Robin Hood -- Prince of Thieves
starring Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Christian
Alan Rickman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
story by Pen Densham; screenplay by Pen Densham and
directed by Kevin Reynolds
(Morgan Creek Productions and Warner Bros., 1991)
the years, I've been taken to task for not having more on my site about
Kevin Costner's Robin Hood. Well, for all those who wanted me to do
a Spotlight on that film, here you go. Just be careful what you wish
It was the summer of 1991, and my favourite outlaw hero was
scheduled to be the star of one of that summer's biggest blockbusters.
For years I have loved and studied the legend. A month before Prince
of Thieves was released, a superb (and unjustly ignored) Robin
Hood TV movie starring Patrick Bergin was shown on Fox. While I
had not seen Dances with Wolves, the film had great
critical buzz and Kevin Costner was at the height of his popularity. A
couple of nights before the premiere, CBS aired "Robin Hood -- The Myth,
The Man and the Movie", a special which combined the usual "making of"
hype-fest with a reasonably competent documentary about the legend. The
special made the upcoming film look great. So, when I entered the theatre
on opening day, June 13, 1991, I was excited! I left very disappointed.
Before I begin, I'd just like to say -- this has nothing
to do with the accent. Kevin Costner's American and occasionally
mock-British accent has been the butt of many jokes, including one
of the funniest lines in Men in Tights ("Why should the people
follow you?" "Because, unlike some other Robin Hoods, I speak with an
English accent.") But really, for me the accent is pretty much a non-issue.
Medieval English accents don't sound like modern British accents, and
so if the dialogue is understood by the general audience, there's already
a degree of translation going on. I remember when the recent Man
in the Iron Mask film was released, there was some criticism that
it was very unrealistic that three of the four Musketeers didn't have
French accents. No, what was "unrealistic" was that all the Musketeers
were speaking English -- never mind the accents! So, I'll groan about
Costner's accent (or lack of, depending on your perspective) around the
same time I hear people criticizing Laurence Olivier for not doing Hamlet
with a Danish accent.
is not what's wrong with the movie. The writing, direction and acting
For those unfamiliar with the plot, it opens with Robin of Locksley
as a young Crusader held prisoner in Jerusalem. Robin and a Moor (black,
North African Muslim) named Azeem escape. Because Robin saved Azeem's
life, the Moor vows to stay with Robin until the debt is repaid (honour
apparently works on the barter system). Robin and his new companion return
to England, where they find Robin's father was murdered and his home destroyed.
The lead bad guy is the Sheriff of Nottingham, who runs a gang of devil-worshippers
who want to conquer England. After meeting up with Marian, the younger
sister of a dead Crusading comrade, our heroes flee to Sherwood Forest
and join an outlaw band. Robin teaches the outlaws to fight back, and soon
they embark on bold robberies and attempt to thwart the sheriff's evil
designs. After that, it's your standard "stop the bad guy" and "marry the
girl" excitement with trouble from a lecherous and demonic sheriff, his
thuggish cousin Guy of Gisborne, savage Celts, a double-dealing bishop and
an evil witch. Oh yes, with lots of fire, gunpowder and a musical score
that swings between sappily romantic and intrudingly bombastic.
The script is like a depressingly high number of "big" movies,
a Frankenstein's monster of other big movies. Recycled body parts include
the title (from a 19th century Alexandre Dumas novel and 1949 film about
Robin Hood), a few forgivable borrowings from Errol Flynn, big explosions
(thanks to anachronistic gunpowder) of many action films, the inter-racial
buddy dynamic partly from Lethal Weapon (although as I will discuss
later, from earlier sources as well), villains falling out of windows, dying
twice, and the bad guy actor himself from Die Hard, the murdered
parents, grim hero and psychotic, henchman-killing bad guy from Batman,
and the star and certain scenes from Dances with Wolves. Apart
from an earlier Costner caper and the caped crusader, the biggest organ
donor to Prince of Thieves would be the 1980s British television
series Robin of Sherwood. Borrowings include devil-worshipping
cults, an angry (although originally less immature) Will Scarlet and a Muslim
member of the Merry Men. Unfortunately, no one thought to transfer the
heart and soul of Robin of Sherwood to this new film.
And the dialogue, well usually it's just standard fare with the
occasional tendency towards the ridiculous. The new agey "Did I wrong
you in another life, Will Scarlett?" is possibly the worst line in the
However, it's the execution of this lacklustre script that is
As Kevin Costner is the star of the film, he gets the majority
of the blame. And deservedly so. I actually have liked Kevin Costner
in other movies. He comes off as a pleasant, likeable person, and there's
even some playful tricksterish humour in this film when he first meets
Tuck or as he taunts Azeem about the meaning of his name. "Great One?
