Category Archives: Adventure

Robin Hood Week Day 4: Kevin Costner in Robin Hood-Prince of Thieves (1991)

Robin Hood-Prince of ThievesDirector: Kevin Reynolds

Writer: Pen Densham & John Watson

Cast: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alan Rickman, Nick Brimble, Mike McShane, Michael Wincott, Geraldine McEwan, Harold Innocent, Brian Blessed, Soo Drouet

Plot: Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner), a nobleman who joined King Richard in the Crusades, has been captured in Jerusalem. He escapes, saving the life of a Moor named Azeem (Morgan Freeman) in the process. Azeem returns to England with Robin, having sworn a life-debt to the Christian. Robin and Azeem return to England to find Nottingham under the thumb of its cruel Sheriff (Alan Rickman). The Sheriff rules with the aid of Sir Guy of Ginsbourne (Michael Wincott), the corrupt Bishop (the ironically-named Harold Innocent), and a witch named Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan), who fears  prophecy of her death at the hands of a “painted man.” Robin meets with a childhood friend, Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whose brother made Robin swear to protect her before dying in the Crusades. Robin’s father is dead and his home destroyed, and he and Azeem flee into Sherwood Forest to evade the Sheriff’s men.

They encounter a band of outlaws led by Little John (Nick Brimble) and Will Scarlet (Christian Slater), who takes an immediate dislike to Robin. Robin takes the lead of the outlaws and begins training them to fight. As time passes, they begin robbing the coaches of noblemen, including that of a hard-drinking but able Friar Tuck (Mike McShane), who joins their party. Marian, realizing that Robin is fighting for the England of her absent cousin, the King, begins to quietly provide him aid.

The Sheriff hires mercenaries to help him find Robin’s woodland hideout, capturing several of his men. He “proposes” marriage to Marian, the King’s cousin, saying he will space the captured outlaws if she accepts. One of the captives, Will Scarlet, deals with the Sheriff to track down Robin. When released into the forest, though, Will tells Robin of the Sheriff’s plans despite his anger with the man. Will reveals that he is Robin’s half-brother, the son of a woman Robin’s father took up with after his mother died. Robin embraces his brother, and together, they begin to plan.

On the day of Marian’s wedding – which will coincide with the execution of the captives – Robin leads a rescue, setting them free. Azeem rallies the peasants to join them in overthrowing the Sheriff, and Nottingham erupts into war. The Sheriff rushes his “wedding” to Marian and takes her away, planning to consummate the marriage. As the Bishop tries to flee, Tuck faces him and loads him with treasure, pushing him from a window to his death. Robin saves Marian and kills the Sheriff, but Mortianna attacks him with a spear. Before she can strike her blow she is killed by Azeem, who has fulfilled his debt to Robin.

Robin and Marian marry in the forest, a wedding only briefly interrupted by the return of King Richard (Sean Connery in an awesome cameo), who blesses them and gives Robin Hood his thanks.

Thoughts: I was 13 years old the summer this movie came out, and although I know it gets a lot of grief from the Costner-haters of the world, it’s still a movie I really like. This was the first live action Robin Hood movie I ever saw, and as such it has greatly influenced my feelings about the character. Still, looking back at it 20 years later, I can see some of the cracks in the hero’s armor.

Kevin Costner, to begin with, is slightly problematic. While I don’t hate the man, and in fact find his performance to be mostly effective, the fact that he doesn’t even attempt to sound English really does stick out like a Teletubby in a Goth Club. For all the good he brings to the role – a confident air, a dedication that feels genuine – the truth is I do have to force myself to ignore his lack of an accent. There’s an irony here – most linguistic scholars believe that the modern American dialect is actually much closer to 12th-century England than the speech patterns of the modern British. One could actually make the argument that Costner technically has the most accurate speech pattern in the film. Of course, I would then tell “one” to shut up, because that doesn’t change the fact that Costner still didn’t sound like anybody else in the movie.

The rest of the cast, however, is impeccable. Morgan Freeman, who is as convincing as a Moor as Costner is as an actor being paid an enormous amount of money but still refusing to attempt an accent, steals the show as Azeem. He takes over the role of Robin’s second that is usually occupied by Little John, standing with him in the hardest moments and driving together the action when he draws his sword. His dry wit even brings a good bit of comic relief to the film. I would gladly have watched a film chronicling the further adventures of Azeem.

