June 14, 1991
Summer of ’89 had the movie about Batman, summer of ’90 had the one about Dick Tracy, and summer of ’91 had a very good period-set super hero movie that I reviewed a few years ago in the Summer Flings series. But THE ROCKETEER, for whatever reason, was unable to capture the zeitgeist, and I would argue that the movie to fill that BATMAN/DICK TRACY slot in the summer of ’91 was actually ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES. It wasn’t based on a comic strip and didn’t have minimalist, symbol-based advertising art (not counting the silhouette logo on the merchandise), but it did fill that role of the well known old timey adventure hero repackaged as a thrilling modern popcorn movie.
And like those other two movies, its hero was played by a major movie star who was far from the obvious choice: Kevin Costner (MADONNA: TRUTH OR DARE), who was universally mocked for only barely trying a vague English accent. (Costner wanted to do one, director Kevin Reynolds didn’t want him to, and Reynolds mostly won.) But he was near the peak of his stardom, having done THE UNTOUCHABLES, BULL DURHAM and FIELD OF DREAMS in the last four years and coming immediately off of best picture winner DANCES WITH WOLVES. His antagonist, the Sheriff of Nottingham, was played by Alan Rickman, only a few years removed from the glory of Hans Grueber. And for the appreciators of locker pinups they threw in young Will Scarlett played by Christian Slater fresh off of YOUNG GUNS II and PUMP UP THE VOLUME.
Another factor that can’t be overlooked is the effectiveness of the teaser trailer, which included a cool arrow POV shot as Robin Hood shot a bullseye that split another arrow into three – a trick shot of a trick shot. At the time it reminded me of something Sam Raimi would do, and though it was shot specifically for the trailer it was so popular that they added it into the movie.
Maybe it’s because the summer of ’91 was just starting to kick in – “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince even made its debut on the Billboard charts that week – and ROBIN HOOD was its first real event movie, but I remember this being a pretty big deal. I’m not sure it was anyone’s favorite movie, but I and most of the young people I knew thought it was pretty good at the time. I watched it maybe one time when it was new on VHS and not since, so I was excited to see how it held up.
The movie’s idea of a Robin Hood for the ‘90s was to make him a spoiled rich boy who went away to fight the Crusades and Became a Man. We first meet him chained in a dungeon looking like Rip Van Winkle, and he mounts a clever escape. One of the other prisoners says, “It’s been five years of Hell!” and that may seem redundant with the visual clue of the ridiculously long hair and beard, but I had literally just said out loud, “Based on my experience during the pandemic he must’ve been locked up for at least six or seven years,” so it was actually helpful to be corrected that it was only five. Plus, somebody might think these are just hippies who got locked up yesterday.
As he escapes, he reluctantly agrees to free a Moore named Azeem (Morgan Freeman, JOHNNY HANDSOME). Though Robin doesn’t like the idea, Azeem insists he is now bound to him until he repays a life debt, and it becomes sort of a buddy movie where two guys of different religions and opposite sides of a war can joke about each others’ ways but be good partners who have each others’ back. Azeem is also used as commentary about advances that were made in the Muslim world before the west, for example he creates a makeshift telescope and when Robin sees horsemen approaching horsemen through it he freaks out thinking they’re right in front of him.
Robin returns home from years of war and imprisonment and one of the first things he sees is the fucking Sheriff of Nottingham’s top deputy, Guy of Gisborne (Michael Wincott, CURTAINS, brother of Jeff Wincott [MARTIAL LAW II]) and a bunch of other cops threatening a little kid (Daniel Newman) hiding in a tree. He saves the kid and begins a feud with the pigs and I thought he’d now have a little sidekick like Charlie Korsmo in DICK TRACY, but instead the kid takes off and when he sees him later is a dick to him. Oh well.
The next thing Robin finds is his dad dead, hanging in the castle. The fucking Sheriff (wearing a cool mask) raided the castle and killed old Lord Locksley (Brian Blessed, FLASH GORDON). Since back then they couldn’t plant drugs or guns on him, they claimed they caught him worshipping Satan. Same old story. ACAB.
At first Robin is pissed at his old man’s assistant Duncan (Walter Sparrow, I HIRED A CONTRACT KILLER) for leaving the body there, until he realizes he wasn’t able to because they stabbed his fuckin eyes out. Fucked up.
Robin goes to see Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, THE ABYSS) because he was war buddies with her brother (Liam Halligan, PIGS) and promised to look after her when he died. Since this is Not Your Father’s Robin Hood Movie she plays a trick on him where she sneaks up on him wearing ninja-like armor and attacks his nuts. Unfortunately her hair isn’t long enough to do the thing where she takes off the helmet and flips it down as you spit out your coffee because oh my god it was a woman. But it definitely has that same vibe. Anyway, it would be funny if he stabbed her in self defense.
