Film Discussion

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – Throwback 30

Not much is certain in life, however, for a record-breaking sixteen weeks in the UK during 1991, you could have been assured of one thing: that if you switched the radio on a few minutes before seven o’clock in the evening for the final moments of the Top 40 countdown, you would hear Bryan Adams belt out ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’. As of 2021, it is still the longest uninterrupted run for any song at the top of the UK music charts, almost symbolic of not only a time when being top of the charts was a big deal, but also when hit songs and big movies went hand-in-hand.

During the 80s and 90s, big movies (and sometimes not so big movies) got considerable exposure from having a commercially successful theme song, something that harkens back as far as the 1960s when the James Bond series would bring in best selling artists such as Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra and Louis Armstrong to sing title songs that went with John Barry‘s superb scores and themes.

Only the year before Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves did The Righteous Brothers’ version of ‘Unchained Melody’ (technically a solo by Bobby Hatfield) achieve a new level of success when it was used to powerful effect in Jerry Zucker’s Ghost, accompanying Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore’s infamous pottery-associated love scene.

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Released into cinemas in the summer of 1991, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is perhaps the most evident piece of ‘critic-proof’ cinema released at the time, a combination of many factors that came together to create a commercially successful blockbuster that proved popular with audiences regardless of whatever disparaging reviews critics threw at it.

1991 was a big year for movies and potential blockbusters. This would be the year that would give audiences another attempt at bringing old fashioned derring-do to the ever-increasing number of multiplexes at the time with The Rocketeer, sadly underperforming but which would gain a cult following in the years to come, as well as the long-awaited sequel to 1984’s The Terminator, with James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the biggest film of the year internationally and in the US, and which broke new ground with the then pioneering use of CGI to create its iconic villain.

In the UK, the biggest film release of 1991 was the one that the year’s biggest song came from, and even though this was a movie based on one of the UK’s most famous legends, it would end up starring one of the biggest of American movie stars of the time. The casting of Kevin Costner is still somewhat a bone of contention when it comes to Prince of Thieves. His accent at times wavers, at other times it feels as if he is attempting something approaching a British accent, before speaking in his native American tongue. It might be easy to scoff, and of course many did, but on paper the casting of Costner made sense. Back in 1991, he was a major Hollywood star, capable of bringing in audiences regardless of genre.

While he was amongst the biggest names to star in films during the late 80s and early 90s, he was a star that harkened back to something more old fashioned, a type of Americana more evocative of Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda than other male stars that came to define blockbusters of the period, such as the muscular likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the cool detachment of Richard Gere, or the hyper confidence of Tom Cruise. His screen persona was defined by portraying all-American beacons of sensitive masculinity, but one touched somewhat by stories that put that persona through the wringer.

No Way Out opted to put the actor firmly in the centre of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller drenched in Cold War paranoia, while his Elliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s superb The Untouchables paired him up with Sean Connery’s Irish (yes, really) police officer and had him get his hands increasingly dirty in fighting Al Capone, where justice eventually prevails in the end, but only after there is a high body count and where the eventual lesson of ‘sending one of them to the morgue’ ends up being the prevailing philosophy.

That type of decency in a complex world possibly made the actor the perfect choice to play Robin Hood, and the actor already proved himself capable of leading the way in old fashioned epics. His directorial debut Dances with Wolves was a combination of a commercial blockbuster and award winner (controversially so given it was up against, and beat, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas to the Best Picture Oscar).

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His persona and all-American approach made him the perfect choice for Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK. Who else to make those conspiracy theories and explorations of the dark slice of the American political system a durable one to experience, when you have Costner playing a character as the vessel for such information and who was capable of leaving the film and the audience on a cautionary note of optimism going forward. That all-American image of his went hand-in-hand for several films about baseball, from the comedic raunch of Bull Durham to the Frank Capra-esque magical wonder that is Field of Dreams; productions that possibly made him look on paper to be a strange choice to play England’s most famous legendary outlaw, but commercially there was logic to it.

