I can’t lie: no matter how many faults it has, Costner’s Robin Hood epic is above all criticism for me
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: Kevin Costner (Robin of Locksley), Morgan Freeman (Azeem), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Lady Marian), Christian Slater (Will Scarlett), Alan Rickman (Sheriff of Nottingham), Geraldine McEwan (Mortianna), Michael McShane (Friar Tuck), Brian Blessed (Lock Locksley), Michael Wincott (Guy of Gisborne), Nick Brimble (Little John), Harold Innocent (Bishop), Walter Sparrow (Duncan), Daniel Newman (Wulf), Daniel Peacock (Bull), Sean Connery (King Richard)
I find there’s a simple way of telling if someone is the same generation as me. Hum a few bars of Bryan Adam’s Everything I Do. Adopt an American accent and proclaim you are showing “English courage”. Rasp about cutting someone’s heart out with a spoon or calling off Christmas. Mime shooting a flame tipped arrow or say before carrying out anything complex that you’ve “seen it done many times…on horses.” All of which is to say, if you haven’t already guessed from this parade of in-jokes, that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is one of those films of my youth immune from criticism.
The second biggest box-office hit of 1991, having beaten a crowd of Robin Hood pictures to the screen, Prince of Thieves is, to be honest, a ridiculous cheese-fest of wildly inconsistent tone and acting styles, murkily shot and hurriedly plotted. It feels at times like what it is – a film rushed to the screen as quickly as possible to hit a deadline. I know truth be told, it’s a bit of a mess. But it doesn’t matter. I love it. If you, like me, saw this for the first time around 12 or 13 how could you not? For all its many flaws, it’s a massive, rollicking adventure. So, while my head tells me Errol Flynn is the finest Robin Hood on screen…my heart will always be with Costner’s oddly accented outlaw.
In 1194 Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) the son of a baron (Brian Blessed of all people!), is captured by the Moors on Crusade and escapes along with fellow prisoner Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who vows to repay his life debt to him. Together they arrive in England to find the land in urgent need of healing. The tyrannical Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) plots to seize the throne and Robin is named an outlaw. He and Azeem find sanctuary in Sherwood Forest, where Robin becomes the leader of a band of outlaws. He robs the rich to give to the poor, romances Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and fights to uphold justice.
All of this is played out in the very best blockbuster style, with logic frequently thrown out of the window in favour of excitement, jokes and gravity defying arrows. Kevin Reynolds was hired to direct to lure on board his fellow Kevin (and mate) Costner, then the biggest star in the world. Costner as the wealth-redistributing bandit is, in reality, as bizarre a piece of casting as Richard Gere playing Lancelot. Never the most confident with accents, rushed producers essentially told Costner told to not bother, concluding most moviegoers wouldn’t give a toss if Nottingham’s most-famous son spoke with a Californian twang. They were right. And to be honest, it’s part of the film’s crazy charm.
After all, the film plays fast and loose with everything else about England. This is the film where Robin arrives at the White Cliffs of Dover and announces it’s a day’s walk to Nottingham. That is, let me tell you, a very long day – particularly when you go via Hadrian’s Wall (which Costner then confidently tells us is but five miles from Nottingham). Any grasp of actual English history is completely irrelevant to a film set in a fantasy merrie-England, where the Bayeux Tapestry, Celtic warrior tribes, lords who dress like the KKK, witches and a King Richard who looks and sounds like Sean Connery (the real Richard was 38 and French) all co-exist.
But who cares? Nothing in the film is meant to be taken seriously, and surely Reynolds and co reckoned we’d work that out when Costner – for whom five years in prison has made no impact on his film-star good-looks but left his fellow prisoners scrawny, wasted men of skin and bone – slams his hand down on an anvil and announces to a man preparing to cut his hand off “This is English courage!” in that Californian lilt. It’s not just him: accent-wise the film is all over the place. Christian Slater also makes no attempt at an accent while Mastrantonio’s is impeccable; the Merry Men come from all over the place, Mike McShane vaguely flattens his Canadian accent and Morgan Freeman goes all in on a Moorish accent. This all adds to the fun.
And what fun it is. Reynolds can shoot the hell out of an action set piece and if you don’t get a buzz from seeing Costner shoot a flaming arrow in slow-mo, firing another through a rope, or taking down rampaging Celts with them like they were heat-seeking missiles, there is something wrong with you. A flame-soaked battle in Sherwood is an action highlight – full of drama and terror – and the film’s closing grudge-match between Robin and the Sheriff a high-octane mano-a-mano sword fight.
It gains a huge amount from its impeccable score. Of course, we all remember Bryan Adam’s Everything I Do (it was number one for most of 1991). But the film’s real MVP is Michael Kamen, whose luscious, rousing score lifts even the film’s weakest moments to the heights of classic action adventure. The film’s opening number is a triumph of epic scene-setting. His work fills moments of triumph with joy, beautifully complements (and improves!) comedy and provides a genuinely moving romance theme that bolsters the chemistry between Costner and Mastrantonio’s strong-willed and independent Marian (even though film rules demand the woman introduced to us as something akin to a ninja ends the film a white-dressed damsel-in-distress).
The film’s other MVP is, of course, the late, great Alan Rickman. If you wonder why a generation of people worshipped Rickman, you need only look at his leave-nothing-in-the-dressing-room performance here. So reluctant to play another villain that he only agreed when given carte blanche to play the role however he wanted (including re-writing all his lines with the aid of friends Ruby Wax and Peter Barnes), Rickman delivers his second iconic villain after Gruber. He has a gleeful, OTT, pantomime glee, seething with frustrated impatience at his incompetent underlings but carrying more than enough genuine menace to be threatening. Every line he has – almost every single one – is laugh-out loud funny, either due to its grandiosity or Rickman’s utter commitment and darkly sexy energy (he also makes a beautiful double bill with Geraldine McEwan: two pros milking the film’s comic potential for all it is worth).
Rickman dominates the film – although of course, as he himself said, he had the far more fun and wilder part than Costner – and is central to many of its most iconic moments. What makes it work is Rickman is very serious about not taking the film very seriously: he’s not laughing at it or wanting us to know how superior he is to it: instead he throws himself with gusto into an all-action panto.
With this sort of thing, you can forgive the film’s wildly inconsistent tone (it ends with a prolonged semi-rape joke for goodness sake!), its at times forced attempt to suggest a community among a random collection of Brit character actors playing the merry men, or its meandering into some dark material. Morgan Freeman not only shows surprising action chops, he also gets a showcase for his mentor and comedic abilities. The resolution of the antagonistic relationship between Robin and Will Scarlett is surprisingly effective (it’s another note of the film’s bizarreness that we are meant to believe Costner and Slater both sprang from the Blessed loins) and those action set-pieces work.
The film wasn’t always a happy experience – Reynolds was forced to shoot it in ten weeks on no real prep and was locked out of the editing suite – but perhaps the rush helped create the boisterous adventure we end up with. Maybe years of study and research would just have been less fun. Who cares about dusty books when Robin and Marian can kiss at a misty riverside to the tune of Bryan Adams or Costner splits an arrow in two with another arrow at a thousand paces? Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a big, silly, action film full of flaws. And I wouldn’t change a frame of it.