To illustrate the rich-kid-learns-lessons take on Robin Hood, Marian hates him at first, saying he was “a spoiled bully who used to burn my hair as a child.” Jesus, Robin! But he says, “Please allow that years of war and prison may change a man.” I’ve heard that before, but usually not to say a guy turned nice.
Robin Wright was originally cast as Marian, but had to drop out because she got pregnant. I wonder if it was kind of a relief that she didn’t have to do a movie where people keep saying “Robin” and she has to remember they’re not talking to her?
A weird aspect of the movie I had no memory of is that the Sheriff has a witch named Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan, Mapp and Lucia) living in a secret chamber in his crib. Yep, all that satanic panic is projecting – he’s the one going back there doing occult shit and basing his law enforcement policies/crimes on backwards superstitious shit told to him by a conspiratorial quack/rip off artist. And then he goes to church and the Bishop (Harold Innocent, BRAZIL) prays for God to give him “the judgment to punish them.” All this stuff seems more true to life now than it did then.
Also very relevant: racist paranoia. The one thing that seems to genuinely terrify Mortianna is, of course, a Black man. She calls Azeem “The Painted Man” and insists the Sheriff has to kill him because “he haunts my dreams!”
It sounds like Robin’s old man was more enlightened. “He called the crusades a foolish quest, he said it was vanity to force other men to our religion.” Robin seems to have come to that conclusion himself, what with Azeem at his side, though who knows how many people he had to kill overseas before he figured it out.
Marian helps Robin get away from the cops by giving him horses and pretending they were stolen. Robin slaps her butt on the way out, a good example of why we needed THELMA & LOUISE so badly at that time. Another example from the same scene: Guy of Gisbourne tells her “Lucky he didn’t steal your virtue as well!” Like if you report getting carjacked and a cop tells you at least you didn’t get raped. Yeah thanks, good point officer.
Robin and Azeem run off into Sherwood Forest, which is rumored to be haunted, but it turns out to just have a bunch of the unhoused there, including that kid from the tree. The locals try to make him pay money to cross the river, and then he has to challenge Little John (Nick Brimble, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE) to a fight. That involves getting beat pretty bad, despite hitting him in the nuts, but using a trick to defeat him and win his respect. I like that when Robin appears to have drowned Little John gets a little wistful about it. Just a little.
I knew I recognized Brimble, and though I’ve seen him in FORTRESS 2 and SUBMERGED I realized it was FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND I was thinking of. He plays the monster so he’s under a bunch of makeup, but the eyes are unmistakable.
Robin of course joins the “Merry Men” in Sherwood Forest and transforms them into his guerrilla army. Although we can all get behind the “rob from the rich and give to the poor” ideology, there’s some pretty comical condescension in the way he shows up to where these people have built their own community and immediately starts making speeches about what “we” should do. And also leading them in building an Ewok village to live in. I like that Azeem helps with a water system and other technology that they wouldn’t have had, but it really makes it seem like they’ve just been sleeping on the forest floor and never would’ve thought to build shelters if fancy pants Robin of Locksley hadn’t come along and provided leadership during a montage.
Of course he’s got to somehow fall in love with Marian. The way it happens involves her seeing his naked ass while he’s bathing in the water. I’m telling you, it’s so far away and through a waterfall, she can’t be seeing much, but they have a closeup of her staring at it lovingly. I forgot that Costner was one of those Van Damme wannabes who was thought to be vain about showing his bare ass all the time. According to a listicle I found he also did it in DANCES WITH WOLVES, NO WAY OUT, BULL DURHAM, WATERWORLD, THE BODYGUARD and THE POSTMAN. But another listicle said that although he “went full butt in DANCES WITH WOLVES the previous year” he used “a stunt butt” for ROBIN HOOD.
There’s also a Friar Tuck, of course, played by Michael McShane (whose only previous movie was TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM). In this version his main thing is that he makes some kind of wine or booze that he enjoys and carries around in barrels. I hope they made official ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES wine as swag.
After dealing with the whole rob/give rich/poor deal quickly via montage, the Merry Men follow in the footsteps of their mentors the Ewoks and have a low tech battle against heavily armed authoritarian invaders. There’s some pretty cool stuntwork involving alot of swinging around on ropes and stuff. The second unit action director was Max Kleven, whose other second unit work had included COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, RUNAWAY TRAIN, and the BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels.