Of course, Hollywood has always had a knack for doing things in pairs, and Prince of Thieves wasn’t the only Robin Hood film of 1991, eventually sharing the cinema year with John Irvin’s more grounded and less glossy Robin Hood starring Patrick Bergin; a more understated but still entertaining version that relied more on a light-hearted medieval grit and a somewhat muddier realism than the glossier Hollywood blockbuster-style that Kevin Reynolds would bring to this version.

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Prince of Thieves on the other hand was all blockbuster. Fuelled by a boisterously adventurous Michael Kamen music score, well-choreographed action and moments of comedy, this is very much the Hollywood blockbuster version of the tale, right down to its choice of actors in the roles. On top of Costner, we have Morgan Freeman and Christian Slater amongst the merry men, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maid Marion, and Hollywood’s favourite choice of British bad guy at the time, Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham (more of which in a moment).

In the UK the film was given a PG rating, a controversial decision by the BBFC given that the film features some pretty intense moments, including a heavily edited opening sequence depicting hands being chopped off and Maid Marion at the mercy of the Sherrif of Nottingham’s attempts to consummate his marriage with her mid-ceremony in a scene that ends up equating a rape attempt with comedy.

Yes, some of it has not aged well, and the extended version of the film, complete with a sub-plot involving Rickman’s Sheriff (scenes that were allegedly cut at the behest of either Costner or the studio, who were worried that their villain was outshining the leading man) was subsequently given a DVD and Blu-ray release, and is now the full uncut version of the film with the BBFC cuts restored and the film now rated a more appropriate 12. (It’s easy to forget that the 12 rating was somewhat more restrictive before the introduction of the 12A, and it wasn’t until the mid-90s that the rating was used for VHS and home entertainment releases).

As for the Sheriff of Nottingham, while Costner was the star adorning the poster, Alan Rickman gained the majority of the best reviews from critics who were otherwise dismissive of the film. His character positively chews up the scenery, with one-liners aplenty in a manner that is genuine scene-stealing on a par with Jack Nicholson in Batman only two years before. Every scene featuring the actor is the late, great talent chewing up every line and every moment with relish, and is perhaps, along with his turn at Hans Gruber in Die Hard, amongst his very finest roles just for sheer entertainment value alone.

As for the film itself, nostalgia is a great thing and it still seems to be something of a firm favourite. A recent retrospective on the film for its thirtieth anniversary that took a critical stance proved controversial, and its numerous screenings on BBC television over the years frequently drew great ratings for the broadcaster, so much so that it partly responsible for the decision of the BBC to commission a television series that would eventually star Jonas Armstrong and Richard Armitage and which ran for three seasons in the Saturday evening slot made famous by Doctor Who.

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The film joins the plethora of famous productions featuring the famous outlaw, and is certainly worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as many of them. The film was a very big deal in 1991 and I remember being tremendously excited to see it. It represented a peak of sorts for Costner as a movie star, and for the whole practice of writing a hit song for your movie to have an accompanying music video that would have clips from the movie dotted within it.

Since then, there have been many more Robin Hood productions, not least 2018’s version starring Taron Edgerton, which followed only eight years after Ridley Scott’s version, a reunion with Gladiator‘s Russell Crowe that somewhat failed to capture the magic of that film but which wasn’t a total disaster either.  For as long as there are movies and television, there will always be a version of Robin Hood’s it seems, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. In many ways each represents blockbuster cinema of their time, some doing well like this, others not, where even the best ones may struggle to out-charm a certain fox that starred in an animated version for Disney.

When it came to 1991, perhaps no other Robin Hood synonymised the time more than when an all-American like Kevin Costner could wield the bow and arrow to blockbuster effect, accompanied by a theme song from one of Canada’s most famous rock stars.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was first released in the UK on 19th July 1991.

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