For Alan – Revisiting Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Oscar says goodbye to Alan Rickman with Kevin Costner’s attempt to play Robin Hood in his presence. 

It isn’t too often that a single actor can transform a flawed, relatively fun film into a truly memorable one. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is one such film, thanks to the late, wonderful Alan Rickman famously acting circles around Kevin Costner’s main character. But there is more to the film beyond the polarising performances. It is also a thrilling period action flick, an interesting take on a familiar story, and just pure fun. Let’s fire away!

During the Third Crusade, an English nobleman named Robin of Locksley (Costner) is imprisoned in Jerusalem along with his comrade, Peter Dubois. Evading torture and execution by their Ayyubid captors, Robin and Peter escape whilst saving the life of a Moor named Azeem (Morgan Freeman). Unfortunately, Peter is shot and mortally wounded by an archer, and makes Robin swear to protect his sister, Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), as he faces his final stand. Robin returns to England with Azeem, who has vowed to accompany him until Azeem’s life-debt to Robin is repaid.

When Robin returns to England, he finds that his father (Brian Blessed) has been falsely accused of witchcraft and executed, his home has been destroyed, and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Rickman) and his cousin Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott) have raised the taxes and oppressed the people of Nottingham, driving many honest men into thievery. The Sheriff schemes with a witch named Mortiana (Geraldine McEwan) to take over the kingdom, while using the corrupt Bishop of Hereford (Harold Innocent) to convict his enemies of witchcraft. After telling Marian of Peter’s demise and evading capture from Gisbourne, Robin and Azeem encounter a band of outlaws hiding in Sherwood Forest, led by Little John (Nick Brimble). Among the band is Will Scarlet (Christian Slater), who holds a grudge against Robin. Robin assumes command of the group, trains the Merry Men to fight against Nottingham and his goons, rob from the rich, and thwart Nottingham’s plans to take over England.

The acting ranges from superb to standard. Costner is fairly bland and laidback as Robin Hood, but from time to time he nails the character’s roguish charm, his expressions are on point, and he is more than capable with all the action and stuntwork. On the other end of the spectrum is Rickman’s now-iconic performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham; this could have been just a wacky, ineffectual, cartoonish villain, but Rickman is very threatening and vicious, often shown as Robin’s equal in strength and cunning despite being a total loony. Really, had it been any other actor in the role, so much of the film’s humour and memorable charm would be lost. Freeman, like so many of his roles, brings a lot of wisdom, dignity and charisma to Azeem, and commands everyone’s attention. Mastrantonio is on-point as Marian, being very elegant and ladylike but also quite strong and determined. Slater is merely okay as Scarlett – he’s very emotional and jealous but doesn’t hide his American accent. Brimble is spot-on as the rough and boisterous Little John and works brilliantly off the other cast members. Mike McShane is incredibly fun and amusing as Friar Tuck and gets any chance he can to kick arse for the Lord. Wincott has quite a few funny scenes opposite Rickman, and McEwan is totally creepy as the witch and bounces off Rickman nicely. Walter Sparrow makes for a likeable Duncan, and Blessed is awesome in the little time he appears.

When the film came out, it gained criticism not just for Costner’s performance but also for the dark, violent and often depressing tone, especially when compared to earlier adaptations from Errol Flynn or Disney. While it is fairly dour, that helps it remain suspenseful and intriguing. The tone and writing doesn’t go into full realism and it straddles the line between a traditional Robin Hood romp and a semi-serious period piece quite well. One of the great centerpieces is the Sheriff’s attack on Robin’s base in Sherwood Forest, and the constant hailing of fire arrows heightens the sense of danger facing the characters. The direction from Kevin Reynolds is solid; the camerawork is energetic and engaging, and he has a great eye for action, but I wasn’t too keen on the frequent wide-angle closeups because they were either awkward or uncomfortable to sit through. But that’s a personal niggle. The costumes and sets are a lot grimier than those seen in the Errol Flynn classic, and the use of authentic castles in France help to capture the feel of 12th century England. Michael Kamen provides a rousing and memorably swashbuckling score, which is a personal favourite of mine. It is full of energy and brass, underscoring the emotion or tension in a scene nicely. That opening theme just screams Robin Hood. 

What helps the movie standout is an incredible sense of humour, not just from the sardonic quips of the Sheriff or Azeem, or one of the Merry Men, but also from the back-and-forth between Robin and Marian and some of the more physical comedy. The latter includes Robin and Azeem successfully clearing a castle wall in a catapult! We also get the usual tomfoolery of Robin and his men outwitting the Sheriff’s stooges and robbing from the rich, and it’s just as entertaining here as it is in other adaptations. Honestly, this movie is much funnier than most people give it credit for. Again, Rickman’s deliciously hammy performance makes for plenty of laughs with how over-the-top evil he can be.

The essential parts of the Hood mythos are there – robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, and the theme of the English peasantry resisting their Norman masters. While Costner’s performance isn’t that solid, the arc that Robin goes through is well-executed. Robin has to constantly prove himself to earn the trust of people around him. He wins the respect of the outlaws by besting Little John, and wins the loyalty of the wronged peasants by striking back against the Sheriff’s men. He even has to gain Marian’s trust despite the fact that she despised him for being such a spoiled bully as a kid. This means that the romance has an interesting dynamic that builds upon their characters and actions, and it isn’t just love at first sight. You believe in Robin Hood as a man in need of redemption and to prove his worth to the people of Nottingham. Indeed, all of the noble characters start out as untrusting and a bit selfish, but over the course of the film, they get past their differences, gain each other’s trust, recognise what’s at stake, and strive together to break the Sheriff’s reign of tyranny. While I am a little annoyed at the lack of Prince John in the story, his absence does make the enmity between Robin and the Sheriff more focused and more rewarding in the end, and it’s hard to imagine where you would place him if the Sheriff is already plotting to take over.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is ultimately an old school Hollywood thrill ride. It’s very entertaining, memorable and has fun with the setting and characters. But, at the same time, it doesn’t pull any punches for curbing violence or promoting political correctness. Could the film have been bettered by recasting Robin with a bona-fide English actor? Very likely. Yet, there is something bizarrely enjoyable about Costner’s turn as Robin Hood without being lame or overly serious. Everyone else, apart from possibly Slater, is so well-cast and work so well together that I find his imperfections easy to overlook. Overall, I would say this iteration of Robin Hood deserves to be remembered fondly, for both its bad parts and its many, many good parts, from the action and music to the supporting cast. Thank you, Alan, for being such a magnificent bad guy, you will be missed.

P.S. Casting Jaime Foxx as Little John in the upcoming Lionsgate Robin Hood? Bugger off.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Alan Rickman turned down the role of the Sheriff twice before he was told he could more or less have carte blanche with his interpretation of the character.
  • Cary Elwes was offered the role of Robin Hood and turned it down because he thought the plot was too contrived. He did however portray the character in the Mel Brooks spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993).
  • Christian Slater ad-libbed Will Scarlett’s line of “Fuck me, he cleared it!”, after Robin and Azeem are catapulted over the castle wall. Director Kevin Reynolds kept it in the film because it was funny, despite the historical inaccuracy.
  • The initial trumpet flourish of the title score would later become production company Morgan Creek’s theme music.
  • Sean Connery was first offered the cameo of Lord Locksley (Brian Blessed) but passed as he felt he had been playing a lot of fathers in recent years.

Oscar Stainton

Student of Ancient History at Royal Holloway University of London, Anglo-Mexican, die-hard Tolkien fan, lover of escapist fiction (be it in space or a world of knights and dragons), dino-maniac, and prospective writer.

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