How Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Bryan Adams Conquered the World

Despite what cynics say, the residual joy of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is heard every time Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do” comes on the radio.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s that magic hour right after dawn when Robin Hood and Maid Marian approach the water’s edge. With the sun still low enough to cast both figures in mythic silhouette, the couple is surrounded by a blanket of fog, looking as if they’ve just stepped off a storybook cover. For most of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ running time, the narrative and its music has built to this moment: A request, a kiss, and a declaration.

When Robin Hood asks the woman he loves to do him a favor—secret a message to her cousin—she doesn’t hesitate to say yes, but not for her King and not for her country. She simply says, “I’ll do it for you.”  That is when composer Michael Kamen’s “Maid Marian” suite swells to operatic heights for the first time in the movie, losing itself in a swoon of its own orchestral making. The strings soar and the harps weep. And as Robin watches Marian vanish, her boat ferrying away into the mist, the heart of the grand and nutty Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is finally revealed to have been on the movie’s sleeve this whole time.

Also, unbeknownst to either actor Kevin Costner or Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the biggest pop hit of 1991 had just launched with Marian’s boat.

The simple musical melody of Kamen’s “Maid Marian” theme in this scene is almost head-to-toe the same musical composition of Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.”  Adams and producer R.J. Lange adapted the material into a power ballad inside of 45 minutes. Of course it was common practice at the time to turn elements of a movie’s score into aspiring top 40 hits: Disney started doing it the same year with Beauty and the Beast; and Adams would try again two years later with Sting and Rod Stewart for The Three Musketeers; and of course there was Titanic just a few years after that…

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But in ’91? It’s doubtful even Adams and Lange anticipated they were making the biggest hit of the rocker’s career. “Everything I Do” was a single many pop acts initially turned down, but by the end of that year it would spend 16 consecutive weeks at the number one spot on the UK Singles Chart—which is still the longest uninterrupted run ever—and 17 consecutive weeks on the U.S. sales chart (it would also enjoy seven weeks at number one on Billboard’s Hot 100, which combines sales and radio play).

Our own UK editor Rosie Fletcher recalled the delight millions of Brits had each Sunday when the Adams single was revealed again to be the most purchased and listened to pop hit.

“In the UK in 1991 the official top 40 was a Big Deal,” Fletcher says, “and much attention was paid to what was at number one on any given week. So much so, that many of us of a certain age would listen to the charts on the radio on a Sunday night, ideally on a tape deck with a blank C90 in hand. That way you could basically make your own mixtape of the charts that you could listen to throughout the week so you were guaranteed to know all the words to the most popular hits. There was no Spotify. Most people didn’t have MTV. This was the ‘90s equivalent of a download.”

She continues, “For this reason you will find an entire generation of Brits who know, without hesitation or looking it up, that ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ was at number one in the UK charts for 16 weeks. 16 weeks! That was a MASSIVE deal. So massive, that every week when it was STILL number one, we’d be amazed! How long will this go on? How long can it last?! And we would phone each other up on our landline telephones to discuss how amazed we were and we’d chat about it at school with our friends or on the bus, because there was no Twitter or Facebook or comments section to have an opinion about it on… That song was a legit cultural phenomenon and I still know every word.” 

It cannot be overstated just how popular “Everything I Do” was that year. With its wistful guitar strings and angelic keyboard harmonies, the piece still oozes sweeping sentimentality and unabashed romance. It was so big, in fact, that for the VHS release of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Warner Bros. Pictures placed the single’s original music video over the end credits—a fact which either the studio or Adams might’ve regretted since it is absent on subsequent DVD releases, and the only music video on YouTube is the one without clips of Costner’s well-coiffed hair.

For adults of a certain age—the ones who can remember the early ‘90s from the vantage of being a teenager or a child—Adams’ earnest bridge where he vows, “Yeah, I’d fight for you, I’d lie for you, walk the wire for you, yeah, I’d die for you!” is as entrenched in the memory as a national anthem.