This is definitely not one of Costner’s better performances. His dialogue just does not fit the laid back vibe that makes him appealing. And Mastrantonio is fine, but dealing with a pretty thin character. They do little things to make her not just a damsel in distress, and there’s another swing at proto-girl-power when Little John doesn’t want his wife (Soo Drouet, THE KRAYS) to join on a mission but Robin accepts her argument that if she gave birth to eight babies she can handle it. But, having remembered the sappy Bryan Adams song on the end credits more than the movie – based on an idea introduced by Azeem that if you love someone you’re willing to die for them – I was surprised how little chemistry there is between Robin and Marian and how little development their love story has.
Freeman had been around and become a household name through LEAN ON ME, DRIVING MISS DAISY and GLORY, but this was a movie where he got to be cool. So it kinda seemed like his breakthrough to me. He and Rickman are the ones doing the work to really make the movie watchable. I remember people (maybe even me) saying that Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham is just Hans Grueber, but that’s absolutely wrong. Grueber is calm and in control, while the Sheriff is a sweaty mess prone to panic and freak outs. He has some Schwarzeneggerian lines like saying “Sorry to keep you hangin about” to people chained up in a dungeon. I love that when he’s talking to one of the prisoners he turns his head sideways so there’s a shot of just his crazy mug filling the entire wide frame. Also his puffy hair alone can sometimes get a little chuckle. But I guess that’s also true of Costner.
Wincott is always fun too, of course, and this has an unexpected moment where he starts to cry about his failure, and the Sheriff hugs him and tells him it’s okay. (I’d actually like that better if it wasn’t prelude to stabbing him.)
When he’s angry about all the robbing and lack of tax collection, the Sheriff says, “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans.” Look at this sick society that pretends it can’t afford to help the needy and instead pours massive resources into arming and armoring an army of violent brutes to chase a kid up a tree, attack a homeless encampment, murder a guy and then smear him with lies as cover, lock people up without cause, brutalize prisoners. What I’m trying to say here is that when the Merry Men rob from the rich to give to the poor what they’re really doing is defunding the police!
For the climax, Robin and friends have a secret plan to rescue Marian before she’s forced to marry the Sheriff against her will. There are disguises, hidden bows, explosions with “black powder” provided by Azeem, shooting nooses with arrows to save the condemned, and a cool park where Friar Tuck just rams the gallows and tips them over. (I also like the weird joke that they’re gonna hang a little kid and the guy being hung right next to him, feeling bad about it, asks him, “You all right?”)
Whatever the witch lady’s plan is requires the Sheriff marrying and impregnating Marian, so she’s trying to rush it along and he yells, “For once in my life I will have something pure, will you stop interfering!?” But then he changes his mind and – this is something I definitely don’t think would fly today – keeps trying to spread Marian’s legs out to rape her.
That’s definitely in poor taste, but I do appreciate the way this movie paints the powerful people as a grotesque caricature to contrast with the good guys, who live humbly and joyfully and care about each other. There are some good values in here, but also some hypocrisy. For example, when Friar Tuck catches the Bishop stealing treasure he asks “How could you?,” outraged that a religious leader would be so greedy. Then he pushes him out a window to his death! In my opinion that’s a pretty big sin too.
The thing I find most unintentionally amusing has to do with Robin sneaking past some guards by pretending to be a smelly peasant, which he accomplishes by picking up a big blob of horse shit with his bare hands and rubbing it on himself. A guard who hassles him is overwhelmed by the stench and tells him to get away. I couldn’t stop thinking about that when a little bit later Robin was holding Marian’s face in his hands and kissing her.
I should mention that my main memory of seeing this in the theater was people absolutely losing their shit when Sean Connery had a surprise cameo as the king at the end. People perked up when you heard his voice and then gasped and cheered when they saw him. It made an impression on me because 1) I didn’t really care about Connery and that was how I learned how much people loved him and 2) that might’ve been the first time I experienced such vocal surprise and delight by an audience.
ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES was only the 12th film from the four-year-old production company Morgan Creek, who had started with YOUNG GUNS and also done RENEGADES, NIGHTBREED and THE EXORCIST III. This was by far their biggest budget so far at $48 million, besting their previous record of $18 million for PACIFIC HEIGHTS. They were excited about the script by Pen Densham & John Watson (their followup to A GNOME NAMED GNORM) and worried about competing Robin Hood movies by Fox and Tri-Star, so they started scouting locations even before hiring the director or star. (The Tri-Star one didn’t happen, the Fox one – which starred Patrick Bergen, Uma Thurman and Jeroen Krabbe – beat them to release by going straight to cable in the U.S.)
