Yesterday, to coincide with Ridley Scott’s adaptation, starring Russell Crowe and released this week, i looked at the legend of Robin Hood, and why so many movies and TV shows have been based around the popular character. The story of the outlaw that robs from the rich and gives to the poor is certainly compelling, but it got me to thinking. Surely there must be other characters from English folklore that are conducive to great storytelling, and fantastic filmmaking? So i had a bit of a look around, and chose five other legendary characters that have, to date, been unfairly ignored by the Hollywood machine.
Spring Heeled Jack
According to various folklore sources (or as i like to call them, Wikipedia), Spring Heeled Jack existed in Victorian London, and was so called because of his unique ability to jump very high. There are many descriptions of his appearance, the generally accepted one was of a tall, slim built man, dressed in black. Sometimes said to have claws, he was apparently a terrifying figure to behold. Jack’s MO differs in numerous accounts. Some involve simple feats of leaping, in some he attacked and groped women, and in other stories he was said to jump up and slap people in the face, quickly disappearing into the night.
Due to its macabre content, and Victorian setting, this project is perfect for the gothic king Tim Burton. His dark, creepy take on the streets of Olde London Town would set the perfect tone for this tale. Spring Heeled Jack himself, a dark, mysterious figure with obvious psychological issues, is the perfect role for Crispin Glover. What’s that? Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter? Oh, go on then. Bonham Carter plays a victim that Jack has taken a particular interest in, and he begins to revisit her, developing an obsession. Johnny Depp is the newspaper man on the trail of the shadowy figure, desperate to uncover his identity in order to further his journalistic career. The trail leads him to Carter’s doorstep, and he finds he must try to protect her whilst discovering the deep, dark secret at the heart of Spring Heeled Jack’s actions.
Brute of Troy
Brute was either the great grandson, grandson or son of the Trojan Aeneas, depending upon which source you follow. Born in Italy, as a young boy he accidently shot and killed his father with a bow and arrow. He was subsequently banished from the country, and formed a small army with a group of Trojans enslaved in Greece. He apparently travelled through India, and after many battles in Gaul sailed to Britain. There, his army kill a population of Giants, and Brute becomes the first king of Britain.
Michael Bay could bring his distinctive brand of high voltage action to this ancient mythic story, with Gerard Butler as the mighty Brute. We’d be treated to his early years, the accidental death of his father, played by Liam Neeson, and his subsequent adventures. Along with his Trojan followers, he would battle great CGI armies, Giants and other mythological creatures. Following a heavy defeat at Gaul, the army retreats to the seas, and as all their skilled navigators were killed in battle, find themselves at an unknown island. They begin to explore, and are forced to fight for their lives against the vast giants that call the land home. Eventually emerging victorious thanks to Brutes leadership, his followers make him king, and he names the island Britain, a derivation of his own name.
Hereward the Wake
In the 11th century, Hereward was supposedly part of the Anglo-Saxon resistance to William the Conqueror, and his Norman army. He is said to have initially rebelled against Edward the Confessor, resulting in exile to Europe, and being named an outlaw. He returned to England to try and help repel the Normans, along with a small Danish army. He was part of an alliance based on the Isle of Ely, and participated in attacks on the enemy around the Fen region of England. The Normans eventually launched an attack on the Isle of Ely, which ended in victory, though Hereward and and a number of others escaped, continuing the doomed resistance.
I would be interested to see Paul Greengrass take on this kind of historical story. The guerrilla style attacks of the outlaw’s band, filmed in Greengrass’ traditional shaky-cam would be awesome, truly conveying the brutality of these brutal skirmishes, and the horror inherent in this kind of uncivilised warfare. Who else but Matt Damon to play Hereward, initially forced to live as an outcast, bravely returning from Europe with the Danish army to take on William and the Normans. Winning over his fellow warriors through valour and great leadership, Hereward quickly rises to General of his own squad, and his successful ambushes raise the ire of William the Conqueror, played by Hans Lander. William orders the attack on the Isle of Ely to end the constant harassment of his troops. We are treated to a Helm’s Deep type battle, but through the unique lens of director Greengrass. Hereward fights bravely, but is forced to retreat. He continues in vein to attack the Norman forces, and his legend begins when he is eventually killed in battle.
