Friday, March 29, 2013

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

I love Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A lot. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. A saner person would dismiss it as a cheesy, fatuous, facile money-grab that harvests a folk tale for royalty-free source material. But I look at this movie and, even with all its many, many flaws, I just see my first role model… and my dad.

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!
Azeem just screamed “badass” to my 9-year-old self in every way. He seemed like a stranger in a new world, just like I always felt!

Also, just look how awesome Morgan Freeman looks as his headdress flaps in the breeze!
But most of all, he struck me as a mirror image of my dad. My dad immigrated to America five years before he brought me into the world. We didn't have a strong relationship when I grew up—his workaholism precluded me from seeing much of him—but to this day I’ve never met anyone more intelligent, honest, studious, pious, industrious, patriotic, or universally admired by all who meet him. Despite that he looks nothing like Morgan Freeman in the slightest (can’t win ’em all, I guess), I don’t see it as a coincidence that my first role model so closely resembles him personality-wise.

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.
 More than anything, I just wish Dad could see in himself the Azeem I see in him.

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.
I love that a guy who became famous for a role went on to write the role into a comic! I just find something incredibly surreal about that.

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.
The scene seems superfluous at first glance, but it immediately establishes Robin’s egalitarianism and Azeem’s loyalty, the qualities that become most important in each character as the film progresses.

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.
All in all, though, I still love Azeem to this day. I love seeing such a positive Muslim character and seeing so many characters overcome their Orientalist fears to know a good man when they see one. I still consider him the most badass Merry Man by a country mile!

Other Arabs

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!
In the resemblance to the English guards, though, we do have a mitigating factor. While the Arabs look marginally more barbaric on the screen, injustices carried out by English and Arab forces alike convey the idea of torture and corruption as a human problem, not necessarily a problem of one nation.

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.
I find it very telling—and probably not accidental—that a British picture has an actor so obviously American in the lead. Costner’s casting feels redolent of this antiquated Hollywood idea that American audiences identify best with a straight, white, overpaid, American male in the lead role, even in settings like Crusades-era England where such casting makes no sense whatsoever.

Diegetically, Marian just got a look at Robin’s naked, pale ass right about… now.
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays Maid Marian. I’ve noticed that Robin Hood productions often characterize Marian as very reluctant to hook up with Robin; that seemed the case here as well. I pity Mastrantonio for her role in this film; Marian came off as selectively passive and not completely necessary to the story. The film unequivocally establishes that she can fight, yet she spends much of it as a textbook damsel in distress. Mastrantonio lacks Enid Bennett’s striking face or Olivia de Havilland’s chemistry with her love interest, but still, an actress as experienced as Mastrantonio deserves better.

Wincott can even look confused and threatening at the same time!
Michael Wincott plays by far my favorite version of Guy of Gisbourne. Wincott exemplifies the 90s look of the entire production. With the armor featuring the eagle with the jewel eye and the long hair and the gravelly voice, Wincott looks menacing in a way very unlike any other Guy. His work in The Crow echoes this role… except, of course, The Crow takes the slight Goth look to a comically pathetic extreme.

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.
Christian Slater, in turn, plays my favorite Will Scarlet, a callow, indignant young man who hates Robin for an unexpected reason. Slater’s predecessors have ranged from comic relief (Patric Knowles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)) to a wrathful, barely-reined-in sociopath (Ray Winstone in Robin of Sherwood) to an immature yet dangerous murderer (Will in the difficult but fun PC game Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood). Slater hits all three points quite well, making Will an interesting, believable character whose pent-up rage leads to a dramatic payoff in the third act.

“What happened again? I just got here.”
Mike McShane (the film misspells his first name as “Micheal”) provides the comic relief in the film’s second act as Friar Tuck. Again, I always liked McShane’s Tuck the best. Once the character settles into the Merry Men, McShane brings a wonderful charisma and joviality to his role. I always loved the final shot of him breaking the fourth wall.