Really? Did you give yourself this name?"
But it would take far more than an affable grin for me to risk
my life (and my family's life) for someone else's cause. And while the
speeches in the movie are meant to be inspiring, the acting is far from
it. For example, Costner practically mumbles the line "You could always
fight back." When asked if he plans to join the outlaws of Sherwood, Costner
casually replies "No, to lead you." And by casually, I don't mean assured
and confident, I mean casual as in "Would you pick up some milk on your
way home?" Compare the bland way Costner says "Tell the sheriff for every
harm he does these people I will visit it back on him tenfold" with Errol
Flynn's similar lines " I'll organize revolt, exact a death for a death,
and I'll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free
men and strike a blow for Richard and England!" Flynn's movie is often
viewed as light-hearted, but here Flynn delivers those lines with resolve
and deadly intent. Costner's delivery seems empty by comparison. Reportedly,
Costner was not given a lot of time to prepare and rehearse his role. (One
of many behind-the-scenes problems associated with this movie.)
Two scenes in particular show the problem with Costner's Robin.
The outlaw's activities bring retribution from the sheriff. Homes
are destroyed and peasants chased out of their villages. The peasants,
hurt and homeless, come to Sherwood to confront our hero. Costner's
Robin uses a tone of voice that is not much different than his previous
scenes. His grin which seemed playful in taunting Azeem, just comes
off as smug when he asks "Do you think the sheriff will give everything
back once I am gone?" When told what the soldiers will take, Robin says
the supposedly inspiring "By God, we'll take it back" in same flat tone
of voice as everything else. By playing up the peasants' suffering and
underplaying Robin's line delivery, Costner comes off as oblivious to the
concerns of the poor as John Cleese's Robin Hood ["as to be played by the
Duke of Kent"] in Time Bandits. Actually, Cleese's performance
is hilarious, and quite a good serious film could be done about a Robin
so wrapped up in his cause that he ignores the suffering of others. But
I get the feeling, this isn't the way the scene was meant to be interpreted.
As a bookend to that scene, Robin and the outlaws later redistribute
wealth to one of those peasant villages. The poor are delighted to receive
help and say things like "God bless Robin Hood!" Costner keeps a stone-faced
grimace in this scene. Lives have been helped, but he doesn't share
in the joy. He smiles at sadness and frowns at delight. Costner's Robin
seems to lack any trace of empathy.
With such a half-baked hero, it really isn't surprising that the
Sheriff of Nottingham is by far the most popular character in the movie.
So much so that after the test screening, some of the sheriff's scenes
were cut by the producers, to prevent him stealing more time and sympathy
away from the film's hero. "Chewing the scenery", "over-the-top" -- Alan
Rickman delivers a performance that makes those expressions seem like
understatements. Rickman is the ultimate panto baddy, never missing a
chance to leer, sneer and screech things like "Locksley, I'll cut your
heart out with a spoon!" Then there's his response to Robin's popularity
-- "That's it then! Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no
more merciful beheadings and call off Christmas!" The sheriff even tells a
child, "it's amazing I'm sane" -- pure Christmas pantomime. Both Rickman
and the sheriff seem to be having a lot of fun. And when helping the peasants
seems so unpleasant to Robin, of course we'll turn our sympathies to the guy
who is having a whale of a time harming the (literally) great unwashed.
'Tis a pity he's a rapist.
The sheriff's intended rape of Marian seems so comical, I'm not
sure who we are supposed to be rooting for. Was this meant to be a
funny rape? (Apparently, the comedy in this scene was Rickman's idea.)
It's another scene of pure panto, but I can't remember any children's shows
staging a rape (not counting of course, the disturbing necrophiliac tendencies
of Prince Charming). This is one of many instances where I have to wonder
what the filmmakers were thinking.
I wonder about that in regard to the whole sheriff/Robin dynamic.
As many of have said, the sheriff and Robin seem to be in two completely
different films. As Rickman is more than capable of playing complex
characters and more restrained rascals, the theatrics were obviously
a deliberate choice. By having such an over-the-top enemy, there seems
little sense of resistance to authority. Robin and his men are being
no more rebellious than when the Super Friends fight the Legion of Doom.
