The Test of Time #4: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Wincott, Christian Slater
Written by: Pen Densham & John Watson (story by Pen Densham)
Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
What Is It: A reimagining of the Robin Hood legend, complete with politically correct co-stars, an overacting Alan Rickman, a hit love song by Bryan Adams, and American superstar Kevin Costner, who didn’t even bother with an English accent.
What Critics Said: “A murky, unfocused, violent and depressing version of the classic story, with little of the lightheartedness and romance we expect from Robin Hood. […]The most depressing thing about the movie is that children will attend it expecting to have a good time.” – Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
What Audiences Said: Critics were mixed on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but audiences flocked to the action-adventure. Kevin Reynolds’ film was the second highest grossing movie of 1991, behind only Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In the years that followed, the film is most commonly remembered as a relic of the 1990s, and for Costner’s embarrassing American twang.
The Test of Time:
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was a pretty big deal when it came out in 1991. I was about nine years old at the time, and thus squarely in the target demographic for a film that brought Robin Hood kicking and screaming into the modern action movie format. I was fond of the film, although I knew even then that it wasn’t perfect. But there was something about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that kept me coming back for repeated viewings on cable television, and that left a lingering, though vague impression on me in the decades that followed. It was only when I revisited Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for the first time in over ten years, for this week’s episode of The Test of Time, that I finally realized what makes this movie feel so damned important.
It turns out that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the Batman Begins of the 1990s. Check it out: It’s a film about a universally recognized vigilante, closely associated with one country, starring an actor from another country, who is assisted by a sage-like, gadget-inventing Morgan Freeman, and who returns home from a life-changing multi-year journey into manhood, but then has trouble convincing his female childhood friend-turned-love interest that he’s actually achieved maturity, and who uses theatricality to defend his homeland from an insidious cult that seeks to undo the good deeds of his deceased father, whose untimely death spurs him into action. That's pretty spot on, isn’t it?
Tonally, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves also has Batman Begins written all over it. It takes a vigilante formerly associated with wisecracks and tights and takes him very, very seriously, with dramatic, realistic lighting and all-new reinterpretations of the character’s classic tropes. No longer does Prince John use an archery contest to lure Robin Hood into the open, thus giving him the perfect opportunity to prove his impressive skills. Instead, the Sheriff of Nottingham hangs most of Robin’s friends, forcing Robin to use those skills to shoot the ropes out from halfway across a castle courtyard. It’s the same basic scene as before, but now it’s all badass.
But it’s also a bit of a muddle, reeking of strange story conceits that have “studio notes” written all over them. In an apparent attempt to bring the lily-white hero into the politically correct 1990’s, Robin Hood was given a black sidekick named Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman. Azeem, a Moor, tags along with Robin after they escape a Turkish dungeon, and owes the hero a life debt throughout the film. Along the way, Azeem endure constant racism from Robin’s countrymen (although never, of course, from Robin himself), and proves his detractors to be ignorant simpletons at every turn. Moors were apparently superior to Englishmen in every single way – technologically, philosophically, and even as actors – but they are still relegated to sidekick status. That, combined with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ ugly portrayal of Robin’s Turkish oppressors, highly critical interpretation of Christianity and its completely failed attempt to transform Maid Marian into a feminist hero make Kevin Reynolds’ supposedly enlightened remake ring false at almost every turn.
Maid Marian, whom Robin swears to protect after her brother dies during the Crusades, first appears in full armor, doing battle with Robin – not knowing his real identity, mind you – and completely holding her own against the hero. Feminist, right? Well, yeah, sure, until the final duel between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham, where instead of making herself useful or, god forbid, fighting the Sheriff off herself, she shrieks “Aah! Robin! Robin!” over and over again, like the damsel in distress she really is. One scene where Marian acts like a badass doesn’t make up for a film that otherwise puts her completely in a corner. It’s an insincere gesture at best.