But the prominence of this original character doesn’t really hurt Robin’s usual Merry Men. Mike McShane’s Friar Tuck is a riot and a lot of fun to watch, and to compensate for making Little John somewhat less of a central player than he usually is, the screenwriters introduced his wife (Soo Drouet) and family, giving him much more to do and much more at stake than he usually has. Drouet herself is a very strong addition to the cast – wry and boisterous, like a saucier version of Molly Weasley. Mastrantonio’s Marian… well, she’s not bad at all, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about he. She plays the part, she does what you want her to do.

Alan Rickman, however, absolutely shines. We’re only a few years removed from Die Hard here, and he brings the same sort of nasty menace to the Sheriff of Nottingham as he did to Hans Gruber. When he threatens to cut out Robin’s heart “with a spoon” (“Because it’s dull, you twit, it’ll hurt more,”) damned if you don’t believe it. This is, without exception, my favorite rendition of the Sheriff of Nottingham of all time, the fiercest, the most frightening, and the most fun to watch.

It may be because I was just at the right age when this movie hit, but it’ll always hold a soft spot for me. I can watch it over and over even today and always enjoy it, always get swept up in the excitement, and always feel ready to cheer for England’s legendary defender.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


Robin Hood Week Day 2: Brian Bedford in Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood 1973Director: Wolfgang Reitherman

Writer: Larry Clemmons & Ken Anderson

Cast: Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Phil Harris, Roger Miller, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Andy Devine, Carole Shelley, Pat Buttram, George Lindsey, Ken Curtis, Billy Whitaker

Plot: When good King Richard (a lion) left for the crusades, he left his brother Prince John as ruler of England, despite the fact that they were both voiced by Peter Ustinov. The rooster minstrel Alan-A-Dale (Roger Miller) tells us the story of the crusader who fought against John – a clever fox named Robin Hood (Brian Bedford), who defended Sherwood Forest with his friend, a bear named Little John (Phil Harris). The two outlaws disguise themselves and rob a coach carrying Prince John and his right-hand snake, Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas).

John’s flunky, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram) makes the rounds to collect the exorbitant taxes from the townsfolk, snatching up every cent Robin’s friend Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) has managed to smuggle to them, even snaring a rabbit child’s birthday present of a single coin. As he leaves, Robin arrives in disguise and gives the boy a bow and arrow, along with one of his hats. The boy, Skippy (Billy Whitaker) leads his friends to play, but loses the bow in a palace courtyard. When he goes to retrieve it, he encounters Maid Marian (Monica Evans) and her friend Lady Cluck (Carole Shelley). The kids question Marian about her past relationship with Robin, and Skippy winds up playacting a “rescue” of Marian, culminating with her giving the unsuspecting boy a kiss.

Back in the forest, Robin is busy mooning over Marian himself when Friar Tuck brings him the news of an archery tournament, with the prize to include a kiss from Marian. Robin cannot help himself from entering the tournament, albeit disguised as a stork. He wins easily, but his disguise slips and he’s captured. Before the Sheriff can execute him, Little John forces the Prince to release him, and taking Marian with him, Robin and the others flee into the forest.

When Prince John learns how the people of Sherwood have begun to mock him, he triples the taxes and arrests anyone who can’t pay. The Sheriff tries to empty the church’s poorbox to line John’s coffers, sending Friar Tuck into a rage. He’s arrested and John sentences him to death in order to lure Robin Hood out of hiding. Disguising himself as one of the Sheriff’s Vulture henchmen, Robin sneaks into the palace late that night. Little John frees the Friar and the rest of their friends who have been arrested, while Robin sneaks off to steal the sacks of money in Prince John’s private quarters right under the sleeping prince’s nose. As he makes off with the last of it, Sir Hiss wakes up and alerts John (in a cartoonishly violent way). After a daring escape, Robin dives into the moat, followed by a shower of arrows, and Prince John believes him dead… but he pops up and chimes out “A pox on the phony king of England!” sending Prince John crying for his mommy.

Eventually, King Richard returns to England and pardons Robin and his men, placing John, Sir Hiss, and the Sheriff in irons, just in time for Robin and Marian’s wedding.

