With Summer movie nights coming to an end, I’ve turned my attention toward revisiting the back catalog that’s been sitting quietly on my DVD shelf. I was able to get a good head start on these a couple of months ago when I decided to watch an old favorite from my adolescent years – Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In the late 80s and early 90s Kevin Costner had a solid string of movies that have stood the test of time, and I’ve been working my way through them, but I thought it was fitting to make this first review about my favorite Costner classic. It’s definitely not his best movie, but it occupies a place of importance in my personal experience of exploring and enjoying the art of film.
The Summer of 1991 was in full swing by the time Robin Hood hit theaters during the middle of that June. I was fresh out of grade school, with Jr. High still a couple of months away (this was back when Summer vacation actually lasted for, you know, the Summer), and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but those were the good ‘ole days. I remember seeing Robin Hood in the theater quite vividly because it was one of the last years that my parents took my sister and I on our annual vacation to visit friends who lived in Chesapeake, Ohio. So one afternoon, we made our way across the Ohio river to Huntington, West Virginia to see Robin Hood in the old Keith-Albee Theatre – the same place I had watched Michael Keaton become Batman two years earlier. And, incidentally, this was the same place where I would enjoy several movies as a college student a decade later.
The character and legend of Robin Hood was already quite developed in my mind by that time thanks to the animated Disney version that had come out in the 70s. My sister and I had a VHS copy that was probably close to being worn out. So Kevin Costner had a lot to accomplish if he was going to surpass Brian Bedford’s cartoon fox as the gold standard of Robin Hoods. And I’m happy to say that he met and exceeded my expectations. Even though he became the distinguished version of the English outlaw in my imagination, that old animated version is still my favorite Disney cartoon overall. But this new version of the Robin Hood myth had everything a 12 year old boy could want. It had characters that were serious, humor and comic relief that was never forced, a love story at its core, and booby traps – lots of booby traps – in the forrest. Growing up next to a sizable patch of woods, hidden from all manner of adult supervision, meant I could utilize what I had seen in the movie as I developed and honed my own booby-trap-making skills. I got pretty good at it too. ::::long, peaceful sigh of remembrance::::
Re-watching the film, all these years later, I think it still holds up as a good, fun, 90s action movie with a great deal of heart. It’s no masterpiece of cinema, by any means, but it hits that nostalgia button dead center. It has a supporting cast that’s nearly unrivaled in any movie from the time period. Marian, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio isn’t a completely helpless damsel in distress as Maid Marian was in her previous incarnations, and even though she does fill that role loosely, she also brings a great deal of energy and strength to the character. She doesn’t take crap from anyone. There’s also Christian Slater, donning the role of a Will Scarlett that is much more developed than any other version of the character. Young Professor Snape plays the role of the vile Sheriff of Nottingham (RIP Alan Rickman), and this movie is worth seeing for his character alone. He’s over-the-top, nasty, and humorously deranged the way a proper 90s villain should be. Not only does he kill Robin’s father, worship the devil, and attempt to force Marian into marrying him – but he also calls off Christmas in the process! And last, but not least, there’s Morgan Freeman, a little bit younger, and a little more stern in his role as Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir – the Muslim companion and friend of Robin Hood. It’s interesting to note that his character is not only the most likable, but also the moral compass for the others. The story has Robin Hood’s name on it, but if you ask me, Azeem is the real hero. He leaves his homeland to go to a place where he’s the only black person in a country that has sent armies to wage war against his fellow Muslims (the film takes place just after the 3rd Crusade). He stands out as a bastion of moral fortitude, refusing even to drink with the other “merry men.” He also devotes himself completely to the struggle against tyranny, challenges Robin to make sure his motives are pure, humbly accepts insults from Friar Tuck, and in his spare time successfully delivers a baby, produces rudimentary gun powder, trains the Sherwood Forrest outlaws in swordplay, and saves Robin’s life. He never calls Robin by name, but instead refers to him only as “the Christian.” He does this lovingly, and sincerely, subtly reminding Robin (and we the viewers) that there is something more to find within the identity of this outlaw – an outlaw whose enemies are protected and nurtured by a corrupt religious establishment, who struggles for those who are living in poverty, injustice, and oppression, and who (as Bryan Adams’ closing song indicates in proper 90s power ballad fashion) would die for his bride to be. It’s a small reminder that there is something more to this very old story, something important woven into the fabric of this tale that has been handed down through generations and retold for the last 700 years – something, dare I say, spiritual.
And… if that isn’t enough to get you to watch (or re-watch) Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – the last few minutes contain the best surprise cameo in any 90s film.