Review: “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991)
WARNING: WHEN SPOILERS WERE ROTTEN
“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” is as uneven as Kevin Costner’s accent within it. It begins gritty and ends in high camp. Robin is heroic, then childish, then heroic again. He assumes leadership of a band of outlaws without being a leader, and he’s actually upstaged in almost every department (dignity, warmth, love) by his right-hand man, Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who demonstrates more leadership in professing to follow Robin Hood than Robin Hood does in professing to lead anyone. Robin can’t even win a swordfight against a high-camp version of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) without the old knife-from-the-boot trick. Aside from some pretty cool archery skills, one wonders why this guy became the legend. Shouldn’t we be watching the story of Azeem, Thief of Hearts?
“Prince of Thieves” is the third major film version of Robin Hood and it’s interesting to see how it deviates from the Fairbanks and Flynn versions. Most notably, the Crusades were still celebrated in ’22; and though the ’38 version mixed in a strong sense of post-WWI isolationism (get your own house in order, Jack, before traipsing off to foreign lands), the movie is seen from a wholly Christian perspective, beginning with the opening title card:
In the year of our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels form the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamps...
The language in the ’91 opening title card is less dramatic:
800 years ago, Richard “The Lionheart,” King of England, led the third Great Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land from the Turks. Most of the young English noblemen who flocked to his banner never returned home.
Royalty disappears. In ’22, King Richard and Robin are best friends. In ’38, Richard and Robin fight side-by-side in the third act. By ’91, Richard, now with quotes around “The Lionheart,” is relegated to a last-minute wedding blessing, while Prince John, the main villain in the first versions, is nowhere to be seen. He’s been replaced by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who, in ’22, was a walk-on, and in ’38 was comic relief. Here he actually has his eye on the throne. He also has a name, George, which adds nothing, and a devil-worshipping witch-mother, which adds nothing but weirdness.
Right-hand man? From Little John (’22) to Will Scarlett (’38) to Azeem, the Moor.
Will Scarlett? Turns out he’s Robin’s illegitimate half-brother.
Marian? She’s nearly raped on camera, to comic effect.
The thing’s a mess.
It begins in a Turkish prison in Jerusalem, 1194 A.D., where Holy Crusaders are being tortured and maimed. Robin, with five years hair and beard growth, stoically volunteers himself for a maiming instead of his friend Peter. “This is English courage,” he says with an American accent. Then he breaks himself free, along with Peter, and a nearby Moor, Azeem, who promises to show the way out. In the escape, he loses Peter, brother of Marian, to an arrow, but gains Azeem. “You have saved my life, Christian,” Azeem says. “I must stay with you until I have saved yours. That is my vow.” He says all this with Morgan Freeman’s voice, which makes it even cooler.
We later learn that Robin was a bit of a brat as a child—the Sheriff calls him a “whelp” and Marian tells him: “All I remember of you is a spoiled bully who used to burn my hair”—but his years in prison seem to have changed him. Until he returns to England. Then he seems a child again. He guffaws when he finds out why Azeem was locked up. “Because of a woman? That’s it, isn’t it? That’s it!” A scene later, he sobs into Azeem’s chest when they find the skeleton of Robin’s father strung up in a cage at the remains of Locksley Manor. I suppose the filmmakers wanted character development but, for the viewer, it’s such a sharp contrast to our stoic English prisoner. The unevenness has begun.
Robin quickly makes enemies with Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott), cousin to the Sheriff, and he, Azeem and the blind servant, Duncan (Walter Sparrow), flee into Sherwood Forest. There, across a large stream, he tangles with a band of outlaws, notably John Little (Nick Brimble), and bests him by taking him by surprise. Back at the outlaws’ camp, he suggests fighting back against the powers-that-be. Everyone scoffs but he makes trouble in town, cutting the Sheriff’s cheek, and raising the bounty on his head—a source of pride with him. There’s a nice dynamic here that should’ve been underlined: The more Guy and the Sheriff search for Robin, the more homeless people they create, and the more these people wander into Sherwood and become part of Robin’s army. Will Scarlett (Christian Slater), with a huge chip on his shoulder, blames Robin for their misery, and Azeem counsels against forging an army (“Christian, these are simple people, they are not warriors”), but it all comes together anyway. Arrows are made, people are trained, treehouses are created. Friar Tuck, a bit of a drunkard, is brought aboard and initially clashes with the infidel, until, for the 10th time in the movie, Azeem uses his superior scientific knowledge—this time to help a breach baby get born. Then they’re pals.