But as Stephen Knight says "When the most quoted line from a Robin Hood
film is the sheriff shrieking, in fury at his peasants, 'And call off
Christmas,' it is evident that something is seriously wrong with the
tone and overall balance of this version of the heroic legend." It's
not that a Robin Hood film should be entirely serious or entirely comic,
the best versions of the legend have always mixed drama and humour. But
instead of a delicate balance or a natural flow, here wit and angst seem
to be engaged in open warfare with each other. (The last minute addition
of Costner scenes and deletion of Rickman scenes didn't help the situation,
although I think the problem existed before the film reached the editing
Another character who appears to be in a different movie is Christian
Slater's take on Will Scarlett, shown here as Robin's half-brother (an
update of the ballad which made him Robin's nephew or cousin). Some of
Will's "piss and wind" (to quote Little John) seems like a heavily-diluted
version of Ray Winstone's angry Scarlet on Robin of Sherwood. But
whereas the older TV Scarlet was troubled by his wife's rape and murder,
the movie Will's issues are "Daddy loved you best!" A successful version
of Robin Hood has to appeal to contemporary audiences, but still Slater
seems so modern in his delivery that his character appears to have fallen
out of some late 20th century film like Heathers or Pump Up the
Volume and into a time warp, being dropped into the 12th century wholly
unchanged. If nothing else, I think director Kevin Reynolds has to take
some of the blame for having so many conflicting performances in the same
A better performance comes from Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as
Marian. She delivers the banter well and fights fairly well when required
to. Still I think it's case of making the best of what she's given. It's
hard to manufacture romantic chemistry with Costner's Robin, and the plot
dictates that a capable and fiery feminist turn into a helpless and shrieking
damsel in distress, just waiting for her yeoman in Lincoln green to come
to the rescue. As Marian is most successful in fighting the good guys,
I think the script betrays her character. And despite what some critics
have said, this Marian is hardly the first fighting version of the character.
("And the Reel Maid Marian...", an article by Sherron Lux is an excellent
look at the cinematic Marians, and how they can switch from being active
fighters to damsels in distress. This article can be found in Robin
Hood in Popular Culture, edited by Thomas Hahn.)
Also, I don't think Marian is the strongest female character in the
movie. In fact, the strongest character (male or female) may well be
Fanny, Little John's wife. Soo Drouet plays a tough, witty and thoroughly
human member of the outlaws, one who unlike Marian is an active participant
in the raid on Nottingham. She also gets the best line of the film, when
Little John asks her to stay behind. "I've given birth to eight babies,
don't you talk to me about getting hurt, you big ox."
Fanny also has terrific chemistry with Nick Brimble's Little John
(my second favourite character in the film). Although saddled with
a quiverful of cliched "Bugger me's", "Bollocks" and "Bloody Hells" making
up for the non-British speech patterns of everyone else, Brimble still
manages to play Little John with as much humour and humanity as Fanny.
Little John is such a major character in the legend, it's a shame he doesn't
have more to do in this movie. (And Little John losing the quarterstaff
duel? That's just wrong.) At least Brimble is given the chance to say
Errol Flynn's immortal phrase "Welcome to Sherwood."
Micheal McShane's Friar Tuck also gets pushed to the sidelines,
but he also goes through more character growth than anyone else in Prince
of Thieves. (The only character development that Costner's Robin
Hood has is going from a 12-year old jerk to a mature, responsible man
-- and that happens off-screen, years before the action of the movie.)
While Tuck's alcoholic humour is a bit panto, he also has a serious, religious
side. He does seem to view the chance to provide spiritual guidance to
the outlaws as gift from God. That his Sunday School teaches more about
hooch than the Holy Bible is where the panto comes in. But there is a dark
side. For in the finale, the friar pushes the traitorous bishop out a window.
Tuck is also allowed to have some genuinely racist thoughts about Morgan
Freeman's Azeem. When Azeem performs a Caesarean to save Fanny and her newborn
child, Tuck is won over saying "Today the Lord has taught me a fine lesson.
That although I may think I am godly, I know I am not worldly." Although
the boozy wit resumes, Tuck has grown.
Finally, we come to the newest major addition to Robin Hood legend,
Azeem the Moor as played by Morgan Freeman. Wise, witty, supportive
-- of the banner names, I think Freeman did the best job. He played a
character that could have been little more than a series of clichés,
and yet brought the part to life. I can't fault his performance in the
slightest. Neither can the filmmakers, as they gave him one of the more
inspiring speeches (at least Freeman's delivery was more rousing than
Costner's -- something else that Men in Tights parodied).
Of course, I do have to wonder why none of the Nottingham townspeople seem
to share Tuck's former prejudices.
