Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is Darker Than You Remember

We look at how Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came to be, what worked, and what didn't.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

It tends to be a forgotten fact that, in the late 1980s, there were actually three competing Robin Hood projects fighting for a greenlight. A trio of separate scripts were being developed by Tristar Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Morgan Creek Productions, and the only one that would go forward to become a movie would, ultimately, be the Robin Hood screenplay that Kevin Costner decided he wanted to make.

Of the three, the Tristar project was apparently barely in the running. But for a long time, it looked as if 20th Century Fox would win this particular race. It had a director on board, with John McTiernan – hot off the back of Die Hard and in the midst of The Hunt For Red October – set to make its Robin Hood movie. And at that stage, it was the most advanced of the projects.

Costner, while this was going on, was making his directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, and was determined not to get boxed in on screenplay changes as he had done on the film before that, Tony Scott’s Revenge. He took a meeting or two with McTiernan with that in mind, and things looked like they might happen.

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“Wait a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it?”

The problem was that Fox’s script wasn’t ready enough, and also that McTiernan was also interested in a different, new project with Sean Connery (that ultimately didn’t get made). Upcoming independent Morgan Creek thus moved quickly (having originally sought and failed to get Mel Gibson for the role of its Robin), and pulled a masterstroke by hiring one of Costner’s best friends, Kevin Reynolds, to direct.

Reynolds had directed Costner before on Fandango, and his involvement – along with a screenplay from Pen Densham and John Watson that was willing to go broader than the traditional Robin Hood legend – led to Costner committing to Prince Of Thieves. The Fox and Tristar projects shut down shortly after (although a competing Robin Hood movie, starring Patrick Bergin, would get a UK cinema release in 1991, heading straight to television in the US).

Watch Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves on Amazon

Yet even with Costner and Reynolds on board, the difficult days were still ahead. It didn’t help that, when Reynolds signed on, he had just a month and a half to prepare a movie that was mainly shooting in the UK. Reynolds, a Texan, would also have to factor in that the movie was not only filming thousands of miles from home, but also that he was shooting in a British winter (“I think the weather in particular was a problem on that shoot because we were shooting in the fall, and especially up north, we had a lot of weather problems, all very rainy and all,” he told Den of Geek UK). The locations – not one of them the actual Sherwood Forest – would afford Reynolds and his crew comparably few hours of decent daylight a day. It would not be long before Robin Hood would run over schedule. And time was already tight.

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Perhaps the first sign of problems came just ahead of shooting. Robin Wright had been cast in the role of Maid Marian, but discovered she was pregnant. Four days before cameras were set to roll, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was drafted in (the film would then overrun, causing – and don’t say we never give you killer bits of trivia – her wedding license to lapse), more than holding her own in the part. That said, she would pinpoint many people’s feelings about Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves when she said in a 2009 Sunday Herald interview that “It felt like different films, different attitudes, and I’d have much rather been in Alan Rickman’s film. I wanted to do what he was doing.”

So let’s start there.

“You, my room, 10.30 tonight. You, 10.45… and bring a friend”

You don’t need us to tell you that the most fun moments in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves center around Alan Rickman‘s villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. He turned the role down a couple of times before eventually agreeing (Sam Neill and Richard E. Grant were considered, too), on the condition that he could have relatively free reign with the part.

There’s not a line in the film he doesn’t deliver deliciously, and the story goes that the film was re-edited to take bits of Rickman out, and put more of Costner in, such was the Sheriff’s dominance of the movie.

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As it turned out, a longer cut would emerge later on DVD and Blu-ray, and it’s the 148 minute version that’s now available on the UK disc release. Oddly enough though, adding more Rickman makes the film a little weaker. The longer cut explores in more detail his relationship with the bizarre Mortianna, revealing more backstory – specifically that she’s his mother – and adds in his worshipping at the altar of dual gods. But it slows down an already bloated film, weakens the character a little, and the leaner cut – which even then, isn’t too lean – is arguably the best.

read more: The Adventures of Robin Hood is Still the Best Version of the Legend

Not that that either appears to be the director’s cut. Most stories about Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves tend to center on the sizeable disagreement and falling out between Costner and Reynolds, that led to the latter having his cut of the film taken away from him. Costner (who reportedly did some second unit directing) and his producers instead assembled the final version – as they would do with Waterworld, Costner and Reynolds’ next collaboration – and the director was not impressed with it. However, he didn’t hold the cards here, and whilst the final cut was approved by a director called Kevin, it wasn’t the Kevin who actually helmed the film.

Again, we spoke to Kevin Reynolds back in 2008, and he admitted he was pleased that the longer version had seen the light of day in the end. “What you really wish is that the original version had been that, the original release had been your version. But yeah, to some extent I am happy that people saw more of what I intended,” he told us. “But… you’d make yourself crazy if you constantly dwelt on it. I sort of don’t understand filmmakers that can go back ten, fifteen years later and want to re-work their film or restore it, because you have to let it go.”

“I had a very sad childhood, I’ll tell you about it sometime. I never knew my parents; it’s amazing I’m sane”

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Rewatching Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, time hasn’t altered at all the rights and wrongs of it. Its introduction of Azeem, the Moor companion that Robin befriends in a savage scene in Jerusalem at the start of the movie (Costner had been eager to show the backstory of Robin outside of Sherwood Forest) gave Morgan Freeman a decent, if unexpected role. It’s one of the biggest deviations from the Robin Hood legend, but in fairness, it lends the film its best non-Rickman comedy moments (co-writer Pen Densham went on to say in an interview abut including Azeem that “I was told it was a stupid idea by studios, so overcoming those objections made it worth the effort”).

