Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Dir. by Kevin Reynolds
Starring Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman and Morgan Freeman
Robin of Locksley, a Crusader imprisoned in Jerusalem, escapes with the help of the Moorish prisoner Azeem. Returning to England, he finds that the Sheriff of Nottingham has branded his father a devil-worshipper and seized his lands. Banding together with a group of forest outlaws, he and Azeem set out on a campaign to thwart the Sheriff’s attempt to stage a coup and overthrow King Richard.
When I was eight years old, my father was transferred from America to the U.K. for business. It was the middle of the school year, so instead of immediately enrolling me in the British school system my parents held me out of school until the next school year began. We spent six months exploring Britain instead, including stops at Nottingham and the actual Sherwood Forest. That also happened to be the year that I read The Hobbit for the first time, and the two combined to firmly cement my love of fantasy literature for life. The next year, while we were still living north of London, this movie came out in theaters. It was the right movie at the right time. It might not be the best cinematic version of Robin Hood, but it’s definitely the one that I’ve seen the most times. It also happens to be one of the movies that I wrote about for my thesis when I got my first Master’s degree, so part of this review is adapted from that.
The cinematic history of Robin Hood is a long and peculiar tale. It seems that every 10-15 years there’s a new version of the story that comes along, with pretensions of being the “definitive” Robin Hood. Personally, I think that ship sailed back in the 1930s with the Errol Flynn version, as that movie helped define the look and feel of all subsequent Robin Hood retellings. However, each generation definitely puts its own spin on things, from the 1970s furry version to the 2010 Ridley Scott movie that kills off King Richard in the first ten minutes.
The 1990 Kevin Costner version was very distinctly a movie made for the tail-end of the 1980s action movie boom. It’s got explosions, horse chases, and the villain from Die Hard. Robin Hood even gets flung over the walls of a castle with a catapult! Kevin Costner seems to attempt an English accent for about twenty minutes, before just giving it up and playing it as an American. The movie was a ginormous financial success, becoming the second-highest grossing film that year at the world-wide box office, but a lot of critics had disdain for it. It got nominated for two Razzies, and it’s been fashionable to hate on the movie ever since, like a forest-bound Waterworld (which coincidentally had both the same lead actor and director as this).
I personally think that the hate for this movie is extremely misplaced. I’m of the opinion that it’s the best cinematic Robin Hood movie made in the last forty-five years, and is probably the best fantasy movie of the early 90s. And yes, I just called Prince of Thieves a fantasy. This version of the Sheriff has a fortune-telling, Satan-worshipping witch as an advisor, whose role is even more significant in the extended cut of the movie that I watched for this review. Her presence, and the fact that the England of Prince of Thieves resembles Westeros more than it does the actual 12th century England, puts the movie squarely in the fantasy camp for me.
A large portion (perhaps even the majority) of my love for this movie can be laid at the feet of two actors. The first is Alan Rickman as the Sheriff. This may be the most over-the-top villain performance ever committed to celluloid, and I unabashedly love every second that he’s in the frame. Rickman is clearly having the time of his life playing the villain, and this movie, coming so soon after Die Hard, is probably what earned him his reputation as one of the best villain performers of his generation. He steals the movie in the same way that Jack Nicholson’s Joker did to the first Batman movie, which is probably why the next major Robin Hood movie after this one downplayed the Sheriff role so much that you could be forgiven for not even noticing that the character was in the movie.
The other actor is Morgan Freeman, playing the new addition to the Merry Men, the Moor Azeem. This wasn’t the first Robin Hood adaptation to feature a Muslim character in the ensemble. The British TV show Robin of Sherwood featured a Saracen named Nasir a good five years earlier. But Freeman’s performance left so much of an impression that it’s hard to imagine a new Robin Hood production that doesn’t include the character, especially for American audiences that may not have been as familiar with the origins of the Robin Hood legend. While Jamie Foxx may have technically played Little John in the most recent (and very bad) adaptation that came out a couple years ago, his appearance was clearly modelled after Freeman’s in Prince of Thieves.
I think it is especially significant that not only does Freeman play a black Muslim, two minority groups that until this point had been woefully underrepresented in Robin Hood films (and in the case of PoC, in fantasy films in general), but that he is also perhaps the most positively-portrayed member of the Merry Men. This is even more interesting in contrast to the movie’s take on Friar Tuck, and the interactions between the two men that make up a significant side plot in the movie.
Tuck’s always been portrayed as a bit of a bon vivant: a great lover of food and drink, sort of a “boisterous bruiser” type. Prince of Thieves’ Tuck, as portrayed by Michael McShane, goes a little bit farther than that, however. He is first introduced singing a ribald drinking song while he gorges himself on wine. When he meets Robin Hood, he latches on to Robin’s leg and begins to chew upon it, forcing the remaining men of Robin’s band to pry the inebriated cleric off him. He is rude, unshaven, and slovenly at all times, and is pretty much an altogether poor example of a clergyman.
Yet, his position as a member of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church gives him an air of moral superiority which colors his judgment. He cannot see the positive traits of Azeem, his humility and spirituality. He can only see that he is a Muslim, whom the Pope has declared to be the sworn enemies of Christianity. Tuck blindly assumes that a heathen that does not follow God in the same fashion as a Christian could not possess knowledge that a Christian does not, despite the fact that the Muslim civilization of the twelfth century was the most technologically advanced of the time. He cannot see past this us-versus-them mentality, saying that “You know nothing of our God”, even though, as Azeem points out, Muslims and Christians both worship the Jewish God.
This is why Tuck initially refuses to allow Azeem to attempt to save the life of Little John’s wife. Azeem’s success in performing the surgery brings about a marked change in Tuck’s attitude towards the Moor. He is now humbled before his Muslim counterpart, stating “I may be Godly, but I know now that I am not worldly.” As a final gesture of contrition and reconciliation for his prior behavior, he offers to share his precious beer with Azeem. Of course, Azeem must decline, as he holds to the Muslim proscription against alcohol. However, the two men become friends from this point on, and even team up together for the infiltration of Nottingham at the end of the movie.
Okay, is it obvious yet that I wrote about this movie for my Master’s thesis? Sure, the movie does some things wrong. Maybe a lot of things wrong (just ask anyone who’s at all familiar with the geography of Great Britain to explain how Hadrian’s Wall is within walking distance of Nottingham). But it also does a whole lot right, and really shouldn’t be written off as so many people seem to have done in the last couple of decades.
-In case anyone’s wondering, my thesis was about how Hollywood had portrayed Arabs and Muslims historically, and how that portrayal was affected by 9/11.
-Seriously, it’s not just any old wall that they’re walking along. They used Sycamore Gap, only probably the single most famous section of the Wall, and maybe the most-photographed single tree in the U.K.
-The music for this movie, by the late Michael Kamen, is truly amazing. It’s one of the best movie scores of the 90s in my opinion. And the Bryan Adams song, cheesy though it may be, is also my mother’s favorite song. So I can’t really complain about that either.