1991: Looking Back At ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Everything Martin Rayburn does, he does it for you.
As someone who grew-up on repeated viewings of 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn as the legendary heroic outlaw who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, the story and character of Robin Hood always has a special place in my heart. And although many a take, on both big and small screens, has been attempted across the years, none of them captured the pure enjoyment value of that 1938 version in quite the same way as the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Let's address the American elephant in the room first though shall we? Is Kevin Costner miscast as Robin Hood? Yes. But do I care? No, not really. Despite it being a criticism leveled against him back in the day, I feel Costner's enthusiasm for the role does come through in his performance. It was a time when he was riding the wave of success and could've gone a variety of directions - and indeed did with this film, JFK, Dances With Wolves and The Bodyguard all arriving within 18 months of each other - but I doubt many people had him down as a swashbuckling-style, arrow-firing action hero on the strength of Field of Dreams or Bull Durham. But Costner pulls it off. Sure, on paper it's a terrible idea to have him as Robin Hood, and he's in no way the best Robin to have graced the screens, but he's damn likable in the role and has great screen presence throughout (despite his inability to even try and adopt the accent). In short, I don't quite know how but he pulls it off. Well.
Viewed 30 years on, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves contains so many themes which are now more commonplace in large-budget films; civil rights, feminism, religious freedom. These have been addressed in many lower-budget or independent productions for decades, of course, but for 1991 it was a bit of a Hollywood curveball. The late 1980s excess, the whole Gordon Gekko "greed is good" culture was still very much prevalent, and then along comes a film championing economic opportunity for all. And not only that one which opens unexpectedly in Jerusalem and teams Robin Hood with a Muslim character called Azeem!

Played with all the dignity Morgan Freeman routinely brings to the screen, it's tempting to suggest that casting a black man as Robin's companion was little more than a token gesture by a 1991 Hollywood casting agent and studio. I mean, you wouldn't put it past them, would you? But however he came to be, Prince of Thieves does something with this character which you just rarely see on-screen today; Azeem is the more progressive main character, in both views on women and scientific advancements (in one of the movie's pivotal scenes Azeem hands Robin a rudimentary telescope (strangely similar to a paralleling scene in Dances with Wolves) which isn't recorded to have been invented until the 17th century). Given the events that have transpired since this film's release, Prince of Thieves is a reminder of just how Middle Eastern characters have stopped being depicted in this kind of positive way by many mainstream productions.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' message of equality between race and gender isn't shoved down your throat and doesn't come off as overt political correctness. Likewise Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's (try saying that name three times) Lady Marian is a woman in medieval England who has a sense of self and is not subservient to anyone; not historically accurate but progressive and certainly more forward thinking than most productions from this period.

Given that all the key players mentioned so far are American born, it's fortunate that the old Hollywood stereotype of casting a British actor as the villain was followed through with, as despite any underlying theme or message it's Alan Rickman who steals the show and makes Prince of Thieves unmissable viewing as the twitchy, scenery-chewing madman that is the Sheriff of Nottingham. His performance is full of little things which feel like they were improvised and his many outbursts are sublime music to the ears. It's arguably his best performance, Rickman simply elevates every scene he's in and has you equally despising and loving his character throughout. If there's one thing that give this movie excessive rewatch value it's Rickman. Each and every time you watch it he is more and more marvelous.
Visually, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a treat on the eyes. Doing the English landscape justice, there are some breathtaking location work from all across the country (although for the portrayal of Nottingham and its castle, the medieval walls and towers of the Cité de Carcassonne in the town of Carcassonne in Aude, France was used). There are also some great money shots, such as the romantic elevator with the sun in the background splitting the trees, and that of Robin firing an arrow with an explosion behind him filmed at 300 frames per second. The action, which admitedly at times feels quite sparse, comes with a sense of weight and physicality thanks to the impressive large-scale sequences it inhabits. Not least of which, the out there moment with Robin and Azeem being fired over a wall by a catapult. As it's all practical work, with not a computer generated effect in sight, it still feels believable.

On first release, Robin Hood: Price of Thieves was heavily criticised by most reviewers - I don't think the Bryan Adams earworm helped its case, as my god that song is awful (although the refrain works well within Michael Kamens' score) - but it proved to be a huge hit with audiences and it felt to me as if it earned something of a renaissance over the years. That now seems to have flipped back in a lot of popular media, and once again it appears popular to bash this film and lambast its casting choices. But, look past them, I urge you. Yes Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is not without fault. Yes there are a host of ridiculous hand-waving moments (like how Robin and Azeem travel 400 miles across England on foot in an afternoon), yes the screenplay is muddled at times, yes some of the casting is odd, yes there is Christian Slater (but there's also Sean Connery), but despite everything it's a fun 2 hours of escapism. And at a time when we're all in need of a bit more of that in our lives it's the perfect antidote to the depressing news were bombarded with on a daily basis. For solid swashbuckling fun, it's not quite up there at Errol Flynn levels, but it's a good enough production, one which feels both thematically relevant and refreshing today.

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