“Holdst thou back! I’ve not yet commenced my scenery chewings!”
Brian Blessed, the inimitable King of Overacting, plays Lord Locksley. Only when I see this famously gigantic ham in his one scene do I get this vague feeling that maybe, just maybe, the filmmakers pulled a Deep Blue Sea (1999) and made this film cheesy and stupid on purpose. To see what I mean, watch Flash Gordon (1980). You will experience a level of camp you’d never thought possible.

George, Sheriff of Nottingham

Like most men, Rickman looks most deranged when someone interrupts his sexual conquests.
Alan Rickman probably serves as the film’s greatest strength. As the Sheriff of Nottingham, he chews up scenery like candy. He reminds me of the Grinch more than anything, alternately smug and querulous, evil both for personal gain and fun. He also gets the best quote in the entire film…

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.
For another example, look at the statue the sheriff (presumably) commissioned in his likeness. Eventually, Robin and Azeem use the statue as a battering ram to break down a door to face the real thing. In the process, the statue loses its head, foreshadowing the sheriff’s demise. The sheriff, of course, didn’t literally get decapitated, but one can see the erosion of his sanity in the face of his adversary, a sort of symbolic loss of head.

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.
This, combined with a third act revelation in the extended version regarding the sheriff’s upbringing, seems to suggest that the sheriff’s self-hatred forms his real undoing. He hates everyone, but most of all, he hates himself.

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 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.
Look at Little John’s costume in particular. It looks like a desultory, patchwork accretion of rags and bits of cloth, but looking at the character as a whole, we see a warrior with an air of leadership and a champion of the poor amongst the poor.

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.
The late Michael Kamen, as usual for him, takes the score and knocks it completely out of the park. His work supplements the romance, action, and spectacle perfectly, and his leitmotifs knock around in the viewer’s brain long after watching the film. Watch this video of his process and see if you can stop yourself from getting choked up.

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.


  1. I don't think you can really complain if a woman comes off mostly as a damsel in distress in a story that takes place in the high middle ages. In fact, it's pretty admirable that she resists her malefactors at all. That certainly isn't the norm for non-fictional women of her time period.

    Very engaging review, though, and an interesting perspective on a film I would otherwise have completely ignored.

    Also, it's very shortly fetched for Azeem to just intentionally be black. West Africa is part of Moorish territory from the time, and I hear they have lots of black people in Africa.

  2. Yes, well, you say it yourself: you shouldn't like it. A film we all love to hate. And hate to love. Is this our select, favourite form of immaturity, yearning to be back in high school, when are we engaged only in shaming ourselves for liking something? Who is this Big General Opinion that mocks people having a secret predilection for Phil Collins, Barbara Streisand and maybe for Kevin Costner? I actually thought our egos were so big, we'd choose our freedom any time over the Great Internalised Judge. Me, myself and my ego love freedom, hate ridicule and judgement, but don't seem to be able to choose freedom. Oh, grow up humanity!

    This is my all time favourite adventure, action piece I love. Normally, I drift off during action films and sometimes have to physically shake myself awake when I hear dialogue: Oh, look, there's James Bond again!! Jordan you said it so well, it's got everything: it's a historical drama, action, comedy, romance all in a dark Medieval package. There's nothing merry about those scenes of evil feudalism, futile crusades, starvation, women's places, lack of green silk for tights or the sheer dearth of hair spray for the perfectly waved male locks. And if you let yourself be carried away with the movie (without analysising genre), you'll breath will be taken away in horror by the criminally villainous, nightmarishly legendary Alan Rickman as the Sheriff.

    How did the Prince of Thieves portray the Crusades in your opinion? All I saw was the need to get the hell out of a meaningless war. The friendship between the Moor and the Christian are a constant reminder of the idiocy of the holy war, the Christian jihad if you like. I sincerely wonder, which film your venerable father has seen. But like in all good movies, you see something new every time you watch it, so perhaps the next time I will see his perspective.

    I feel like I've lived many lifetimes during this film and look forward to experiencing it again.