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Writing About Film

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991)

Unpublished, 1991


Kenner’s plastic Robin Hood: Prince of ThievesTM action figures exude about as much personality as does star Kevin Costner. The toy company’s obnoxious advance marketing includes the distribution of a glossy brochure of movie paraphernalia to each ticket-buyer. The film’s poor reviews and advance word of Costner’s lethargic performance, however, may prevent Robin Hood from netting the box-office triumphs it strives so energetically for. A more satisfying cause for the film’s failure would be an exposé of the reactionary values Costner and the film espouse.

On the film-as-escape scale, Robin Hood rates a ten. It’s a captivating, majestic and foreboding motion picture, full of old-fashioned charm and exhilarating action. Credit goes to director Kevin Reynolds, production designer John Graysmark, costumer John Bloomfield and a capable supporting cast for working around their star. Although Costner doesn’t succeed in bringing Robin Hood to life, his latest incursion into what Dinesh D’Souza would call PC filmmaking includes imparting the legend with a nominally feminist and multicultural twist, featuring a markedly self-possessed Lady Marian, charismatically played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and a wise and sophisticated Moorish sidekick for Robin, ably illustrated by Morgan Freeman. It’s only upon reflection that the film’s deeply conservative nature reveals itself.

Critics have assaulted Robin Hood for its dark mood but I found this interpretation pleasing; Twelfth Century England was no happy hunting ground, what with plague, a constantly feuding aristocracy, a corrupt Church, the Crusades, an oppressive caste system and other diversions not unlike our own times. A diehard enthusiast of Howard Pyle’s medievalist classic The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as a child, I have no objection to the film focusing on Robin of Locksley’s darker side. Robin Hood’s frequent night shots and overcast English vistas, as well as its period trappings and attendant squalor, gives the film the gritty texture required to support its nonstop activity. And Reynolds’ direction, accelerated by frequent pans, zooms, and liberal use of the steadicam, flushes out the film’s vitality, riveting the audience to the screen — even as Costner ventures to lull it to sleep.

But let’s cut to the chase (and there’s enough of them in this film to tire out Doug Fairbanks or Errol Flynn). Robin Hood’s primary charm lies in his iconoclasm; what better than a man who punishes the corrupt and rewards the honest masses, who exposes the state’s evils and encourages rebellion, cracking wise all the while? Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is about another man entirely, a republican (with a capital “R” as well) who fights for the old order.

Costner’s Robin Hood is a disillusioned patrician: son of an earl, heir to castle and grounds, and lord-in-training. Against his father’s wishes, he embarks on the Crusades, only to be captured and sentenced to death in the pungent catacombs beneath Jerusalem. In a dizzying prologue, the grubby hero escapes, frees a Moorish fellow prisoner named Azeem and heads for home, disgusted with the futility and injustice of the Crusades and stuck with the indebted Azeem.

Upon arriving home, the newly shaven Robin (not yet “of the Hood”) finds his father murdered by the Sheriff of Nottingham (wickedly played by Alan Rickman) and England in turmoil in crusading King Richard the Lionhearted’s absence (cameoed by Sean Connery — nyah nyah nyah!). Robin vows vengeance on his father’s murderer and winds up in Sherwood Forest, where he immediately and inexplicably commandeers Little John’s motley crew of doltish outlaws.

It’s at this point that the viewer wonders: Why? and, soon following: How? Costner’s tepid acting and the script’s gaping transitional holes leaves the audience out of the loop of Robin’s decision-making. Costner’s protagonist is the definitive Burbank New Age idealist, exemplifying utopian goodness, decency, and a generous portion of blind self-righteousness. Costner’s mercurial English accent and “bad” acting are not nearly as troublesome as the sense that Robin could be so assured of his destiny and have such faith in its ultimate fruition. Robin drifts listlessly through the film, leading the merry men in what often seems to be an emotional stupor, as if all of life’s hard choices have already been made. This prince of thieves is not a schemer, but a believer, one so convinced of his fundamental superiority over his indigent compatriots that he finds no reason to share his thoughts, either with them or the audience. The film’s freneticism succeeds in preventing the viewer from questioning the logic of events, or of Robin’s motivations — Robin succeeds in everything, including taking the stewardship of a group of ragged outlaws whose acquaintance he made that very night. Besides lacking wit, Robin Hood’s framework is so pleasingly stupefying that its inconsistencies seem to disappear faster than arrows from Robin’s quiver.

Costner’s star status gives him the enviable freedom not only to pick and choose his roles but influence their interpretation as well. Costner’s late casting for the film and his friendship with director Reynolds gave him untoward influence on the final product. On the surface, Costner’s intentions seem laudable, if slightly wishy-washy: he recognizes oppression, whether the victims be Sioux or Briton. It is his vision of deliverance which is questionable. For all the decent values Costner espouses, Dances With Wolves and Robin Hood reveal a profoundly authoritarian disposition. Costner’s characters are WASP luminaries, plunked into plebeian territory with the unspoken understanding that they are meant to take command. Costner’s Robin speaks of freedom but demands obedience, and is unwilling to explain why, living on faith and expecting it in return.

The film’s script and Costner’s banal interpretation betray that Robin remain nothing more than a spoiled nobleman’s son. Midway through the film, after having led his mistakenly confident band to a brutal defeat at the Sheriff’s hands, Costner vows to bring the fight to the Sheriff with only eight surviving men (nine when they count Fanny, Little John’s wife). Even in the fantastic context of this tale, such bravado is plainly absurd, a feeling which is underscored by Robin’s inability to articulate a reason for continuing. Instead, he lurches into a lethargic filibuster about faith and freedom, and bores his group into acquiescence. Even the film’s climax bolsters the impression that Robin is something less than an exemplary leader, as he perseveres not half so much through derring-do as through fortuitous happenstance.

Like the myopic Lieutenant John Dunbar of Dances With Wolves, who very nearly leads his Sioux tribe to their ruin, Costner’s Robin Hood manifests a dangerous ideal: a divinely inspired king who is removed from all worldly troubles, including his and others’ physical pain. He expresses pluralistic values but insists on obedience and faith in his unitarian insight. Like the loopy New Age ideology which fuels it, Robin Hood leads through a cult of personality, and seems immutably bound to a patriarchal mentality. It could be argued that Costner’s heroes are more invidious than those played by the Schwarzeneggers, Stallones and Seagals — Costner is perceived as a role model, a leader, a backer of causes, while they are understood to be anachronisms, men living out young boys’ fantasies, harmless because they are divorced from our reality and true group situations. The fatuousness of Costner’s cinematic persona is underscored by scrutiny of his true character, which seems to be oppressively opaque, shrill and paranoid, as evidenced in a recent New York Times’ Arts & Leisure profile and his unfortunate (but hilarious) appearance in Madonna’s Truth or Dare.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is as enchanting as any previous incarnation of the legend; like, Dances With Wolves, it has the exuberant feel of Golden Age Hollywood; it is only afterwards that one questions the hypnotic effect of the movie. Its New Age doctrines are convincing on screen but melt under a little critical analysis every time. Costner’s Robin Hood is a Nancy Reagan hero brought to the screen: he reads the stars, utters a few soundbites about truth and freedom, and invariably acts to preserve the hierarchical order. This is no outlaw Robin Hood, but, rather, an agent of the status quo, anxious to get out of the trees, settle down with wife and child, and be done with rebellion, lest it lead to true social change.

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