23 years after its release, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is barely watchable

23 years after its release, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is barely watchable

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with? This installment looks at Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, the second most popular movie of 1991.

My family owned about three movies when I was growing up. We were a library clan; if we wanted to watch something, we’d either pick it up or order it from the Cuyahoga County Public Library, a system that worked most of the time. But for whatever reason, we actually owned hard copies of a few things. One was Fantasia, which I’ve still never watched. Another was a dubbed copy of Amadeus that one of my parents’ friends must have given them. (Again, haven’t watched it, though I should.) And the third was a real, honest-to-goodness store-bought copy of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.

I have no idea where that copy of Robin Hood came from—a friend of my parents’ as a gift to us kids, maybe?—but seeing as how it was the only movie in the house that both my brother and I agreed on at any given time, I must have watched that tape 100 times. I haven’t seen it in at least 20 years, but I can still recite portions of it backward and forward (“No blades, no bows. Leave your weapons here.”), and (until recently) I remembered it fondly, thinking wistfully of a heroic Kevin Costner sweeping his Maid Marian around on a rope.

Like so much media from our collective youths, though, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves doesn’t hold up. Twenty-three years after its theatrical release, revisiting the film is a positively painful experience, especially in the almost three-hour director’s cut available to stream via Amazon. Thieves is a clunky, poorly acted movie arguably intended for adults but embraced by kids who just didn’t know better. (Though the existence of an extensive Kenner line of Prince Of Thieves action figures suggests the toymaker knew kids were going to like it from the get-go.) It’s confoundingly disjointed, sweepingly racist and sexist, and full of both bad costumes and bad wigs.

Though I remembered him as this devil-may-care rake with a swath of luxurious hair, Costner’s Robin is both poorly styled and wildly inconsistent as a character, not just because of Costner’s barely existent British accent, but because Robin apparently both achieves and loses adult sensibilities over the course of the film. He’s willing to sacrifice his hand to save a friend at the beginning of the movie, but, once returned to England, he acts like a petulant child, teasing his new friend Azeem about love. And though it seems noble that he eventually decides to take up with a band of outlaws and overthrow the corrupt sheriff, the film doesn’t actually explain why he’d do that, other than to imply that it was just the right thing to do.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Marian is similarly wishy-washy, entering the film as a strong woman who’s skilled with a sword and exiting it as a lady barely capable of defending herself against an old witch’s prying claws.

Speaking of Maid Marian and the film’s romantic element, woof. Though 12th-century England certainly didn’t lend itself to lengthy love stories or even ideal matches, the fact that Marian would fall head over heels in L-O-V-E love with Robin after seeing his pale, naked ass through a waterfall, well, it’s comical at best. Sure, she may have fallen in lust, but the film lets the camera linger on Mastrantonio’s gaping face in the scene, suggesting that, as if struck by Cupid’s arrow, she’s simply fallen for a guy she barely knows. And while this trope isn’t uncommon in films or in fiction in general, it’s just another example of how Prince Of Thieves’ plot is spotty at best, relying on viewers to already know the story and fill in the gaps themselves.

Much has been made—rightfully so—of the film’s treatment of Morgan Freeman’s Azeem character, the Moor that escapes a Jerusalem jail with Robin and is summarily indebted to him by decree of Allah. While the film’s dialogue certainly does Azeem no favors, calling him “the painted man” and making a joke out of his faith a few times, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves still mostly contains a message about acceptance of others, with Freeman’s Azeem overall reading as a clever, loyal, and learned man. (Costner’s ham-fisted speech to the Merry Men about color and creed, though? Ugh. He should never be counted on to deliver long blocks of “sincere” dialogue.)

The film doesn’t handle paganism as well, with both Alan Rickman’s sheriff and his witch mother Mortianna stumbling comically around runes, pentagrams, and dry-ice steam baths. Mortianna is especially ridiculous, with British actress Geraldine McEwan clad in a thin, balding gray wig, oddly colored contacts, and one really long fingernail, which she drags across a metal tray at one point, making a noise that turns my stomach to this day. She’s meant to be this hideous, devious witch, and while McEwan arguably plays that role well, it’s so ridiculously over the top and comical that she practically becomes a Disney character, albeit one with a penchant for spit and blood.

Mortianna also features prominently the film’s lengthy and uncomfortable attempted-rape scene. While I remembered this scene from watching the movie growing up, I don’t remember it being so horrifying, as well as so comically played. Rickman’s sheriff is pushy and jovial as he forces Marian’s legs apart, and while his jokes about how hard it is for him to get, well, hard, are probably supposed to be funny, 23 years and a world of political correctness later, they just seem cruel. Other aspects of the rape scene are—understandably—just disgusting. In particular, Mortianna’s claim that Marian is “ripe” and “will bear a son” after touching her stomach is hideously crass and downright icky, on top of being (along with the actual rape, for crying out loud) utterly and completely inappropriate for the movie’s PG-13 viewers.

And that really underscores the movie’s biggest problem. Watching the movie in a society 23 years more advanced, both technologically and culturally, I found myself wondering just who Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves was for in the first place. If the experiences of my friends, loved ones, and coworkers are any indication, it was meant for kids with a taste for action and explosions with few scruples about either acting or dialogue. But given the movie’s cast—Costner, Rickman, Freeman, Mastrantonio, Christian Slater, and a brief appearance from Sean Connery—it seems like the filmmakers and producers at least tried to approach the story with some seriousness. Certain characters, like Mike McShane’s Friar Tuck, are no doubt meant to add levity to the hand-chopping and macabre production. But others, like Rickman’s sheriff, sweep so wildly from horrifically serious to ridiculously comical that it seems like, halfway through the production, the cast and director just said, “Fuck it. Let’s have a little fun with this one.” And while that’s the kind of stuff that makes a movie memorable to a 10-year-old me—particularly when you don’t question how whole treehouse villages are built overnight in the forest without anyone in Nottingham’s employ noticing—it’s also the kind of stuff that makes a movie damn near unwatchable for a 33-year-old me. Despite what I thought 23 years ago, whimsy and costuming only go so far toward creating a great movie. Black powder and Christian Slater are cool and all, but real dramatic successes come when a film has both heart and a slate of talented actors who aren’t just leaning on their oversized patchwork capes to tell the story.