanted to tell.

Now consider how much time Robin spends actually trying to achieve that goal.

Yeah, it’s pretty much just the third act.  For an hour and forty-five minutes Robin is wandering around doing stuff that is completely unrelated to our main storyline.  The Chancellor character plays a more vital role in this story than our hero.  I suppose we might say Robin isn’t the main character, but if not him, who?  He’s the one who gets the girl and saves the day in the end. 

This is a fatal flaw in the movie, and the solution is structural.  And I’ll address that solution next post.


Unknown said...

(Spoiler alert: Inglourious Basterds) Hey Doug, Thanks for the analysis of Robin Hood. Since you're talking structure, I'd like to hear your comments on the structure of Inglourious Basterds. For example, there isn't a Dramatic Question that's set up early in the movie - the first hint of a plan to destroy the cinema comes well after the first third of the movie. Other aspects of the structure seem (at least at first glance) to differ dramatically (pun unavoidable!) from standard 3 Act structure. Yet, the movie works so well, i.e. doesn't bore. Waddaya think? Thanks! By the way, this is Meng from your Singapore class

Gary Cottontail said...

@ Meng:
Good point. I feel like Chapter 1 and chapter 2 are prologues.

Chapter 2: Dramatic question might be Will the Basterds each collect 100 nazi scalps? (but this might be considered a second prologue)

He's basically setting up the three main characters, considering the Basterds as one character.

The scripts about 160 pages so chop off the first 40 and you get a typical 2hr movie.

Chapter 3: This is more like the beginning to a three act structure, the plan to burn down the theater comes at the end and of the chapter which is about 30pages.

Chapter 4: we learn the Basterds are to do the same thing.

Chapter 5: ties it all up

Unknown said...

@ Gary:
I agree with your analysis that Chapters 1 and 2 are introductory. I read the 164 page version of the script at Script-o-rama, so it could be the same as the one you're referring to. Chapter 3 does indeed start close to page 40 (pg 38).

I'm just amazed that in having such a long introduction Tarantino doesn't follow the 'rules' and yet it all works. I have so much to learn...

Unknown said...

Back to Robin Hood lol.
Your analysis was great by the way. I completely agree with everything you covered.

Something I wanted to point out always bothers me when watching the movie. I feel its a pretty big flaw in the sequence of events. By the time Godfreys rapist assistant learns that Robin is living as Robert Locksley, King John and the rest of England already know that Godfrey is a traitor. Godfrey has been hunting Robin all along because he knows Robin is one of the only ones that originally knows he is a traitor."He knows too much." So he finds out Robin is living as Robert, and his secret is out, yet he happily decides to Attack Nottingham. To "leave no stone unscorched." As if to snuff out Robin and anyone who knew that he was in fact working with the French. My question is why? To incite Robin into completely annihilating him Maximus style? To create a battle scene since there was a lack thereof in this movie? To simply create a partially, short-lived, sad section and act 2 ending. We do remember that Walter was killed so that sadness could signify the ending of the act. But I just don't get it. Godfrey does all that nonsense while he could be further working on his shave and shape up for the upcoming final battle.

Doug Eboch said...

@zac - I think asking "why" is a little pointless in this movie. ;) But I agree, Godfrey's motivation to attack Nottingham isn't very clear. Unless we assume he doesn't know he's been exposed? But that weakens him even further as a villain because his whole purpose in the evil plot is to know what's going on at court.

Doug Eboch said...

Regarding Inglorious Basterds: So this is a movie with multiple intersecting story lines. The usual approach to structure is to pick one story line to serve as the spine of the movie. I think for Inglorious Basterds that storyline is Shoshanna's. And there's that bit where Landa speculates on what will happen to her after she escapes the farm massacre. Of course the ending of her story is not a happy one, so the ups and downs are reversed. Now I haven't seen the movie since it came out, so I'm winging it a little bit. But this is how I would break it down:

Catalyst: Shoshanna escapes the massacre.
Dramatic Question: Will Shoshanna escape Landa and the Nazis?
End Act I: Shoshanna gets job at cinema where she can pretend to be French and hide out.
Midpoint: Shoshanna meets Landa again, hatches revenge plot.
End Act II: Premiere starts, all elements in place
Epiphany/Twist: Frederick shows up in projection booth
Resolution: Shoshanna killed, but gets her revenge.

The other story lines fit in around this. Some of the timing may not line up exactly, but remember the only rule: Don't be boring. Tarantino writes great scenes and that saves him when his structure occasionally falters.