Thoughts: As with many people my age, this was the first version of Robin Hood I remember seeing, and in fact was the only version I was aware of for many years. In fact, even though Roger Miller’s Alan-A-Dale starts the movie by pointing out there are many versions of the Robin Hood and that this is, in fact, the version told by the animals, I remember being distinctly surprised when I got a little older and realized that Robin Hood was not, in fact, an original Disney character, and that what’s more, most versions of him were human and did not start anthropomorphic animals. Then I had to stop and look up what “anthropomorphic” meant, because I was like eight years old.

What’s more, this is the first time I watched this movie in years, and I’m catching a number of things I never would have noticed before. For example, the first scene with Robin Hood and Little John, after some cartoon antics escaping Prince John’s men, sees them engaging in a moralistic debate over the ethics of the whole “robbing the rich to give to the poor” angle. It’s a bit more thoughtful than one would expect from an early-70’s Disney movie, but it’s highly appropriate. In fact, there’s a lot of ethical moralizing in this movie. Whereas Errol Flynn (despite his loyalty) blamed Richard for leaving England in the hands of his brother to engage in the Crusades, Disney lightens it up a bit by making Richard the victim of the hypnotic Sir Hiss, who sent him off on what John calls a “silly crusade.”

The 70s were sort of a nebulous time for Disney. Walt was gone and, although it was still many years before the company’s second renaissance would begin with The Little Mermaid, it was also long before they would really hit the skids in the 80s. There’s a roughness to the quality of the films of the period, and while it now marks them indelibly as products of their time, it’s also the time in which I was introduced to Disney animation. I’ve got a soft spot for it. Even this film has a lot going for it in terms of animation and performance – the way Sir Hiss slithers his body underneath himself to simulate the elbows of a petulant teenager is a great image that gives you the perfect amount of character development. Brian Bedford and Phil Harris as Robin Hood and Little John remain the voices I hear when I think of the characters, and folk singer Roger Miller made for a fantastic bard.

Despite the animal players, the movie has lots of tiny moments that humanize the characters, such as Robin’s gift to the rabbit boy. As the kids leave, he gives the mother a sweet speech about keeping faith that Nottingham will return to glory. While Errol Flynn was loud and bombastic with his approach to rousing the townspeople, Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood is a quieter hero, one who sneaks in and out, going unnoticed until he’s discovered. Of course, once a disguise fails and he’s made, he’s just as likely to bring forth a spectacle as any other incarnation of the character. (The disguises, it’s worth pointing out, are only slightly above Bugs Bunny quality in the concealment department, but they usually work exceedingly well.)

The movie also sidesteps the usual beginning of the Robin/Marian relationship. In the Flynn movie, and in most other versions, the two are initially at odds, as he’s an outlaw and she’s a ward of the King and (technically) under the protection of the Prince. In this version, Marian loved Robin as a young girl and still does, eliminating the need for him to win her over and cutting right to the chase. I would imagine this is in deference to the cartoon nature of the film – while the scenes of Robin winning Marian over can work really well from an emotional standpoint, I can imagine in 1973 the animators thought a young audience would lose patience with such a thing.

Compared to the Errol Flynn film, the villains are far less menacing. Prince John is a spoiled mama’s boy with no air of danger about him whatsoever. Sir Hiss – a stand-in for Sir Guy of Ginsbourne – is a pompous, browbeaten serpent. The only thing about him that’s even remotely dangerous is his ability to hypnotize people, which he never even really uses to any serious effect once the story begins. (Dispatching Richard on the Crusades, the most important plot point to his hypnotism, happens before the film opens.) Only the Sheriff is an improvement in the villain department from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and that says more about the latter’s buffoonery than anything in favor of the Disney version. He’s less oafish and more dangerous than the other two, but still not the sort of villain that would give any kid trouble sleeping.

The biggest complaint I’ve got about the film is the ending. The final rescue at Prince John’s palace is fine, but Richard’s return to the throne and the arrest of the villains happens entirely off-camera. It’s not all that satisfying to cut from Robin’s escape, even as the prince pouts, to seeing them in chains with nothing in-between. Sure, these cartoons films are often short (at a crisp 83 minutes there’s little filler in this movie), but it certainly feels as though they could have given us just a bit more closure.

