Prince of Thieves and Dad
Childhood nostalgia underpins my view of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to this day. Growing up as an Arab Muslim in a sea of WASPs, no matter how much TV I watched, I never saw anyone on the screen to whom I felt remotely able to relate. Sure, I’ve lived in America all my life and I don’t even speak Arabic natively, but I grew up an extremely lonely child, always feeling… different.
How did that get there?
Azeem ibn-Bashir al-Bakir—Morgan Freeman’s token Arab deuteragonist—will always represent, for me, the first time I identified that “different” feeling in someone else, even a man 45 years my senior in a film set 800 years ago that doesn’t even have particularly good writing! Azeem became my first role model. His ancestors came from where mine came from. He had the best technology, the most perspicacity, and the coolest weapon in the entire movie!
|Just look at that awesome scimitar. Look at it!|
|Also, just look how awesome Morgan Freeman looks as his headdress flaps in the breeze!|
My dad became a large part of the reason I started this blog, in fact. When bigoted Americans maliciously paint all Arabs or Muslims with the same brush, they dismiss good women and men like my father who love America and enthusiastically do their part to contribute to its prosperity.
I don’t remember putting that in. Huh.
Although as a kid I found it extremely difficult to shine under his shadow, I’ve come to resemble my dad as I’ve gotten older. I’ve gradually gained his introversion, left-brain dominance, nigh-compulsive honesty, workaholism, and love of a quiet house and a good book. Heck, I even had a heart-to-heart with him recently. I apologized and told him that, as he told me all along, the Original Series really does outshine all other Star Trek.
These things just keep showing up. How do I make them stop?
Anyway, we still disagree in one vital area.i He has no ability whatsoever to appreciate cheese. I love cheesy movies.ii Nothing makes me happier than a good stupid movie. My love for this film has never abated because I find its stupidity endearing. That leads to the central irony behind this entire post…
My dad hates this movie.
He hates it to Hell.
He hates the historical inaccuracies, he hates the portrayal of the Crusades, he hates Kevin Costner, and he hates his counterpart, Azeem. He’s even upbraided me on several occasions for loving this movie so much! To this very day, when we talk about Arabs in film, he routinely brings up Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as his quintessential example of a historically-inaccurate, execrable nadir of cinema. (He even did so during the period in which I wrote this very piece!)
|At least my dad and Morgan Freeman have the same reaction to Costner’s ineptitude.|
I have something in my eye… Leave me alone! Don’t look at me!
Does he have good reasons to hate this movie? Of course.
As he has correctly complained, the movie perfunctorily steamrolls over the Crusades and refers thereto in a mostly ill-researched, Eurocentric fashion throughout. Speaking of steamrolling, the entire film ineptly staggers from drama to action to comedy to romance with textbook Hollywood schmaltz. Kevin Costner embarrasses himself for two hours lazily pretending to have charisma and an English accent and sporting a risible, dated mullet. Only Alan Rickman’s performance seems to have any real passion.
But as soon as the exordium pans over the Bayeux Tapestry while that Michael Kamen soundtrack blares to life, this film just takes me for a ride every time! I’ve lost count years ago of the number of times I’ve seen this movie, and every last time, the sight of the Morgan Creek logo and this amazing song make my blood rush as a Pavlovian response. Just listen to this awesome song (I hope it hasn’t lost too much after Disney has spent the last 22 years farming it out to everything that even looks epic from a mile away).
The Arabian Merry Man
In my experience watching period pieces, I’ve found that their protagonists and the other “likable” characters invariably have values contemporaneous not necessarily to the time period of the setting, but to the time of the film’s creation.
This idea didn’t start with this film, nor did it even begin this century. I got this exact impression from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, which recasts the reluctant hero of Greek myth as a man driven by a Victorian need for conquest and adventure. For a newer example, look at Kingdom of Heaven and its main character’s vociferous opposition to slavery.
I see the Moorish/Saracen Merry Man as the 20th/21st century’s contribution to the Robin Hood legends, created in that very spirit. Adding a character from the “other” side of the Crusades to Robin’s band builds an impression of Robin as an egalitarian ahead of his time.
