Starring Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater,
Alan Rickman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Story by Pen Densham; screenplay by Pen Densham and John Watson
Directed by Kevin Reynolds
(Morgan Creek Productions and Warner Bros., 1991)
Over 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 for.
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 1998 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.
The accent is not what's wrong with the movie. The writing, direction and acting are.
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 movie.
However, it's the execution of this lacklustre script that is most troubling.
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. Throughout his career, Alan Rickman had a special compact with the audience. No matter what other problems there may be in a film, Rickman would deliver a performance that would charm and captivate us. And so it is with this film. But there's one sour note to these proceedings -- the Sheriff of Nottingham is an attempted rapist.
The sheriff's attempted 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.
On one level, it's a good choice. His performance - story issues aside -- is a complete delight. But 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 room.)
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 much of the blame for having so many conflicting performances in the same movie.
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. She can beat up Robin Hood early in the film, but does virtually nothing when the sheriff and his guards threaten her.
And despite what some critics have said, this Marian is hardly the first fighting version of the character. (In her excellent article "And the Reel Maid Marian...", Sherron Lux looks 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.
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.
The idea of a best friend being representative of the "other" is a long literary tradition. In the novels by James Fenimore Cooper,Natty Bumppo (aka Hawkeye) was accompanied by his Mohican friend Chingachgook. Much further back, Gilgamesh formed a deep bond with the outsider Enkidu.
Later version of the Muslim member of Robin's band have continued the tradition of this movie. Djaq (real name: Safia) played by Anjali Jay was a scientifically-minded woman who often hid her gender behind male costume in the 2006 Robin Hood TV series. 2018 Robin Hood's Little John aka Yahya is an Arab played by Jamie Foxx who serves as a mentor to Robin.
Azeem has also been criticized for bringing political correctness to Sherwood. Actually, I thought his exchange with Little John's daughter was quite touching.
CHILD: Did God paint you?
AZEEM: Did God paint me? [Smiles] For certain.
AZEEM: Because Allah loves wondrous variety.
But the 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 bad guys.]
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 Black characters (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.
So, it 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. [I first wrote this review in 2002. I will say that I find Prince of Thieves far more entertaining than the subsequent big budget Robin Hood movies from 2010 and 2018.]
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.) [The "this time he's not wearing tights" press releases for this 1991 movie were virtually recycled for the 2006 TV series, the 2010 film and the 2018 film. I'm not sure if that's a testament to how forgettable these movies are or how gullible the Hollywood press corps is.]
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.
"Alas," said Azeem quickly, "I am not permitted ---"
"Our God made this brew, brother," said Tuck sternly. "Do you dare insult his works?"
Azeem smiled. "Since you put it that way ..."
The woodsmen 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 .
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. The extended edition has also been released digitally and on BluRay.
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.)
Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner. This isn't on this list because I recommend it for its quality. I find the writing weaker than many of the items on this page. But this 1991 film did define Robin Hood for a generation. Howver, Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman and some of the supporting actors give very entertaining performances.
Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves on DVD and Blu-Ray
Buy Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves (Extended Cut) on Amazon.com
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - Extended Version on Amazon.co.uk (for British/European audiences)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves / Robin des Bois : Prince des voleurs (Bilingual) on Amazon.ca (Canada)
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