Let’s be real about something: the 80s and 90s were not all that mass-media friendly to your average fantasy fan. If you wanted to see something with heroes with swords, bows, quarterstaves and possibly a sweet scene where someone gets a mace to the face, your options were decidedly limited. You had Beastmaster and Conan and a couple other things, but for the most part: not much.
So Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, being the big-ass blockbuster movie starring one of the biggest actors working at the time? Yeah, I ate that up with a dull spoon that would hurt more. I watched the hell out of this movie. I saw it multiple times in the theaters, and when it came out on video, I got a copy of it and watched that tape over and over. I cannot blame this one on “Well, it’s on HBO, so… why not”. I MADE ACTIVE CHOICES. And on so many levels, this movie is really Not Good– we could go on and on about how wrong Kevin Costner was for the part of Robin Hood, for one– but yet it’s got some magical alchemy that just plain works.
One thing on its side is how Robin Hood is one of those properties that is kind of perfect for reboot and reinterpretation. It’s a character in the public domain, and people have a decent sense of what “Robin Hood” is supposed to be, but it’s all broad brush strokes. You’ve got Robin, bow-wielding outlaw-for-justice, you’ve got Sherwood Forest where he lives, you’ve got the Sheriff of Nottingham as his enemy, and Maid Marian as his love interest, and his band of Merry Men– but the details of the story? There is no “definitive” version of Robin Hood, so you can fill in the details however you see fit. Within reason.
So, if you’ve never seen the glory that is RH: POT, here’s the rundown. It starts in a prison in Muslim-controlled Jerusalem, where Robin and his doomed friend are about to be executed, but Robin stages an escape and rescues Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman, and they get out, but doomed friend doesn’t make it. Because of this, Azeem pledges his life to Robin and they go back to England.
And England just SUCKS because the Sheriff of Nottingham– played by the fantastic Alan Rickman, back to him in a bit– has, in the absence of a active king, just plain taken over, declaring anyone who gets in his way a devil-worshipper and executing them. He does this to Robin’s father, played by the fantastic Brian Blessed in a tiny cameo. (I could go on with “played by the fantastic…” in this.)
Robin comes home to find England sucking, his father dead, his home and fortune stolen, and everything terrible. Short version: he makes an enemy of the Sheriff, and then hides out in the forest with the common folk whose lives also suck because of the Sheriff, and whips them into an army to make things terrible for the Sheriff. All the while, Azeem is at his side, but not being a sidekick, but being the smartest damn person in on the entire British Isle. He’s literally called “Azeem, The Great One”, which he utterly lives up to throughout the movie. He’s got a telescope, he’s making gunpowder, he’s delivering babies, and he know that great love is worth dying for. That’s possibly my favorite part about him– another movie would have a point where the movie just stops dead and tells you his backstory about him or his doomed love story with Jasmina and how that got him a death sentence, but NOPE. This movie just tells you “Here is AZEEM THE GREAT ONE and you know that’s some truth because MORGAN GODDAMN FREEMAN so BUCKLE UP.”
Robin gets some specific friends in the forest: Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, some guy named “Bull” because why the hell not, and then of course there’s Marian. Marian is there to be the love interest, but she starts out in full armor beating the hell out of Robin– mostly because the movie’s main philosophy is WHY THE HELL NOT? It’s awesome. She fights him with a set of antlers, people. ANTLERS.
She’s also the person who, while relatively aligned with Robin, has to put on a good public face with the Sheriff, who is getting more and more frustrated with everything going wrong, thanks to Robin and his army making his life difficult. Like I said, the Sheriff is Alan Rickman, and this is the role that cemented him as an absolute glory in the hearts and minds of the movie-going public. Die Hard let us know who he is, but Robin Hood is where he showed us he could not only steal the scene every single time he is on screen, but he would also take that scene he stole, wrap it up in a bow and hand it back to everyone else. He could have easily overshadowed the movie completely, but he instead elevated it.
And let’s be honest, it needed elevation. Kevin Costner has a natural charm and charisma, especially back then, but “13th Century British Nobleman” was not really in his wheelhouse. And I’d like to say, “Well, he tried”… but did he? I mean, performance-wise, Robin Hood Kevin Costner is not significantly different from Bull Durham Kevin Costner. But that’s OK.
I think the producers knew they would have this problem, because they had the foresight to ask themselves, “Who can we cast as Will Scarlett who will seem even MORE utterly out of place than Kevin in a British period piece?” And they found their answer in Christian Slater.
But, man, I do love Christian Slater to bits in this part, because he looks like he’s having a great time.
Funny story: in college, I was trying to chat up a young woman who was cute and nerdy and into all things SCA, and that went to hell because we got into a HEATED argument about Will Scarlett’s line in the big finale when he sends Robin and Azeem over the wall via catapult. She fought tooth and nail, insisting he said, “Bugger me, he cleared it!” And I stood my ground that, no, that wasn’t what he said.
YOU OWE ME A DOLLAR, BRIANNA.
The whole climax is delightfully batshit, with Azeem mixing up barrels of gunpowder so the movie can have far more explosions than any previous version of Robin Hood. It’s got trick shots, it’s got rousing speeches, it’s got a teleporting witch BECAUSE WHY NOT.
Like I said, there is no “definitive” version of the Robin Hood story, so everyone kind gets to pick which one is “theirs”. And for better or for worse, this one is most definitely mine.