Guy of Warwick
Guy was apparently a commoner who fell in love with a woman above his station, Lady Felice, a woman of noble birth. In order to prove he is a worthy suitor, he travels the land, fighting giants, dragons, a Dun Cow and various other mystical creatures. He becomes a knight, and returns for the Lady’s hand in marriage. However, overcome with guilt for his killings, he travels to the Holy Land to make amends. Eventually he returns, and lives as a recluse in a cave over the River Avon.
The various and obscure creatures involved in this story make it ideal for a filmmaker like Guillermo Del Toro. He has great skill at mixing fantastical beings with personal, emotional drama, and he is a uniquely gifted storyteller. The part of Guy could be played by an actor like Aaron Johnson. The Lady Felice is the kind of part that Gemma Arterton would be perfect for. Regular Del Toro collaborator, the fantastic Doug Jones is highly skilled at portraying wondrous, fantastical creatures. As such, he would be a great choice to play the creepy, unworldly beings Guy has to face.
So Guy, in our movie, falls in love with the Lady of higher standing. Her father, the Earl of Warwick (played by Michael Gambon) sends him out to prove his mettle. He does not want his daughter to marry a common man, however, as he has planned to marry her off to a rich nobleman in a position of power, as his own fortune has run dry. So he tells the nobleman, played by Mark Strong, to follow Guy, and ensure he is hampered in his quest. If the nobleman succeeds, he will win the Lady’s hand. After several complications arise during his quest, Guy eventually realises what is afoot. He allows Strong to be killed by the Dun Cow, before slaying it himself. When he returns and Strong doesn’t, the Earl is forced to allow the marriage. Guy however jilts Lady Felice at the altar, overcome with remorse at not saving the nobleman, and sales off to the Holy Land, leaving the franchise open for the inevitable sequel…
The Pedlar of Swaffham
The titular pedlar, who indeed lived in Swaffham (or Soffham) in Norfolk, is said to have had a dream that if he travelled to London, and stood at London Bridge, he would receive beneficial news. He ignored the first dream, but as they persisted he decided to make the trip to London for better or worse. Once there, he spent several days at the bridge, but nothing happened. Eventually, a curious shop owner approached him, and asked why he had been at the bridge waiting for so long. The pedlar explained his story, and the shopkeeper thought him a fool. He told the pedlar about his own dream, in which he travelled to Swaffham, and dug underneath a tree, behind a pedlar’s house, discovering great treasure. He explained to the pedlar that he was too wise to embark on a similarly foolhardy errand in the opposite direction, in pursuit of a nonsensical dream. The pedlar returned to his home, and found sure enough the treasure under the tree. With his new found wealth, he paid for the rebuilding of the crumbling Soffham church. His effigy can be found to this day in stained glass windows in the town.
This story is suited to a quirky, personal drama, perhaps directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The dream sequences would be surreal, then we would follow the Pedlar’s journey, played by Jude Law,as he set out to London. Once there, he could meet an odd selection of different people who live and work around London Bridge. The pedlar would interact with their lives, getting to know them, helping them out, all the while chasing the thought that anything they say could be the news he is waiting for. It would allow for some hilarious situations, as several times he could get involved with some sort of mis-adventure, believing it will lead to the information his dreams prophesised. Once he finally gets the news, and subsequently the treasure, he could pay for the Swaffham church, then move to London to live amongst his friends. Using his newfound wealth to help them with the trials and tribulations he became a part of during his three days there, he discovers the real treasure is the people he has met, and the new life he has found.
So, what do you think? What other folk tales would make great Hollywood movies?
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann