Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Renegade April: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

If you take the Renegade (“heroic outsider”) back past the beginning of film and into the endless void of literature and storytelling, you find that the paradigm case – the alpha and the omega of the archetype – is Robin Hood, the green-clad arrow-firing legend of the English countryside. Luckily, you don’t have to be a cultural historian PhD to talk a little about how this narrative has shaped up, because it’s come up a number of times in recent years. In fact, the topic is especially timely right now, because Ridley Scott is releasing the latest revisionist Robin Hood blockbuster in May. Crowe will probably be the definitive Robin of Locksley in the eyes of an emerging generation, so they’ll know Sherwood Forest as a dark, gritty place and Robin Hood as a wartime leader against the armies of the crown, appropriated by the villainous sheriff. However, Crowe will never be my Robin Hood… my Robin Hood will be the one that appeared on-screen in 1991, the Prince of Thieves, played by Kevin Costner.

Since I started poking around movie blogs and film forums, I’ve discovered a lot of ire directed at this particular adaptation of the Locksley legend. I can’t relate, even in the most clinical critical way… I loved Costner as Lord Robin when I was a boy, and rewatching the film for Renegade April, it still holds up as a down-to-Earth medieval adventure story and a loving portrait of the infamous outlaw, speckled as it was with occasional cheesiness. I mean, I love Lord of the Rings as much as the next guy, but since when did medieval action movies have to be nine hours long? Since when did they require two battlefronts of opposing armies, running at one another and clashing on an open field? I tried to watch Excalibur recently, and I couldn’t get through more than half an hour, with the muddled pacing, the laughable delivery of key lines, and the honest but futile attempts to muster up fascinating effect-driven magic spells. Yet, rewatching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I found it was still the fantastic film I remember.

So why all the hate? I’ve seen a few broad claims: first, that Kevin Costner was simply the wrong guy to be Robin Hood. I’ll address that more at length, below. Second, I’m constantly seeing the complaint that Kevin Costner couldn’t “hold an English accent,” which… and I hate to make unqualified statements of critical judgment, but… is a dumbass reason to discount the performance. There’s no such thing as an “authentic” Crusades-era British accent any more, and if anyone had one, I’m sure they would need to be subtitled. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Kevin Costner spoke in a nondescript American accent so that a strained enunciation wouldn’t get in the way of his character portrayal. It’s sad that I even have to defend against this claim. I’d defend against other complaints that critics have thrown around, but honestly, I haven’t seen any that are specific enough to warrant addressing.

I think, really, Prince of Thieves was a victim of certain circumstances surrounding its release. First of all, it was attached to one of the most catchy, sappy songs ever written (I don’t think that’s a hyperbole), and it’s very difficult to think about the movie without getting the song stuck in your head. The romance aspect of Prince of Thieves is actually fairly minimal; there’s no sex scene, tender or otherwise, and the central romantic relationship often consists of Robin Hood being a smart-ass and Marian making fun of him. Unfortunately, the sap has seeped too deep into the perception of the film, and now it’s infected.

The other historical circumstance that brought down Prince of Thieves was the subsequent release of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which is one of the few parodies to become more culturally relevant than its target. This is certainly understandable… Men in Tights is an amazing film, possibly Mel Brooks best work, and strikes with pinpoint precision. At no less than 5 or 6 moments in the first half of Prince of Thieves, I had to stifle laughter, because I remembered the corresponding moments in Men in Tights: the removal of Locksley castle, the river-crossing, and Ahchoo’s various remarks to Blinkin and Robin Hood. In fact, I think the criticism mentioned above, re: the accent, may have come directly from Men in Tights, when Cary Elwes said to Prince John (and the camera), “Because unlike some Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.” Attention, Mel Brooks: you made a masterpiece. However, I rather pity Prince of Thieves for having to live in the shadow of its parody.

Parodies aside... I'd like to go ahead and talk about that (overly?)-serious 1991 version of Robin Hood. I'd like to talk about why it will always be my favorite.

The core question of this analysis: is Kevin Costner appropriate, or indeed even qualified, for the part he plays in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves? He’s bracketed by the likes of Russell Crowe (2010), Cary Elwes (1993), Sean Connery (1976), and Errol Flynn (1938). There are some others in there (I’m lookin’ at you, Virgins of Sherwood Forest) but the ones cited here are the primary portrayals, methinks. Even Connery is a dubious addition to the list… sure, he’s well-known, but his Robin Hood film appears to be a bit lightweight. At any rate, you can always find the true precedent for a popular image by tracing its parodies, and the consensual image of Robin Hood is obviously Errol Flynn, subsequently parodied in Men in Tights and Shrek (among others, I’m sure). As the dancing, balletic hero of traditional melodrama, Flynn is a perfect poster-boy, but since the 30’s, we’ve started to demand a bit of a grittier and more realistic quasi-historical world.

Enter Crowe and Costner. These are two wildly different visions of a medieval hero, with Costner making the transition from old melodramatic fantasy, and Crowe carving an alarming new model of muscle and anger and mud-soaked angst. If we were playing NetHack (or WoW, or D&D, or whatever… how old are you?) then Costner’s character class would be “Rogue,” whereas Crowe’s would be “Barbarian.” Costner would have the advantages of speed and agility, exemplified by his swinging from ropes, stabbing with knives, and firing quicker than Will Scarlet can throw a knife. I can’t really see Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood outrunning his foes, or engaging in a spritely sword-fight. He’s kind of a brute, isn’t he?

And despite protests, I still see two figures in Costner that make him a fantastic Robin of Locksley – much better than he was as Mariner in Waterworld. The first is this “Roguish” thing I mentioned just now. In Prince of Thieves, Robin is charismatic, allowing him to be a leader, following from his confidence and the life experience he has from the crusades… but he’s also a smart-ass, which is what qualifies him to be a thief, a classic trickster figure, a true subversive. Costner has always had one of the best smirks in the business, and his lines in Prince of Thieves bring out his boyishness, as when he’s asked to turn around and present himself to Marian, and he asks, “Am I to dance next?” … or when his companion, Azeem, says of a river, “In my dreams alone have I imagined such a place,” and Robin replies,Then imagine a way to cross it.” I know, he’s no Juno, but he can deliver dry sarcasm with the best of them.

Then, Costner balances a second persona with the first, and this balancing act may be what drove critics like Ebert to say things like, “What bothered me was that the filmmakers never found the right tone for Costner to use, no matter what his accent.” This second persona is the father figure, which is another role that Costner plays well, alongside his adolescent self. Costner’s fatherly tone comes through most in his sentimental moments… and yes, there are a lot of these… and in his confident authority dealing with individuals, like Wolf, Friar Tuck, and Will. Again, I quote Ebert, who says that Costner is “a thoughtful, civilized, socially responsible Robin Hood,” which reflects an inner peace that we understand comes from the character’s trials in the crusades. Calm and paternal and earth-bound: I may be mistaken, but I think this is how many of see our own fathers, and Costner plays it well.

This fatherly tone is the greatest departure from the old tights-and-singing characterization of Robin Hood, and it made this version a bit alarming for some. However, it’s important to the thematic backbone of this version of the tale, which is romanticized, but tilted toward realism. This strong paternal instinct is what prompts Robin to start taking care of the displaced peasants of Nottingham, his altruism touched with the slightest bit of chauvinism. It’s a tone that also links this particular Robin Hood strongly to two themes that have always been with the hero, but that haven’t necessarily been capitalized upon so much: the theme of the father’s death, which is an overpowering force in Prince of Thieves, and the theme of loyalty to his king. Robin is a loyal subject, but clearly he sees King Richard as a father figure to his country, and strongly respects him and defends his authority, like a good eldest son. His personality throughout Prince of Thieves is defined by a willingness to step in and take the reins, first temporarily as steward to the kingdom, and then permanently as husband to Marian, and presumably as father to some kids.

I’ll speculate a little here: I doubt Crowe will manage either of the qualities that Costner brought to bear. He doesn’t have the face or the manner to be sarcastic… his confidence is heavy and self-possessed, more fitting for a Roman general. He also doesn’t really have the warmth to be fatherly, which is why, in Gladiator, it makes sense that we never even see him with his family. As a military-father-in-absentia turned vengeful force of nature, he’s great… but can a band of the disenfranchised trust him to build a community? Perhaps they won’t need to, if Ridley Scott focuses on Robin Hood as a master of guerrilla warfare and a great battlefield strategist. And from the trailers, it looks like this may be what happens.

However, I’ll always think of Robin Hood as Costner’s character, “thoughtful, civilized, and socially responsible,” with his attendant ambiguity and introspection. For earlier viewers, Robin had to be a dancing, joyous forest minstrel, and for later viewers, he will have to be a brutal medieval warrior rising from the Earth. For me, he’s a smarmy, lithe, forest-dwelling romantic who will be remembered for much worse movies, when he should be remembered for this one.

Renegade Profile

Outlawed by acting law enforcement; appropriates "criminal" identity in order to defend locals and protect true king's rule
  • Robbery
  • Theft
  • Resisting Arrest
  • Incitement / Conspiracy
  • First-degree murder
  • Probably second-degree murder


Liz said...

"I can’t really see Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood outrunning his foes, or engaging in a spritely sword-fight. He’s kind of a brute, isn’t he?"

No, he isn't. Unlike you I've actually watched the trailers.
This blog is called "Benefit of the Doubt". As you haven't even seen the film yet, it would be nice if you practiced what you preach.

Jesse M said...

It's nice to get a comment that isn't spam. That said, obviously I watched all the Ridley Scott Robin Hood trailers and we just have a difference of opinion on the guy's bearing. I know self-righteousness is fun, but come on... I didn't even say anything that unfavorable about this Crowe/Scott version. I just speculated a little.

On the topic of trailers, did you see trailer #1, posted on December 15? Did you notice the guy's shield, around the 37 second mark? Think it's supposed to be like that? :)

Newton Gimmick said...

I also loved this movie. I think the hate is as you said, directed at the song (Hey it's catchy) and the parody, that's as much a regular send up of Robin Hood as it is that movie, The film was a pretty big success and I think the most FUN telling of the Robin Hood story, ever. It's more historically accurate than dudes in tights, but also amps up some myth ahd lore with stuff like the witch.