The Sheriff, meanwhile, flailing inside his castle, fights back with black arts, treachery, and fierce Celts from the North. After Marian is abducted, Duncan, the blind servant, unknowingly leads the Sheriff and the Celts back to Robin’s hideout. Though Robin’s army handle the first assault, they cannot withstand a barrage of flaming arrows and either flee, die or are captured. The Sheriff then threatens the lives of children to force Marian to wed him—to link him to royal blood so he’ll have an avenue to the throne—and, to honor their wedding day, he plans to hang 10 of the merry men in the town square. Robin, of course, and the few survivors (Azeem, Little John, his wife, Will Scarlett), plan otherwise. But no one’s plan works as planned.
Before the Sheriff goes off to camp.
The Flynn version was not only clean of grit and bad language, it was clean in terms of storytelling: 102 minutes and out. The Costner version, in comparison, rambles and shambles, hesitates and backtracks for either 143 minutes, or an interminable 155 minutes in the extended version, and a lot of this is unnecessary. Did we really need Celts, for example? Did we need the black-arts subplot? I’ll give you Will as Robin’s half-brother, even if it leads to one of the worst line readings in the movie (Robin: I have a brother? I have a brother!); but did we also need to find out the witch was really the Sheriff’s mother? Alan Rickman got raves next to Costner when the movie came out, but he’s so over-the-top he’s really in another movie. He’s in a comedy. Alright I’ll say it: he’s awful. The only thing more awful are some of his lines. When in angry mood: “No more table scraps for the orphans... And call off Christmas!” When visiting his torture chamber: “Sorry to keep you hanging about.” As for the end—when he tries to rape Marian at the altar in front of the Bishop? To what end? Look, he’s a smart-enough guy. His world is crashing all around him, and marrying and impregnating Marian would stop none of the crashing. It’s only there to provide this temporary tension for the audience: Can Robin stop the rape in time? Wow, he does.
Costner, whose acting I defended a few years back, has his moments, particularly when he needs to be heroic, dashing, athletic. He can do these things but seems reluctant to do them. At times he also has gravitas. Then he opens his mouth, trying for that British accent, and out comes mostly flat, nasal Californian. Planning for the final assault, he suddenly adopts what sounds like a Bronx accent. As a joke? Were there no other takes? Who edited this thing? His 1991 mullet doesn’t hold up, either. Can Robin Hood ever have a decent haircut?
He's good in the action scenes...and when not opening his mouth.
Tuck’s British accent—the actor is from Massachusetts—is pretty lousy, too. Mastrantonio is fine, beautiful, and Freeman as always is a joy. That look of pure delight on his face when the little girl at camp asks him if God painted his face. His speech before the townspeople after the hangings go awry: “ I am not one of you but I fight for you! I fight with Robin Hood!” It’s a great moment but it underlines Robin’s own lack of leadership. Shouldn’t Robin have given such a speech? At least once?
Michael Wincott makes an effective, scary Gisbourne. He’s the villain the movie should’ve had. But overall the thing is a mess. Director Kevin Reynolds gives us a long sloppy affair that’s full of movie clichés. Marian, scared, hears noises in her home. Oh, whew, it’s just a cat. No it isn’t! Battles rage, but, oh whew, the Sheriff and his witch-mother are dead. No, she’s isn’t!
So what did all of this mean? The second-highest domestic gross of 1991: $165 million. But gross doesn’t necessarily mean popularity. I’d argue “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” was one of those movies, like “Spider-Man 3” or “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” that everyone went to see, and then everyone agreed that everyone shouldn’t have gone to see it. It wasn’t necessarily robbing from the rich, but it was definitely robbing.