Costner and director Reynolds (original writer of RED DAWN) had sort of broken through together with Reynolds’ 1985 debut FANDANGO, and then Reynolds spent 3 weeks directing some of the buffalo hunt for DANCES WITH WOLVES. In ’91 he told Entertainment Weekly that he “was never a giant Robin Hood fan” but was intrigued by the time period and the budget they were willing to give him. He was very aware that they hired him to lure Costner (who had previously turned them down), and it worked.
But being buddies didn’t make the work go smoothly. I noticed DIE HARD editor Stuart Baird was credited as “project consultant,” which I figured meant he re-edited it. Sure enough, the Entertainment Weekly article explains that producers were for some reason terrified by test screening surveys showing that the sheriff was the most popular character, so they locked out editor Peter Boyle and “sent in their own team” to make it more Costner and less Rickman. Reynolds thought the new cut was “pretty awkward and embarassing” and ended up quitting and skipping the premiere. Based on what I’ve read I believe the 155 minute extended cut I watched on blu-ray is what Reynolds made before they took over. The main difference is a bunch of weird occult conspiracy shit I didn’t quite follow. The sheriff finds out the Mortianna is his mother, and I think he’s a cannibal? Not sure. Maybe he’s just eating some other type of meat at a satanic altar. I’m not a meat expert.
Another reason to consider ROBIN HOOD to be in the summer’s BATMAN slot is that it’s the first one of the summer to try to hock a bunch of related products. British sci-fi and fantasy author Simon R. Green (Deathstalker, Hawk & Fisher, Ishmael Jones) was commissioned to write the novelization (his only movie tie-in) which, according to Wikipedia, has sold more than 370,000. (Since they put that “has” on there I assume it is still in print and flying off the shelves to this day.)
There was also a video game released for the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy. It made the cover of the July issue of Nintendo Power magazine, so obviously it was a big deal. Especially since it wasn’t released until six months later.
According to Wikipedia, “The video game features various subplots that are not in the movie. These include Robin hunting down a giant boar that is ravaging the villages, seeking a weapons master to train his men, and searching for mystical healing waters to cure his sick men.” It also says that “the sheriff’s witch Mortiana has a skeleton bodyguard who can only be killed with one weapon; the Druid’s Dagger.” That all sounds pretty cool – I would like to see footage of these parts of the game cut into the extended cut to make the Ultimate Cut.
There were also action figures and playsets from Kenner. In the tradition of the DICK TRACY action figures that were obviously just remolded Ninja Turtles (but not quite as hideous), these were mostly modified from the DC Comics-based Super Powers figures. Friar Tuck, however, when you remove his cloth robe, has the body of a Gamorrean Guard from RETURN OF THE JEDI.
And that’s not all! Remember how I said the village in Sherwood Forest was like the Ewok Village? Well, Kenner apparently agreed, because they repackaged their own Ewok Village playset as the Sherwood Forest Playset, “The headquarters of ROBIN HOOD.” THE ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES toy line included a “Battle Wagon” and a “Net Launcher” that were also appropriated from Ewok culture.
This page nicely illustrates where each part of each figure came from. For example, the Sheriff of Nottingham is Lex Luthor’s armored body plus Green Arrow’s arms plus the snarling face of “Chainsaw,” a villain from a ROBOCOP toy line.
I don’t know if any of those things captured the hearts of many children, but the movie was a big hit. Making $390 million, it was the second highest grossing movie of 1991 and also had the record for the second biggest opening for a non-sequel up to that point. (#1 was BATMAN.) I don’t think it was influential in the long run, unless maybe it established part of the template for the way better MASK OF ZORRO later in the decade.
Actually, the movie’s biggest legacy by far is how much the score by Michael Kamen (HUDSON HAWK) has been recycled. A piece of it was added to the Morgan Creek production logo, and somehow even though this was a Warner Brothers release it also became the fanfare for Walt Disney Studios!
Morgan Creek went on to produce THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, TRUE ROMANCE, BAD MOON, and BATTLEFIELD EARTH, among others. They didn’t top ROBIN HOOD’s budget until 1998, when they spent $60 million on Paul Wild Strawberries Anderson’s SOLDIER. (I for one appreciate it.) A few years later they were going higher than that on movies that I would’ve assumed were cheaper, like THE ART OF WAR and GET CARTER.
Though the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly article suggested that the Costner/Reynolds friendship might not recover from ROBIN HOOD, they quickly patched things up and started to develop WATERWORLD (plus RAPA-NUI, with Costner as producer). And then they fought over editing again and Reynolds quit again. (They eventually got along well enough to do a commentary together for the ROBIN HOOD dvd.) I think WATERWORLD, considered an infamous fiasco at the time, is unquestionably better and more entertaining than this smash hit from the same star and director. But then I’d say the same of Costner’s THE POSTMAN. Oh well, that’s life.