As for the character of Azeem, I have some reservations. As I
mentioned above, Azeem is not the first Muslim to join the Merry Men
(even if Prince of Thieves always seems to get the credit/blame
for this in the popular press). And while this film may have purloined
the faith (and partly the name), Nasir played by Mark Ryan in Robin of
Sherwood and Azeem don't have that much in common. Nasir is silent
ex-assassin, whereas Azeem is part scholar and philosopher and part scientist
(bringing with him optics and gunpowder technology generations ahead of
its time). But I think there's something of patronized sidekick to him.
Swashbuckling film expert Jeffrey Richards compares him to an aboriginal
medicine man. There's certainly something of that, although I also see
a more sarcastic Tonto in him, a hint of Danny Glover's "I'm too old for
this sh..." routine and even traces of Star Trek's Mr. Spock
comparing Vulcan and human ways.
Azeem has also been criticized for bringing political correctness
to Sherwood. Actually, I thought his exchange with Little John's daughter
was quite touching.
Did God paint you?"
Did God paint me? [Smiles] For certain.
Because Allah loves wondrous variety."
film's politics weren't as correct as that scene would imply. Certainly,
the inter-racial issue between Robin and Azeem seems positive and calculated
to appeal to a modern American audience. Robin Hood scholar Professor Lorraine
Stock notes that Robin's father seems sympathetic when the sheriff and
his cult move to attack Locksley Sr. "The torch-lit 'white robed on horseback'
look of Rickman and his henchmen gives the effect of Ku Klux Klansmen on
a malevolent nighttime visit to a slave-sympathetic southerner. This has
a lot of visual resonance for the American audience. It injects another
facet of the film's dealing with the issue of race." Unfortunately, while
not everyone receives as much positive treatment as Azeem. While the North
African Moor was a civilized and tolerant man, the more traditional Arab
Muslims seen at the film's opening were murderously intolerant. And while
some words are spoken against the Crusades, the Christian crusaders we
actually meet -- Robin, Marian's brother Peter, King Richard -- are all
portrayed as good men. I've got some issues with the Crusades, and find
it harder to cut modern movies some slack on this. I think Marian's descent
into helpless object undercut the movie's supposed feminism. And then
there are the Celts. Maybe it's just the Scots Irish in me, but I found
the portrayal these blood-drinking barbarians to be more racist (and historically
incorrect) than the anti-Norman tirades of previous films. [The Celts
got their own back a few years later, when Braveheart played the
Scots at valiant freedom fighters and the English as unredeemably cliched
And as always, Robin's mission is to help the peasants. A plain,
simple folk who need the guidance of a nobleman to tell them what to do,
what to think, how to behave? [Will Scarlett's mother is simply "a peasant
woman" -- she doesn't even rate a name or a personality. ] This portrayal
of dim-witted peasants seems at odds with Costner's (or writers Densham
and Watson) dialogue such as "Nobility's not a birthright" or "Don't call
me sire." Am I the only one who detects a bit of condescension and hypocrisy
in the supposedly liberal democratic values of Prince of Thieves?
Politically correct? Perhaps, but not to my unabashedly liberal politics.
Except perhaps for the portrayal of blacks (as neither Azeem nor I are Americans,
I am not using the expression African-American), the politics of this film
seem very superficial.
Climbing off my soapbox, I think there are some nice visual moments
to the film. For some reason, the sets, interiors (some genuine locations,
I know) and Ewok trees village don't quite ring true to me. But some
of the location work is beautiful, such as the horse chase from Marian's
home into the forest, the walk along Hadrian's Wall, and the quarterstaff
duel with Little John. When it works, this film looks very good.
might seem strange be so harshly critical of this movie, when it's production
values are so much higher than other Robin Hood movies. Is it really
that much worse a film than, say, 1967's A Challenge for Robin Hood?
In a way, yes. A Challenge for Robin Hood is an intentional B-movie
and unabashedly so. It's not a great B-movie, but it's not a truly bad
one either (not compared to other B-movies). Prince of Thieves
, on the other hand, is a poor A-movie blockbuster. Production values
are not everything. The 1950s TV series did not have high production values,
but it did have solidly-plotted scripts and a lead actor who could convincingly
play a leader of men. Prince of Thieves has neither. And as for the superiority
of costumes over Errol Flynn's tights, it's a complete non-issue. Wolfshead
, Robin and Marian, Robin of Sherwood and the other
1991 Robin Hood movie all chose less form-fitting period costumes
and caked themselves in designer mud. (Mind you, the hairstyles in all
these productions are terribly modern.)
