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Artillery Row

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at 30

Is this 1991 blockbuster an underrated masterpiece or kitsch nonsense?

For those of a certain age, the opening chords of Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” will immediately remind them, in a Proustian fashion, of the summer of 1991. It is relatively rare that a song has that level of ubiquity, but, in the early days of the John Major government, Adams’s ballad occupied the number one position in the charts for a staggering sixteen weeks. It remains the longest-serving song to have that honour, and sold 15 million copies worldwide, resulting in enormous rewards for Adams and his co-songwriters Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange and the composer Michael Kamen. And, of course, it contributed enormously to the financial success of the film that it helped to promote, the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which was an enormous box office hit.

Make no mistake, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fails to be a good film

Three decades on, Costner’s attempt to build on the Oscar-winning success of his unexpected hit Dances with Wolves and establish himself as a bona fide heroic leading man continues to divide popular opinion. Those who speak favourably of it point to its rip-roaring action scenes, epic sweep, stirring musical score and peerless villain. And others, including (naturally) The Guardian denigrate it as little more than “a joyless hit that should stay in the 90s”, taking particular pleasure in the Golden Razzie award for Worst Actor that Costner received for his performance. Who is right, and who should be outlawed? 

I have a particular fondness for the film, because it is the first proper grown-up summer blockbuster that I remember seeing. When it came out, I was 9. Although I had been a regular cinemagoer, enjoying the likes of Honey I Shrunk The Kids and the Disney films of the Eighties, this was something rather different, and more adult in its plot, tone and characters. Sitting in the Odeon in Bristol, I felt giddily thrilled as soon as I heard the first notes of Michael Kamen’s heroic overture. This sense of excitement barely left me over the next two hours. There were action scenes that I had barely dreamt of, a level of violence (despite the BBFC-ordered edits) that led to my parents being vaguely appalled and, perhaps best of all, fancy camera tricks that allowed the audience to follow the trajectory of Robin’s arrow from bow to target. I left the cinema ecstatic, and promptly declared my ambition to be an outlaw. The life of Robin and the merry men seemed to be the perfect one for me. 

Thirty years later, I have embraced another kind of penurious existence on the fringes of society, that of an author and journalist. And yet Robin Hood is a film that I take a certain pleasure in revisiting every few years, perhaps in memory of what might have been. Since its release, Costner’s career has waxed and waned into his current status as a character actor, and many of the rest of the cast have all but disappeared from view. I remember once seeing Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, a memorably feisty Maid Marian, in the Bayswater Waitrose and wondering if I should say something, before deciding that an awkward young(ish) man offering her compliments on a performance that she had given decades before was unlikely to improve her evening in any significant fashion. And its director Kevin Reynolds is now more associated with his less successful (although underrated) subsequent collaboration with Costner, Waterworld, than this stirring slice of hokum. 

Make no mistake, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fails to be a good film, in the traditional sense of the term, in many different ways. The first half is almost painfully slow, as Costner’s Robin returns from the Crusades, accompanied by Morgan Freeman’s noble Azeem, to find his father slain by Alan Rickman’s satanic Sheriff of Nottingham and his lands seized. The recruitment of the Merry Men seems to last forever, the action scenes are low-scale and banal, and only Kamen’s stirring score gives the narrative any kind of momentum. The performances range between serviceable (Costner, Freeman) and embarrassingly bad (Christian Slater as a petulant Will Scarlett, Canadian ‘comedian’ Michael McShane as Friar Tuck). But there is one great redeeming feature, in the saturnine form of the film’s antagonist.  

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Alan Rickman’s performance in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves might be the finest villainous character ever committed to film. A substantial number of his scenes were deleted from the cinematic version (and were restored for a special extended cut a few years ago) for fear that the character would overshadow the more stolid hero. Even in his truncated form, Rickman’s Sheriff remains a slithering, hissing and seductive force of evil, half Valmont, half Iago and wholly captivating. Not only does he get all the most iconic lines – ‘Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans! No more merciful beheadings! And call off Christmas!’ – but he is a force of nature, in equal parts hilarious, menacing and dashing. I remember being deeply disappointed when I first saw the film that the character had to die at the end. I would have much preferred it if he had killed Costner’s Robin and lived to sleaze another day.

Its strengths, not least Rickman, are so considerable that it remains a Lincoln green joy to watch

Yet even allowing for Rickman’s quite shameless scene-larceny, which deservedly won him a BAFTA, there is still much to enjoy about the film once it belatedly gets going. Around the halfway mark, once the interminable exposition and absurd geographical errors have settled down, Reynolds seems to remember that the film should be a swashbuckling adventure rather than a hand-wringing exercise in anachronistic pre-wokery. It then becomes deeply exciting, if at times suitably silly. 

The two grand battles that climax the film are all the more impressive for their pre-CGI emphasis on physical effects and daring stunts, and the final duel between Costner and Rickman effectively summons up the ghost of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone from the legendary The Adventures of Robin Hood. And Sean Connery’s stately, iconic closing cameo as Richard the Lionheart – something that would have been spoilt in minutes in the social media era, but remained a surprise to most audiences when the film was released – remains a lovely appearance from the most charismatic of actors, and a homage to his own appearance as Robin in Richard Lester’s autumnal Robin and Marian.

I would never claim that Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was an underrated classic of cinema. When rewatching it, I do find that my attention has a habit of drifting off during the oft-interminable first hour. But its strengths, not least Rickman, are so considerable that it remains a Lincoln green joy to watch. You can take your Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe versions of the tale; it’ll be Costner and his not-even-bothering attempts at an English accent that I will continue to treasure for another three decades.

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