Sometimes mythmakers find that their myth gets ahead of them. Especially those in Hollywood.
That was the case with film director George Lucas and “Star Wars.” Whatever Lucas and his team intended when they invented Yoda or Darth Vader, it was probably not to help U.S. President Ronald Reagan win the Cold War. Yet the film stirred something deep, mythical, and yes, Republican in the American soul. Within a few years, the name “Star Wars” attached itself to the Strategic Defense Initiative, elevating Reagan’s pet project. Lucas sued to prevent the name being used in connection with the Pentagon. Lucas was too late. The title had already intimidated a generation of Russian generals.
The same fate is likely to befall director Ridley Scott. His new film, “Robin Hood,” wasn’t written to serve as a battering ram against Fortress Obama. After all, when Scott and a series of screenwriters and concept men were struggling over drafts of “Robin Hood” in 2007 and 2008, there was no Tea Party movement. President Barack Obama himself was just an extra on the political stage. Yet a better gift for the Tea Partiers of 2010 couldn’t have been dreamt up by Republicans, no matter how many portions of Friar Tuck’s mead they downed.
To be sure, this mythic movie starts off Democratic. The parallels between “now” and “then” are so strong that they swim together in the moviegoer’s mind. A primitive and sanctimonious king named George -- oops, Richard -- has led a tragic crusade to the Middle East. Other kings have led other crusades before, but this one is especially catastrophic.
The king has forced good men to slaughter innocent Muslims, revealing him to be the very opposite of the godly figure he claims to be. The foreign expedition drags on, dividing the king’s people against one another, Red State Saxons and Blue State Normans. The crusade drains the royal coffers. News comes that the king has perished in battle, the medieval version of going to Dallas to tend his archive.
So when Robin Hood and his merry men set foot in London, our moviegoer is prepared for some Rahm Emanuel-style collectivism and redistribution. And that is probably how most of the participants in “Robin Hood” imagined the plot would unfurl. Actor Russell Crowe, who plays Robin Hood, has said the traditional Robin Hood was the one he and audiences would like: “robbing from the rich to give to the poor -- I think that’s a universal connection that everyone makes with Robin Hood.”
At this point in its plot, though, the “Robin Hood” of 2010 takes an unexpected turn. A new king, indolent John, Richard’s brother, foolishly considers restoring the fiscal household-tax increases and tells his court that the move will replenish the royal coffers. The knave has forgotten his Reaganomics, a failure for which his mother promptly berates him, offering up a metaphor that is the feudal equivalent of the Laffer Curve.
“Milking a dry udder,” she snaps, “gets you nothing but kicked off the milking stool.” Next, a wise adviser, John’s Ben Bernanke, informs John that sometimes one should borrow, instead of tax. After all, for a superpower, some cash is always around, “money chests from Sicily to Normandy.”
But John makes like Bush 41 and taxes away. The House of Angevin tells feudal lords and merchants they may choose between filling “coffers or coffins.” Next, its men start torching towns that refuse to pay up to prove it means what it says.
Freed From Tyranny
Into this heavily taxed desperation steps the yeoman hero Robin Hood. The redistributive impulse to which Crowe alluded is still present, but doesn’t dominate. This Robin Hood is rather about freeing people from tyranny by cutting regulation and taxes. His showcase highway heist, for example, isn’t a theft from a plutocrat but rather the mugging of John’s heinous revenue hounds.
Robin and a few of his men, along with a Palinesque Marion, retreat to their Alaska, Sherwood Forest, regrouping so that they may vanquish Obama-John. Well, actually, this Marion doesn’t resemble Sarah Palin so much as one of those lady ranch owners who show up carrying posters reading “Kill the Death Tax” across your screen. When one of the King’s men castigates Marion for being mistress of 4,000 acres, Marion doesn’t cower like Susan Collins. She tartly corrects him “that’s 5,000 acres.”
This tax cutters’ fantasy of a Robin Hood IS compelling, and becomes more so when the rebels get the king to agree, at least for a while, that he will sign their Magna Carta. Magna Carta principles are, of course, ones dear to Tea Partiers’ hearts: that the king’s freedom to act is limited, that punishment must fit the crime, that arbitrariness on the part of a leader is itself tyranny, that kings must follow the law. No more drawing and quartering for misdemeanors, and no more invoking divine authority when it comes to the crown’s budget.
The only part of the story missing is who will be the 2010 Robin Hood. From Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, to Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and Palin herself, there is no shortage of candidates.
The frustration of the “Robin Hood” team at this interpretation is palpable. “No, no,” said screenwriter Brian Helgeland when queried about whether this was the first Tea Party movement. “That would not be good.” Cate Blanchett, who plays Marion, said it is the myth, not the political implications that mattered. There she’s right, alas for her.
Inspired by their new myth, all the Tea Partiers have to do now is roll out their rams and charge right through to Election Day in November.
(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Amity Shlaes at email@example.com