The Sheriff of Nottingham plans to usurp King Richard’s throne while the rightful monarch is away at the Crusades, with a soothsaying witch and a mostly unseen conclave of barons – we’ll just call them “The League of Shadows” – by his side. Prince John, by the way, is nowhere to be seen. It is my understanding that Prince John didn’t actually take over the throne until after King Richard’s death, but he keeps showing up in Robin Hood movies anyway, so the filmmakers have clearly dovetailed the villain’s familiar mincing persona into the Sheriff’s more threatening one, and it makes for a very memorable bad guy. Who cares about Prince John anyway? He only signed the Magna Carta.
Historical accuracy is a bit of a touchy subject where Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is concerned. The film makes many superficial attempts to feel authentic, from the awful teeth (on everyone but the lead actors, of course), to the drab color schemes and generally murky lighting. But Prince of Thieves is perfectly comfortable with rewriting what little actual history can actually be found in the original Robin Hood tale. Celts, for example, are transformed into a race of hulk-like, idiot monstrosities who can feel no pain. Dramatically, it’s somewhat satisfying. In principle, however, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is nothing less than a hypocrite. It attempts to present a realistic, and considerably more dramatic version of the classic story, but infuses it with ridiculous villains, anachronistic moralizing, actual anachronisms, and a hero who isn’t even English.
Yes, Kevin Costner became a bit of a joke for portraying Robin Hood as an American. I think I caught him trying a British accent once, but it’s probably more likely that he just had a cold that day. There are various stories about why Costner didn’t bother with it. Some say that he was supposed to be dubbed in post-production. Others claim he was trying to get the accent down, but couldn’t nail it before filming began. In any case, it was apparently not the filmmakers’ intention to Americanize this quintessential English hero, even though that’s exactly what happened anyway, and you are absolutely allowed to criticize. Costner also got a lot of guff seeming listless on camera, but time has been fairly kind his portrayal. Costner can turn on the charm when he has to, but he spends a lot of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves dialing the character’s flounciness down by about 20%, giving the dashing rogue a more plausible air than we’re usually accustomed to. He’s no Errol Flynn, but he fits within Reynolds’ grittier version of the Robin Hood story… a grittier version that, again, falls prey to broad comedic asides and over the top cartoon supervillainy.
And thank god for that. Alan Rickman’s wildly camp performance is probably what most fans remember best about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and it’s truly a wonder to behold. If he wasn’t killing his cousin, worshipping Satan and trying to rape Maid Marian throughout the entire climax, he’d be outright adorable. There’s a scene where he tells a hawk to shut up. The hawk wasn’t even saying anything. There’s a scene where he has to justify his promise to cut Robin’s heart out with a spoon. Rickman can’t even yell “Close the gate” without chewing every word like it was made of caramel. Nowadays, Alan Rickman is better known for his recurring role as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies, and he’s good there too, but it’s been decades since we’ve seen him camp it up this much. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a magnetic performance, even though it’s also a very, very silly one. It’s like putting the Cesar Romero version of The Joker in, well, Batman Begins.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is clearly a 1990s production, right down to the Oscar-nominated and outright interminable ballad “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.” Bryan Adams was a regular presence at the multiplex two decades ago, having contributed love songs to this, The Three Musketeers remake and also Don Juan DeMarco. All those songs are pretty interchangeable, mind you, but they tore up the charts back in the first Bush era. His Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves theme fits in well with Michael Kamen’s sweeping score, which may be the most accomplished aspect of the whole production, and is now heard regularly in Disney commercials and in front of all of Morgan Creek’s productions.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves could have easily failed The Test of Time. It’s too mired in 1990s clichés to feel wholly modern, but at a base level, this dramatic retcon of the Robin Hood legend feels right at home in the present generation of grim and gritty remakes. And to think, it preceded that trend by well over a decade. I’m not sure if Christopher Nolan would ever cop to it, but Batman Begins bears so many similarities to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that it feels almost like an intentional homage. Yet Batman Begins gets all the credit for inventing the realistic pop culture adaptation, while Kevin Reynolds’ film gets more credit for screwing up an English accent than for anything it actually does right. It’s a fun film, political correctness be damned, and it doesn’t just pass the test of time… it feels ahead of it.
Next week, The Test of Time gets tough. In fact, we’ve got to get tough… We’re yoing Joe.
William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast, co-star of The Trailer Hitch, and the writer of The Test of Time. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.