In a way, I regret having to write this article. As I said in
the introduction, when I first saw this film I was 21 years old. I was
well-exposed to the Robin Hood legend. And as for movies that shaped
my childhood -- well, I am of the Star Wars generation. But I know
many of my site's younger visitors (although not that young any longer)
grew up with Prince of Thieves. It was their first big
movie -- their first exposure to the outlaw legend. So, to them, I apologize
for trampling on a childhood favourite. I'm sure there are many people
who could criticize the hell out of my childhood treasures.
Wondrous variety and all that.
In 2005, there were news articles suggesting that Costner was looking to make a sequel to Prince of Thieves. Costner later denied these reports. For posterity, I leave the following comments about the supposed sequel which is unlikely to get made. Despite the negativity of this review, I actually wish the project well. I hope this time they will approach the film with a point, with something new to say, instead of just serving up the leftovers of Robin of Sherwood. (Or given the advancing age of the actors, perhaps Robin and Marian would be the obvious thing to borrow from.) Star Trek II was considerably better that the first Trek film. It had more heart, humour and character drama than the first film. Sequels don't have to be crap. I know there was once talk about doing an follow-up adventure in Azeem's home turf, but I have no idea if a new film would follow that plan.
For those curious as to what scenes may have been edited out of the
movie, Simon Green's novelization provides some extra scenes. It turns
out that the sheriff is actually the son of the witch Mortianna -- switched
at birth with the son of the former sheriff. The sheriff (whose name George
was only mentioned in the movie's wedding scene) discovers his true parentage
when he confronts Mortianna about her spying on his chambers. Her knowledge
came not only from runes, but from a spy hole. In the book, the sheriff's
final words are "I wonder ... who was Dad?" Those background details make
the relationship between the sheriff and the witch in Men in Tights
all the more disturbing. The subplot between the sheriff and Mortianna was
cut by the studio, apparently against director Kevin Reynolds's wishes. [The
new special edition DVD adds many of these scenes back into the film.]
The novel departs from the finished movie on another point. In
the movie when Tuck finally accepts Azeem, he offers the Moor a drink.
Azeems declines on grounds of his religion. Tuck tells him
"Fine, you talk, I'll drink." In the book, Tuck actually argues the
point with Azeem.
Azeem quickly, "I am not permitted ---"
"Our God made
this brew, brother," said Tuck sternly. "Do you dare insult his works?"
"Since you put it that way ..."
cheered and applauded as Tuck and Azeem went off in search of holy beer.
I prefer the film's version. Not only is the wit shorter and punchier,
but I don't think acceptance requires the assimilation apparent in the
book version. It seems to cheapen Azeem and his beliefs to accept
that drink, instead of just Tuck's friendship. I wonder if earlier
scripts were closer to the novelization.
I didn't spend
a lot of time on the historical inaccuracies in Prince of Thieves. All
Robin Hood productions play with history -- that's why Robin's a legend.
But if you're interested in the anachronisms, goofs and plot holes in
Prince of Thieves, check out its entry at Movie-Mistakes.com
And for links and all sorts of info, visit the Internet Movie Database
On June 10, 2003, Warner Bros. released a special two-disc "Special Edition"
or "Extended Edition" DVD of Prince of Thieves. 12 minutes of footage, mostly
featuring Alan Rickman, have been added back to the film. [The added footage
actually creates a continuity error. If the scribe's tongue was cut out
and he can't speak ... how can he give directions to Robin later in the
film? Maybe he has a twin brother.] There are also two commentary tracks
and a variety of other features.
I find that both commentaries are wonderfully
ironic as the moments when they chose to wax most poetic about how original
their treatment is happens to be when the film is borrowing the most from
Robin of Sherwood and other modern versions. (The commentaries on the Robin of Sherwood DVDs often have that show's cast and crew listening the extensive borrowing.) Also listening to the commentaries
means that I can focus on the images. And as I said above, when the film
works (in location work or action scenes), it does work. Then a snippet of
dialogue comes through. Sigh.
I did learn one interesting piece of trivia from the commentary tracks.
Morgan Freeman's much-praised horse was Fury. I was familiar with the horse's
previous work as he was Sir Guy of Gisburne's horse in Robin of Sherwood.
(Not the first strange recycling of horses in Robin Hood films. Maid Marian's
horse in the Errol Flynn film was Roy Rogers' famous Trigger.)
Buy the Extended Edition DVD on Amazon.com (For Region 1, USA/Canada)
the Extended Edition DVD on Amazon.co.uk (For Region 2, Europe/Japan).
© All photos, copyright Morgan Creek Productions. Used without
permission as "fair use" for the purposes of criticism and review.