And at times, it needs that early comedy. It takes 40 minutes or so for Robin to finally set foot in Sherwood Forest and meet those who will become his merry men, and the journey there is surprisingly dour. A cast iron example of its seriousness: the film has Brian Blessed appear in its opening ten minutes or so, and promptly kills him. What’s going on there?

In fairness, we have met the two villains of the piece in that time. And we get our introduction to Alan Rickman’s Sheriff. Take his gleeful promise to “cut out your heart with a spoon” as just one example of what he does right here. It’s delivered with delicious, pitch-perfect villainy, one step short of winking at the audience (in fact the film does break the fourth wall, right at the end, with such a wink). But let’s not forget Michael Wincott’s hardly cheery and really quite intimidating Guy Of Gisborne. He rarely gets mentioned when people talk about the film and his work here is actually really good.

read more: Robin Hood Movies Ranked 

It’s useful, because – and I say this as a huge fan of the man – Costner’s isn’t so much. He pitches his Robin as an anti-Errol Flynn, but the first time I saw the film, the cinema erupted in a guffaw when he said in his California tone “this is English courage.” As the film went on, Costner wisely abandoned any attempt at an English accent, and his performance thus improved. Furthermore, his comedy moments are strong. Comedy has always been a Costner strength, and is again here.

That said, the accent criticisms would stick, and Mel Brooks would have fun with it in his spoof inspired by Prince Of Thieves, Robin Hood: Men In Tights. When his Robin Hood, Cary Elwes, says “this Robin speaks with an English accent,” Men In Tights gets one of its few laughs right there.

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“Cut out his heart with a spoon”

Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is the only film to date that brings Kevin Costner and Elmo from Brush Strokes together on the big screen (to date, anyway, depending on Howard Lew Lewis’ schedule). And the merry men feature no shortage of fun characters: step forward Nick Brimble’s grand Little John, Soo Drouet as his wife, Fanny (behave), and the marvellous Michael McShane as Friar Tuck. It’s a grand ensemble.

There’s also another American accent in the mix, this time belonging to Christian Slater’s Will Scarlett (a role once earmarked for Johnny Depp). It’s credit to the writers here that they tried to deepen the story with the twist about Will being Robin’s brother, even if Slater’s looks probably gave the game away a bit earlier. Slater also improvised the “fuck me, he cleared it” line, that had to be cut from the UK release to earn a PG rating (14 seconds were chopped in all).

That said, BBFC chief James Ferman would express that his only regret on his retirement was allowing Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves through with such a soft certificate. He had a point. This is a brutal, violent film, with a surprisingly nasty edge for a family movie. And there’s also the ending of the film, which leaves a really sour taste.

Up until the final act, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is generally enormous fun (appreciating the downbeat early scenes, and the remarkably adept blind man, Duncan). Reynolds – shooting his arrows at 300 frames a second – has a busy camera, that he’s willing to point wherever he needs to keep the film moving. His action moments – clearly practical – are strong, and the arrows of fire being launched into the Sherwood camp make for an excellent sequence. He breathlessly mixes up action and comedy, and then takes time to set up a potentially brilliant final sequence, as Robin and friends must halt the Sheriff’s wedding, and save ten of their men – one of whom is John and Fanny’s son – from being hanged.

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read more: The Underrated Movies of 1991

What leaves the sour taste is that it’s underpinned by a prolonged scene of attempted rape. Even more sourly, it’s shot from an audience point of view. And at the time of the film’s release, nobody (including me) seemed to notice.

I certainly notice it now, and what makes it doubly unpleasant and disturbing is that it’s played for comedy. As the Sheriff tries to have his way with Marian, he’s firing out one liners. There’s not a blockbuster film now that could or should get away with that as Robin Hood does here. Arguably, Robin Hood shouldn’t have done either.

In an era where films such as Die Hard have been downgraded to 15 from 18, it’s interesting that Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves is one of the few to have gone the other way. The disc release, with the original 142 minute cinema cut we saw in the UK is now a 12, and even then, there’s a sense the BBFC is being a bit generous.

“God bless you, Fanny! And God bless Robin Hood!”

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Before I wrap up, I’d be remiss not to touch on the music. Bryan Adams’ infamous song would spend longer at the top of the British singles chart that any before it or since.

But more interestingly, Michael Kamen’s energetic score to Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, is brilliant. Kamen died of a heart attack at the age of just 55, and it’s one of several excellent scores he penned in his lifetime. It’s a tragedy we never got to hear more.

Still, revisiting Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves has been interesting for me. I’ve always liked the film an awful lot, but my reservations about the ending grow with each viewing. It just doesn’t feel right. It did not stop the film from being a massive hit, though.

For Costner, he wouldn’t just come through the criticism of his performance unscathed, he’d emerge with a huge success. What’s particularly notable about Kevin Costner at the height of his movie star days is that he didn’t get there by being symbolized with a gun in his hand. Granted, he had a gun in scenes in a few of his films, yet that wasn’t the image of him. At a point when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the world’s other biggest movie star, the difference between the two was firmly pronounced.

Costner and Reynolds would patch up their differences, only to fall out in even more spectacular style on Waterworld (only to patch up their differences again and reunite for Hatfield & McCoys). But with Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, against considerable odds, they fashioned an often hugely entertaining – and hugely uncomfortable – blockbuster, with an immense villain. 

And yep, even Sean turning up at the end still raises a smile. Even though his surprise cameo was widely leaked even before the world wide web routinely did that sort of thing for you…

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