Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

robin hood prince of thieves

“I’m going to cut your heart out with a spoon.”

The Scoop: 1991 PG, directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman.

Tagline: For the good of all men, and the love of one woman, he fought to uphold justice by breaking the law.

Summary capsule: Grumpy outlaw battles an over-caffeinated Hans Gruber for the sake of justice in medieval England, to the sound of sappy violins. Things blow up.

Louise’s rating: Four out of five iron-tipped arrows.

Louise’s review: Something you should know about me is that I am mad about the Robin Hood legend. King Arthur? Interesting, I’d agree, but too many characters and essentially ‘twagic’. The Trojan War can’t quite cut it. Various supernatural beasties? Much as I enjoy Charlaine Harris and the Vampire Diaries TV series, mythological creatures smell quite cheesy these days. Insert your own sparkling rainbow zombie joke here.

Robin Hood? He never dies. Be he displaced nobleman, proto-socialist farmer, romantic swashbuckler, dirty thug, or Russell Crowe, you just can’t deny that the medieval bandit living wild in the forest, tricking both civil and religious authorities out of their money, makes a powerful story. Add to it the established ‘stealing from the rich to give to the poor’ and other fantastic characters like Friar Tuck, Lady Marion, Will Scarlet, Much the Miller’s Son, Alan-a-Dale, Guy of Gisborne, and you’ve got a story that can be told again and again. As indeed it has been. At home I’ve got a DVD collection comprising three Robin Hood films and four TV series, as well as about seven Robin Hood novels, and my little museum isn’t anywhere near complete.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has a rather special place in my heart, largely because it’s a film I have in common with one of my closest friends. It’s a comfort film for us – if we watch it, we watch it together, quote the dialogue in everyday life, and it’s altogether an established bonding ritual. I almost feel there should be an anthropologist in the corner documenting it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s not a perfect film, and it’s perhaps not very cool these days, but I can’t help myself. I like it. It has what can only be described as dorky charm. They simply don’t make them like this anymore. It’s a classic swashbuckling story, yet with some nineties-style messages of tolerance and EXPLOSIONS (because we are living in a post-Lethal Weapon/Die Hard age). It’s a comedy with the music and cinematography of a Golden Age of Hollywood epic. We can question some of the filmmakers’ choices, but mainly we should applaud and bring out the carb-tastic snacks. Look, everyone, it’s a medieval-themed nineties action movie! With a witch!

Plot? You want plot? It’s Robin Hood! Battle-hardened Crusades-veteran Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) returns to England (judging from the locations, walking from the White Cliffs to Hadrian’s Wall in about four hours. Excuse me while I laugh into my soup…) to find that all is not well. The Klan (what?) have murdered his father and burned his castle, and when he protects a ragged child, he gets on the wrong side of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman). Fortunately, Robin has on his side the magnificent Moor Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who will out-act everyone in the whole production. Robin retreats to the forest, takes over the peasantry with a montage, robs the rich to give to the poor, and eventually fights a great battle (with EXPLOSIONS) against the Sheriff to win back his land and title, and rescue his friends and his girl.

Kevin Costner plays the receding-hairlined hero, not particularly well. Robin is an interesting character, an aristocrat who claims that nobility is nothing to do with social class, yet happily takes over the poor peasants and orders them about for his own agenda. Lady Marian remembers him as a spoilt bully, and though he says he has changed, maybe he hasn’t changed as much as he thinks. Was this the filmmakers’ intention? Who can say? I’ve got to say, he’s an uninspiring and dour leader. I wouldn’t follow him as far as a faulty ATM that was spitting out money. Costner’s glum and uncaring portrayal of Robin of Locksley means that he seems to be in a totally different film to Alan Rickman’s Sheriff, not helped by the fact that they have only two scenes together!

He’s lucky to have Azeem. What is it about Morgan Freeman? All he has to do is stand there and he brings dignity to the whole scene. Azeem is there to teach the suspicious English to overcome their prejudices against Muslims and ethnic minorities, and supply the advanced Moorish technology and medical knowledge necessary for EXPLOSIONS. There is a seriously touching scene where a little English girl asks Azeem if God painted him, to which he replies that He certainly did, because “Allah loves wondrous variety.” Morgan Freeman outgrows his rather token role to become the heart of the entire film. He is witty, deadly, a lover, spiritual, and you rather want a film all about his undoubtedly interesting life instead of the one we got.

There’s plenty to laugh at in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, both intentional on the filmmakers’ part, and unintentional. We can laugh at the ridiculousness of the so-called Celts, some of the dialogue, the continuity errors in the extended special edition, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The phrase ‘chewing the scenery’ could have been invented for Alan Rickman. He plays the villain as desperately evil, a satanist, a rapist who bullies his subordinates, yet basically quite sympathetic. This sympathy for the devil comes from our realization that the Sheriff is quite intelligent, yet is surrounded by idiots and has astonishingly bad luck. He is always frustrated by circumstances, he traps his cloak in things, and he reacts with wonderful facial expressions and pained, weak laughter. His courtship of Marian is quite genuine, and he carries it out with the panache of a spotty fourteen-year-old. Rickman has the most fantastic rich voice, which is used here to full effect.