The filmmakers got the idea for Azeem from Nasir in the British TV series Robin of Sherwood. Nasir, played by Mark Ryan, joined the band at the end of the two-part debut. Production intended him as a one-off character, but the cast and crew liked Ryan so much that they just made Nasir a regular. Because this happened after the writers had finished the scripts, Nasir had very few lines and thus extreme reticence became part of his character. Nevertheless, his full potential would emerge in the fighting scenes.
Despite dubious claims in the DVD special features that Prince of Thieves’ staff did an enormous amount of research for the film, it appears they did little more than watch Robin of Sherwood and read Howard Pyle’s beautiful and venerable novel. Production actually thought Nasir came directly from the legends… until a crewman who worked on both projects (Terry Walsh) informed them otherwise. Rather than excise the Arab character from the script, Prince of Thieves’ writers simply changed his name.iii
The Arab Merry Man endured beyond Robin of Sherwood and Prince of Thieves: the new tradition continued with Asneeze and Achoo in Robin Hood: Men in Tights; Kemal in The New Adventures of Robin Hood; Djaq in the 2006 BBC series.iv
This new addition even appeared in comics. Mark Ryan—the very same Mark Ryan who played Nasir—went on to co-write the 1988 Green Arrow annual, a Robin Hood issue with a character based on Nasir!
|Mark Ryan inserts himself into this Green Arrow comic by proxy.|
Azeem, the Great One
This movie taught me to love Morgan Freeman. That policy hasn’t failed me yet, even as he’s starred in some real turkeys—including, arguably, this. Freeman brings a pensive, worldly, world-weary presence to this role, playing Azeem as a learned—if flawed—scholar who wants to help others, even those of different walks of life.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in a lot of ways, really tells a story about the undying friendship between Azeem and Robin. I always loved this brief scene after they escape a dungeon together and they share a melon (indicating their communion,1 in friendship if not in faith) while they get to know each other.
|Those melons look tasty… That came out wrong.|
Check out this shot shortly after of the two men walking along Hadrian’s Wall.
|Does this look to anyone else like an alternate poster design for Big Fish?|
I always loved this “two against the world” wide shot of an otherwise solitary panorama inhabited only by these two friends.
In an extended version scene, Azeem also deftly and intelligently gainsays Friar Tuck’s Orientalism. Tuck later gives a heartfelt apology when he sees Azeem save a woman from dying in childbirth. I still find it sad that such a positive, poignant scene of reconciliation ended up on the cutting room floor.
|The holy man and the Muslim make peace.|
We only see other Arab characters in the opening, in a torture chamber in the catacombs below Jerusalem. These Arabs get the usual barbaric depiction that one expects of a villainous “other” in an American action film. As in The Thief of Bagdad (1940), they speak English and don’t look Arab in the slightest.
|Arab guards prepare to add to their hand collection.|
|The tie-in video game goes further, using the same portraits for the Arab and English guards!|
The Other, Less-Great Ones
Kevin Costner infamously drops the ball with his accent-challenged, perpetually-confused portrayal of our hero, Robin of Locksley. Costner stands out mostly in the lack of jocose, swashbuckling joie de vivre of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, or even Cary Elwes. His presence on the screen constantly seems redolent of an incongruity between Costner’s attempt to play the character straight and the silliness that invariably results from his failure. His off timing and awkward delivery consistently mess up every last line in his share of the script’s lighter moments. With every sentence, one can—and desires to—easily imagine the English Errol Flynn type the writers envisioned for the part. Costner fits in about as well as a European princess in Detroit.v
|This blank, awkward stare of his shows up a lot.|
|Diegetically, Marian just got a look at Robin’s naked, pale ass right about… now.|
|Wincott can even look confused and threatening at the same time!|
Moreover, Wincott plays the character as a man whose anger belies a certain loneliness and feeling of inferiority. Every character Guy speaks to hates him. His entire life consists of serving the sheriff in exchange for little more than endless vituperations. All of this does add a dramatic touch to his final scene.
|I wonder if Slater missed the smell of morning air when he went to the pokey.|
|“What happened again? I just got here.”|
|“Holdst thou back! I’ve not yet commenced my scenery chewings!”|
George, Sheriff of Nottingham
|Like most men, Rickman looks most deranged when someone interrupts his sexual conquests.|
That’s it, then! Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans. No more merciful beheadings. And call off Christmas!