This isn’t the grand adventure of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood nor the attempt at an epic that the character would take later. It is, however, a grand and entertaining family version of the film with some sweet music, excellent voice performances, and mid-era Disney charm. It’s hard to say anything bad about that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Robin Hood Week Day 1: Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Adventures of Robin HoodDirectors: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

Writers: Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller

Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Ian Hunter, Una O’Conner

Plot: In the year 1191, King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) left England to reclaim the Holy Land in the crusades, with his bitter brother Prince John (Claude Raines) in charge. When Richard is captured in Austria John – a Norman — seizes the opportunity to increase his power over the Saxons of England, raising taxes and seizing goods and services on the populace… even enslaving people who refuse to toil for his crony, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). The Saxon Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) begins to resist the Norman oppression of the Saxons. As John hosts a banquet, Robin himself arrives. Robin makes it clear his intention is to rouse the people of England into revolt against John, then fights his way to freedom in front of Norman noblewoman Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland).

Returning home, Robin and Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) encounter a large man (Alan Hale) crossing a stream. Robin and the man battle, and Robin is knocked into the water. Laughing at the scuffle, they befriend the man – John Little – and together unite a band of free people of England who swear to fight John and defend all innocent – Norman and Saxon alike — until the return of King Richard.

As Guy leads a procession through Sherwood Forest, Robin’s men capture them all, humiliating Guy and the Sheriff of Nottinham (Melville Cooper). Robin attempts to impress Marian with their frivolity, but she remains cold. Her heart begins to change, though, when she realizes Robin and his men intend to return the goods they have stolen to King Richard and he introduces her to some of the Saxons suffering. For the first time, Robin exposes Marian to the misery John’s rule has wrought.

The Sheriff proposes a trap for Robin – an archery contest with a golden arrow presented by Marian as a prize. Robin enters in disguise and, after several rounds, wins. As Marian presents him with his prize, Sir Guy exposes him and he is captured. Robin is sentenced to death and imprisoned, and Marian rushes to his men to help plan a rescue. They disrupt his execution and flee. That night, as he comes to thank her, he overhears her professing her love for him, and he shares his own.

A bishop brings John the news that King Richard has escaped his captivity and returned to England. John sends an assassin to kill him, but Marian overhears his plan. Before she can send word to Robin, she is discovered by Sir Guy and arrested. Robin and his men capture Richard, not realizing who he is at first, and impress the King with their loyalty. They are together when they learn of Marian’s execution, which is scheduled to coincide with John’s coronation. Robin and Richard lead their men into battle. Robin kills Sir Guy and frees Marian, and the forces loyal to Richard overwhelm those of Prince John. Robin is made Baron of Locksley and given Marian’s hand in marriage. Richard banishes John and his men from England and calls for Normans and Saxons alike to share the freedoms of true Englishmen.

Thoughts: For generations this was not only the benchmark of Robin Hood movies, but the archetype against which all swashbucklers would be measured. Errol Flynn is truly magnificent in the title role, cutting a dashing figure of such strength and earnestness that one couldn’t help but want to follow him into battle.

This is, I confess, the first time I’ve ever seen this version of Robin Hood, but it’s one of those movies that’s known so well through parody and inspiration that I may as well have. Dozens of cartoons, TV shows and other films have liberally borrowed chunks of this movie wholesale. Flynn’s performance hasn’t informed too many of the modern Robin Hoods, each of whom seems to want to offer a different take on the character, but any other time a film tries to give a taste of Golden Age glory in an adventure tale, Flynn is the inspiration. You can feel pieces of his performance in Cary Elwes’s Westley from The Princess Bride, spoofed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and as the hero Timothy Dalton’s villain pretends to be in The Rocketeer.

Although Robin is the hero here, and a great one at that, Flynn isn’t afraid to let him feel a little humiliation. His defeat against Little John at the stream is an iconic moment, and one that’s easy for him to laugh off. His first encounter with Eugene Pallette’s Friar Tuck follows a similar pattern, but Tuck fights a bit more ferociously, and Robin comes across as a bit of a bully before he extends his hand in friendship.

Olivia de Havilland is radiant as Marian, and does a good job of selling her change of heart. In the early scenes it’s easy to feel discomfort – even disgust – during her dealings with Robin. As she starts to realize the truth about John’s rule, her emotional metamorphosis is slow, but convincing. By the time we reach the scene where Robin is sentenced to death, you can tell she’s in love with the man and trying desperately not to show it in the face of his enemies.