Problems? Yeah, there are some problems. Marian is pretty and has lovely curly hair, but on the whole she’s a bit of a wuss. She starts out dressed as a ninja, but the writers soon forget about that and bring her back to the Distressed Damsel role. Fortunately, Little John’s wife Fanny is a big badass redhead with bravery and vulnerability to spare, so she balances Marian out and strikes a blow for proto-feminism.

Little John is another problem – the writers have given him all the British swear words that the PG rating will allow. Is this meant to compensate for Costner’s American accent (which is actually something I don’t have a problem with at all)? It strikes me as rather demeaning the character. The humour of the Sheriff also means that at one point, if you’re not careful, you find yourself laughing at a rape attempt. A funny rape? No thanks.

The big problem is the devil worship. The Sheriff has a rather creepy co-dependent relationship with a devil-worshipping witch named Mortianna, whom he hides in his castle. She tells the future for him. This whole subplot is daft rather than offensive – though the characters seem committed to satanism, it’s not shown to be right. The devil does not vindicate them by actually appearing in the film, which implies that it’s just a fashionable lifestyle choice for a villain, or an excuse for evil. Either way, it strikes me as being completely out-of-line with the rest of the film, and for the extended edition they should have cut it out rather than put more in.

Ultimately, it’s a fun film. It’s quite classy, with misty forest shots and sweeping music (plus a certain Bryan Adams song I’m sure you remember), women in long dresses, swords and atmospheric locations. I would advise a viewing as soon as possible, but go for the original version, not the extended one. The extended version skews it a bit too far into comedy devil-worship territory, while the original is more balanced. I hope you enjoy it as much as I always do, and if you are ever puzzled at the differences between people, just remember that Allah loves wondrous variety, and I guarantee you’ll find some inner peace.

EXPLOSIONS!

“Or, you could just use the remote control,”

Intermission!

  • Alumni from two Robin Hood TV series appear in this film – Nick Brimble, who plays Little John, played a captain of the guard in one episode of Robin of Sherwood, and Howard Lew Lewis, who plays the outlaw Hal, starred in Maid Marian and Her Merry Men as Rabies.
  • I thought my student accommodation was grotty, but I never had to brush a snake off a plate before I used it!
  • Small parts for Brian Blessed, Sir Sean Connery and Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger in the 1960s musical Oliver!) as Much. He’s dead now, bless him.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry makes a few appearances.

Groovy Dialogue

    • Robin [in an American accent]: This is English courage!

Robin: Your name, ‘Azeem’, what does it mean?
Azeem: It means ‘great one’.
Robin: Great one, really, did you give yourself this name?

Robin: I killed some of the sheriff’s men.
Marian: Oh dear.
Robin: I fear I’ve placed you in danger.
Marian: Mmm.

Sheriff of Nottingham: Locksley! I’m going to cut your heart out…with a spoon!
Guy of Gisborne: Why a spoon, cousin? Why not an axe?
Sheriff: Because it’s dull, you twit, it’ll hurt more!

Sheriff of Nottingham: Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings… and call off Christmas!

Sheriff of Nottingham: You, my room, ten-thirty tonight! You, ten-forty-five, bring a friend.

Azeem: Allah loves wondrous variety.

Fanny: I’ve given birth to eight babies; don’t talk to me about getting hurt, you big ox!

Fanny: I likes a good ‘angin’, I do!

If you liked this film, try these:

  • Robin Hood (2010)
  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • The Last of the Mohicans

7 comments

  1. Great review, interesting from beginning to end. I haven’t seen this movie in a few years, and I’d forgotten how much I like Azeem and Fanny.

    As a fellow Robin Hood fan, I’d love to read your reviews for all of them. I own the Errol Flynn version, the Mel Brooks version, the Disney one, and the (soon) new Russel Crow one.

    I’ve never seen any of the TV series, but I’d like to. Which is the best?

  2. Actually, the thing that always bothered me wasn’t that Kevin Costner had an American accent, but that he was the only American actor to have an American accent. It was just weird. Even Christian Slater’s small role as Will Scarlet was about a million times more interesting than Costner’s Robin.

    I’ve seen two TV series, and I can say that, while occasionally cheesy by being very ’80s, Robin of Sherwood is pretty good.

    The BBC’s 2000’s Robin Hood didn’t work for me personally as much because, IMO, they made Robin too dry and serious and never really got to that “leader of men” point (at least in the one and a half seasons I saw). But if you want to see Richard Armitage in eyeliner than I highly recommend it. Rowr!

  3. BTW Robin Hood has died onscreen… in the 1976 Sean Connery / Audrey Hepburn version of the myth, Robin and Marion. As a result of a brutally realistic sword fight between Robin and Robert Shaw’s Sheriff of Nottingham. Worth watching for the above alone.

  4. BTW Robin Hood has died onscreen… in the 1976 Sean Connery / Audrey Hepburn version of the myth, Robin and Marian. As a result of a brutally realistic sword fight between Robin and Robert Shaw’s Sheriff of Nottingham. Worth watching for the above alone.

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