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All of which came back to my mind last week when Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves turned 30. Certainly a movie of its time, the film triggered a wave of retrospectives, but none as attention-grabbing or baffling as The Guardian’s latest slice of contrarianism entitled “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at 30: a joyless hit that should stay in the 90s.” As with many of the paper’s recent anniversary features, it seemed designed to gleefully tear down a pop culture relic from the early 2000s or 1990s that many readers grew up with.

But at least in the case of Prince of Thieves, the venom-laced arrow missed the target by several groves. Yes, there are many problems with Prince of Thieves. You can pick at Costner’s spotty “accent” (or lack thereof) and how filmmakers tried to turn Christian Slater’s Will Scarlet into an angsty heartthrob. Also the less said about the hackneyed revelation that the Sheriff of Nottingham is a Satanist, the better. Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, this ain’t.

And yet, one of the many reasons the film was so successful in 1991 (and thereby unlike Hollywood’s two recent Robin Hood flops from the last decade) is because the movie is joyful. Filmed on location in the United Kingdom, the picture obviously has a grayer color palette than 1930s technicolor. But the newer movie is still imbued with the swashbuckling spirit of a rollicking romp.

That’s most obvious thanks to the oft-praised Alan Rickman performance, whose turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham is an inspired rendition of scenery chewing and arch-villainy. It’s a performance so deliciously evil that it steals the movie from Costner and won Rickman a BAFTA. But it’s not the only thing that works about the ‘90s touchstone. From Nick Brimble’s red-blooded introduction as Little John, which features the best cinematic rendition of that riverside brawl, to Sean Connery’s walk-on as King Richard the Lionheart, which still makes a play for the best movie cameo of all time, the picture is nothing if not mirthful in its swashbuckling gusto. It even ends with a literal wink to the camera.

But outside of Rickman’s dastardly turn, its enduring qualities are most apparent thanks to Kamen’s music. There’s a reason it conquered the world via “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You.”

Intriguingly though, Adams was not the first choice for the piece of music. The composer originally wanted the tie-in song to be written from the point-of-view of Marian, who indeed has the line, “I’ll do it for you” in the movie. Yet this concept was deemed too bland by the likes of Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, and Lisa Stansfield, who all turned the project down.

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So Adams was approached and he instantly understood what the music needed—giving it a forlorn, unrequited grandeur. His vocals along with the earnestness of the film melded almost too perfectly, feeding off each other in a year which saw one become the song of the summer and the other the biggest box office smash of the season outside of Terminator 2.

This piece of music also stands as one of several tracks which have outlived its movie. Indeed, production company Morgan Creek quickly turned the high note of Kamen’s “Overture” into their new logo’s theme.

Kamen, who died in 2003 of multiple sclerosis at only age 55, was unapologetic in his lifetime about the sentimentality he strove for in both pieces. Primarily known for hyper masculine ‘80s actioners like Lethal Weapon or Die Hard before Robin Hood, the composer was visibly elated in 1990 while writing for Robin and Marian. You can see for yourself in the otherwise hopelessly dated behind-the-scenes special, “The Myth, The Man, The Movie.” Narrated by a misused Pierce Brosnan in his pre-007 days, the doc nevertheless includes a fairly candid interview with Kamen.

“I’ve carried an idea of who Robin Hood is in my mind since I was six,” Kamen enthused 30 years ago. “So that’s a pretty strong vision to have, musically.” For the composer it meant embracing the rousing heroism of boyhood in his overture’s opening march and to lean into the romance of a lakeside rendezvous.

“The basic theme is really simple,” Kamen said of Marian’s theme. But by the time it comes into the film, “We’ve been building it up for pages and pages and pages of music. And finally she kisses him, and that’s where the score turns black with notes and everybody goes [crazy]. This is a work of love. This comes from the heart. This is something I really, really care about. Music is a real substance. It’s a very powerful substance. It’s got to be taken seriously.”

He visibly did that day, as the camera catches him swooning as the orchestra reaches the crescendo of what became “Everything I Do.”

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Said Kamen, “I guess I was in love with Maid Marian. Just looking at Kevin Costner give her a big kiss and thinking, ‘Man, that’s as close as I’ll get to that.’ I love that.”

In the summer of ’91, so did millions of others.