By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) was one of two popular screen retellings of the Robin Hood legend in the early 1990s. The other was Tony Robinson’s gloriously anachronistic and funny children’s sitcom Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, which even featured several humorous nods to the big-screen Kevin Costner version.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is often seen as a failure, a mess, a let-down in numerous ways whether it’s Kevin Costner’s decidedly American accent in the film, the fact that the film doesn’t appear to know quite what it wants to be (a family film or a grittier take on the medieval tale of robbers and tyrannical rule), or the fact that, as Roger Ebert highlighted in his review of the film, Alan Rickman’s performance doesn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the cast.
But all of these supposed drawbacks might be turned on their heads and seen as strengths, of a kind.
First, it’s worth saying that this is the first of our new monthly ‘film club’ where we review (kind of) a film that has sufficiently literary links, whether or not it’s an actual adaptation of a novel or play, to warrant our attention on this blog. So, the literary links. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves wouldn’t exist without Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
It was Scott’s 1819 novel which turned the robber Robin into a nobleman, Robin of Locksley, who becomes an outlaw in Sherwood Forest (the original ballads from the fifteenth century had Robin and his merry men in Barnsdale Forest, not Sherwood). It was also in Ivanhoe that Robin became inextricably linked with Richard the Lionheart and the 1190s, when previously he had been said to live during the reign of a ‘King Edward’ (which one is never specified, though presumably it’s not the potato).
Scott wasn’t the first to write about this – it was a Scottish historian of the sixteenth century, named John Major, who first talked of Robin living during Richard’s reign – but it was the stratospheric popularity of Ivanhoe which fixed Robin of Locksley in the world’s imagination. And ‘Locksley’ is how Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood is most frequently referred to in the film.
So, the film’s perceived weaknesses. It is an unusually violent film for one with a PG rating in the UK.
The film opens with the brutal dismemberment of a hand in a Palestinian dungeon (I can remember seeing the film in the cinema when it came out, and being terrified by the violence in this opening scene) and will later feature jokes about penis length, explicit reference to the size of Robin’s balls, a guard commenting on Maid Marian’s ‘tits’, and – most controversially of all – an attempted rape in the film’s dramatic finale. The BBFC employee who certified the film as a PG apparently later said it was his single biggest regret of his career.
But then, the low rating aside, the film is true to its subject-matter. The Middle Ages were brutal. Women’s honour was often under threat. As Chaucer shows, bawdy gags were common.
Like another historical production set during the medieval era and considered something of a failure, The Black Adder, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves offers a powerful image of the Middle Ages, full of dim candlelit castle chambers, Norman guards in chain mail, the mud and blood and peasants and so on. When placed alongside such imagery, the Sheriff of Nottingham’s reference to ‘10.45’ (in an age before such accurate timekeeping was possible) is easily forgiven.
Even Costner’s Californian brogue can be overlooked. After all, the English spoken in the 1190s, even among the Saxons, would have sounded very different from that spoken by the modern Brit. Alan Rickman’s character would have spoken French. And talking of which, the fact that Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham is so over-the-top (he only agreed to the role after he was allowed to interpret the character however he wished) in a film otherwise peopled by more understated acting only serves to emphasise the gap between the frustrated Norman tyrant and his subjugated people.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, then, has a great deal going for it. It has Brian Blessed going ‘Gaaah!’ at the top of his voice. It has an absolutely brilliant soundtrack courtesy of the late Michael Kamen: the stirring opening titles, which are played over scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry, are a musical masterclass, a nod to the swashbuckling sound of classic Robin Hood movies but with a darker, more booming modern twist.
The Bayeux Tapestry, of course, reminds us that, ever since Sir Walter Scott’s telling of the Robin Hood legend, Robin of Locksley has often been portrayed as a displaced Saxon nobleman under the Norman yoke, and the Tapestry (actually an embroidery, of course: we see Maid Marian working on it in the film) marks the momentous event when that displacement came about.