The villains are an odd collection. Rains’s Prince John comes across as a bit of a lightweight, but he’s at least sharp enough to have Rathbone’s Guy of Gisbourne as his enforcer. He’s not a physical threat on his own, but you can believe he would command a man of Gisbourne’s menace. The Sheriff, on the other hand, is a real goof. He’s cowardly and ineffective, with only the inspiration for the archery contest keeping him from being entirely useless. A comic relief villain isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but considering how elevated the Sheriff often is in Robin Hood lore, I was a bit surprised to see him as the clown in this early, iconic cinema version of the story.

The fight scenes are particularly impressive for the time period. Intricately choreographed, Flynn and his men put up an impressive front against the worst Prince John can send against them. Although there is a good dose of Hollywood magic to it (the swords, for instance, are not particularly convincing as weapons, although they’re handled very well), it’s the sort of thing that you forgive as a staple of the time, even as the presentation is wonderfully entertaining. The archery scene is another one of those moments that has been endlessly parodied and referenced, and it’s done fairly well. In these long-ago days, before CGI and the effort to give us an arrow’s-eye view of the winning shot, it’s presented in a very straightforward, simple style that nonetheless pleases the eye and brings a smile to a real lover of old cinema.

The final, climactic battle feels like a template for all great swordfights. Watching dozens of men fight and dozens of swords flash at once is a blast, the sort of thing every kid who’s ever picked up a branch and pretended it’s a blade dreams of. While Robin and Guy are having their own final confrontation, the directors start getting fancy: they walk off-camera and we watch as their shadows carry on the fight. Close-ups of the two of them as they grapple ratchet up the tension until Robin deals the final blow, and Guy’s plunge down the stairwell looks painful enough to be real.

One thing that rather surprised me about the film was just how much of it had the overtones of racism. Granted, the Saxons and the Normans are pretty indistinguishable to a viewer, but the oppression of the Saxons cuts a deep swath through the American heart. It’s impossible to hear the disgust John espouses without it evoking the nastier aspects of our own past. In truth, considering that this film takes place in the 12th century, it works well as a reminder that ignorance isn’t exactly a new invention. At the same time, fortunately, it does give us some hope that even 900 years ago, there were men willing to stand against it.

This movie is justifiably hailed as one of the all-time great adventure films, and it’s as fine an example of golden age cinema as I can imagine. For many, for decades, Errol Flynn was Robin Hood. And in truth, when you watch this movie, he always will be.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Next week is ROBIN HOOD WEEK

Robin Hood“Icons” had to take a break in July due to another project of mine, but it’s coming back to close out the month of August as I look at one of the great folk heroes of all time and how he’s been portrayed on the silver screen.

Robin Hood is one of the world’s most indelible heroic archetypes: the dashing rogue that fights against an unjust system by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But is it always quite that simple? Next week we’re going to find out through five very different takes on our title character…

  • Errol Flynn: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • Brian Bedford: (Disney’s) Robin Hood (1973)
  • Sean Connery: Robin and Marian (1976)
  • Kevin Costner: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
  • Cary Elwes: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Yes, there are other Robin Hoods… many, many, many other Robin Hoods. Some of them even speak with an English accent. I created this list based on the versions that are the most memorable to me. If you disagree, you Russell Crowe fans, you’re welcome to do your own write-ups.

Of course, before we can start, we need to know who our hero is, don’t we?

The Character

When good King Richard left England to go on the Third Crusade, rule of his country was left in the hands of his corrupt brother, Prince John. As John proceeded to crush the populace with unjust rule and unfair taxes, a former nobleman escaped into the eaves of Sherwood Forest. There, the outlaw who would become known as Robin Hood gathered a band of Merry Men to join him in his own Crusade — one against the Prince and his enforcer, the Sheriff of Nottingham, to preserve the England King Richard left behind.

This, of course, is a bit of an aggregate of the character. There have been stories of Robin Hood told throughout Europe for over 600 years, and as with many truly legendary characters, several of the versions have a tendency to contradict one another. But this baseline is how most people think of the hero today, and that seems as good a way as any to start. Come back Monday, friends, and we’ll start with one of the first truly great cinematic adventure films.