(The rest of this review contains SPOILERS, so press “End” and scroll up to “The Rest of the Film” if you don’t want to know. Better yet, go watch the movie.)
Interestingly, the objects around the sheriff seem to symbolize a latent self-destructive streak within him. For instance, look at the knife he gives Lady Marian…
|In the first act, the sheriff gives Marian the knife…|
|In the second act, Marian gives the knife to Robin…|
|In the final climax, Robin “returns” the knife to the sheriff.|
|The sheriff seems proud of his statue initially.|
|His pride abates after Robin gives both him and his likeness the same scar.|
|Robin and Azeem get to the sheriff by way of his own likeness.|
The Rest of the Film
For all its flaws, I really do love this film, and not entirely out of nostalgia and sentimentality (I don’t think). It doesn’t capture the spirit of the Robin Hood legends nearly as well as Curtiz’s excellent The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)—mostly because Curtiz’s film embraces the cartoonish aspects of the legends while Reynolds’ categorically rejects them.vi Also, in no universe or metric could Costner ever go toe-to-toe with Errol Flynn. Nevertheless, time flies when I watch it, and I feel entertained and excited throughout.
I always loved the costume designs in particular. Like Hook, at first glance, every character’s costume looks randomly assembled from odds and ends, but looking at the results, you can see a unity in design that adds to each character’s identity.
|Although Costner’s costume has little in common with the Lincoln green tunics of his predecessors, he does look like a natural leader.|
|Two of the more impish, comically-inept Merry Men, Much and David “Bull” of Doncaster, attempting to wear ferns.|
|Celtic chieftain Udrid here didn’t make it to the theatrical cut, but notice how the vertical elements of his costume combined with the low angle add to his perceived menace.|
|The Bishop of Hereford embodies church corruption in his expensive silks and furs.|
|Little John looks every bit the king of his fluvial arena.|
Although Reynolds has a somewhat nondescript, workmanlike style—like Curtiz before him—we do get some very good cinematography. Reynolds’ wide shots do justice to the English ridges and forests. The occasional Scorsese-like long take lets us see how Robin’s and the sheriff’s respective followers view them. He occasionally mixes it up by busting out the fisheye lens to convey uncertainty and malevolent scheming. Also, I find myself still marveling at this most famous shot in the film.
|Reynolds actually shot this solely for the trailer, but he liked it so much he threw it in.|
Anyway, the film has its flaws. I do not dispute that. But as with all films, I love the varied effects it has on people. A movie you watch once and forget may play a huge part of someone else’s life. A movie you caught snippets of may have helped form another person’s worldview. I know people who’ve seen The Waterboy or What About Bob? or Anger Management or Home Alone 2 dozens and dozens of times.
I’ve seen Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves so many times that I can feel my blood soaring and falling right along with it. Where most people probably see a forgettable Kevin Costner vehicle, I see my first hero and Dad… and now I recognize them as the same person all along.
i Okay, two; in stark contrast to me, he has an inveterate social conservative streak, probably owing to his Old World upbringing.
ii I had a list in this footnote, but it got really, really, really long, long enough to dominate the entire post. Suffice it to say I can name examples. Oh, how I can name examples.
iii Another probable research failure: the writers named Little John’s wife Fanny, apparently not realizing that the British use “fanny” as slang for the vulva. Think about that the next time you watch the scene where John tearfully screams her name over and over.
iv Fun Fact: Of all the actors who have played this Middle Eastern Merry Man, none come from Middle Eastern ancestry and only one follows Islam: Dave Chapelle, who played Achoo in Men in Tights! (He converted years later.)
v Don’t you dare steal my screenplay idea!
vi I should probably qualify this by saying that unlike most people I know, I don’t believe that suppressing the cheesier aspects of a story, legend, or franchise necessarily makes it better.
For instance, I actually prefer the campy, lecturing Batman of the Adam West/Brave and the Bold mold to Frank Miller’s monomaniacal, “grim & gritty” progeny. The man dresses up as a bat to beat up purse-snatchers and compulsively-self-incriminating bank robbers who dress up as even stranger shit; how seriously can you possibly take something like that at the end of the day?!
1 Foster 7-14
Books I Cited
- Foster, Thomas C. “Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Communion.” How to Read Literature like a Professor. New York: Quill, 2003. 7-14. Print.