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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 Smashwords.com 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!

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Robin Hood Week Day 3: Sean Connery in Robin and Marian (1976)

Robin and MarianDirector: Richard Lester

Writer: James Goldman

Cast: Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw, Richard Harris, Nicol Williamson, Denholm Elliott, Kenneth Haigh, Ronnie Barker, Ian Holm, Veronica Quilligan, John Barrett, Esmond Knight

Plot: The aging Robin Hood (Sean Connery) has become one of King Richard’s (Richard Harris) most stalwart captains, leading Richard’s men to war in France. Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) lay siege to a castle, seeking a rumored treasure, but find only a single one-eyed man (Esmond Knight) guarding a few poor citizens. Richard orders Robin to storm the castle for the treasure, but Robin refuses and is arrested. The one-eyed man throws an arrow at Richard, wounding him in the neck. Richard has the castle destroyed. Dying from his wound, he summons Robin. He tries to draw his sword and slay Robin, but lacks the strength and collapses. As Robin rushes to his side, Richard pardons him before dying.

Robin and John return to England, where they’re assaulted by two old men. As they fight, they recognize Will Scarlet (Denholm Elliott) and Friar Tuck (Ronnie Barker). The friends reconnect, learning that Robin’s old adventures have become exaggerated and turned into legend, and now-King John (Ian Holm) has gone mad with power, with the people of England and even the Church turning against him. They take Robin to an Abbey where they find Marian (Audrey Hepburn), now a nun. As the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) arrives to arrest her for refusing the King’s order for all clergy to leave England, Robin “rescues” Marian against her will, and the Sheriff orders Robin’s arrest. In the forest, Marian abashes Robin for his part in the Crusades, and Robin confesses to the horrors he saw in war. When they return to the Abbey, they find the Sheriff has arrested all of the nuns but one.

Robin and John disguise themselves as peddlers and free the nuns, but are almost captured in the escape attempt, with Marian, Will and Tuck arriving to rescue the rescuers. Marian confesses to attempting suicide when Robin left, and the two almost kiss before Will signals them that a Sheriff’s posse approaches. After driving them off, Robin tells Marian all he wants now is a life with her in Sherwood. That night, as they relax in the woods, townspeople who saw them rescue the nuns arrive in the forest, wanting to join him to fight against King John.

King John sends out a force of 200 men to drive Robin from the forest. As they amass, Robin and his men watch, knowing they are hopelessly outnumbered. Marian tries to plead with him not to fight, but Robin insists he’s still the warrior he was in his youth. She swears to leave rather than watch him get slaughtered, and goes instead to Little John, hoping he can convince Robin not to fight. Although John agrees it is suicide, he refuses to speak against Robin, and vows to ride into battle with him.

Robin approaches the Sheriff with a proposal – a duel between the two of them. If Robin wins, the soldiers retreat; if the Sheriff wins, Robin’s men surrender. The Sheriff agrees. Both men are grievously wounded, with Robin taking a horrible slash to the side before finally killing the Sheriff. As he dies, the King’s men charge, and Little John slays their captain. John and Marian help Robin from the battlefield to the Abbey for treatment, while his men are scattered into the woods, with many captured or slain.

Lying in the Abbey, Marian gives Robin medicine and speaks of how – once well – he’ll lead his men into battle once again. When his limbs begin to go numb, he realizes Marian has poisoned him. When he asks her why, she processes her love for him – a love so deep that she cannot allow him to go on, knowing he would never be the warrior he was again. What’s more, she has taken the poison as well. Robin agrees that it’s better this way, and asks John for his bow. He fires an arrow into the air and asks they be buried together where it falls.

Thoughts: A few years before diluting Richard Donner’s Superman universe with a recut and reshot Superman II, Richard Lester put no less than James Bond and one of history’s most beautiful women in this odd rendition of the Robin Hood saga. From the beginning it’s clear this isn’t the Robin Hood most people are familiar with. This is a Robin who fought in the Crusades with Richard, something most movies don’t include. What’s more, this is a Richard who may have the name “Lionhearted,” but carries none of the patience or understanding one would expect from one of noble rank. Robin calls him a “bastard” in the opening scene, and as he’s presently ordering him to murder women and children over a non-existent treasure, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

Unlike the bold adventure most Robin Hood films become, Richard Lester’s version take a weird sort of anti-war stance, with Robin giving a monologue about watching King Richard order the slaughter of innocent Muslims after his single great victory of the Crusades. This isn’t the bold Robin Hood we’re used to, but a worn-down, tired man whose glory days are behind him… and what’s worse, he finds himself questioning if they were ever truly glorious to begin with.

Sean Connery is… well, he’s Sean Connery. Let’s be honest here, he’s always Sean Connery, whether he’s Sean Connery as a young Irishman, a dashing British secret agent, a Russian submarine commander or a whatever the crap he was supposed to be in Zardoz, he’s still Sean Connery. The miracle of that is that he almost always gets a role where “somebody like Sean Connery” is exactly what the movie calls for. Mid-70s Sean Connery is perfectly cast as the aging Robin Hood – still strong and undeniably charismatic, but at the same time, he’s beginning to get a little world-weary. Oh, he’ll still fight, and he’ll still kick your butt, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t getting a little bit tired of it. While Connery’s Robin is still willing to take up arms whenever necessary, it’s clear the only thing he really wants is to reclaim the love of Marian and settle down to a life he wishes he hadn’t sacrificed 20 years earlier.

Audrey Hepburn was 47 when this movie came out, and the line when she asks Robin if she’s “old and ugly” is still laughable. The woman had a grace and a poise her entire life that the greatest movie stars of all time couldn’t touch and the best of today can only dream about. Like Connery, she does a fine job of painting a woman who has grown tired with the world. She lost her dreams a long time ago, but she’s not so far gone that she can’t be convinced to take them up again. She vacillates between her heart and her vows several times, and always in an entirely convincing manner.

In this film, the villains are almost nonentities. The Sheriff and King John are the root of Robin’s problem, but he faces them almost as a matter of course, the way you face a force of nature. This could be the story of a stubborn old man intent on battling a hurricane or an earthquake for all the influence they have on the story. That’s nothing against Robert Shaw or Ian Holm, mind you, their performances are perfectly fine, but they aren’t given that much to do. Even Richard Harris as King Richard comes across as more of a personal obstacle for Robin than the ostensible villains of the piece. In truth, the real antagonist for Connery’s Robin Hood is age itself, the certainty of mortality and the inevitable approach of death.

It’s a cheerful movie, is what I’m saying.

I take that back, there is one bit that’s kind of funny… the duel between Robin and the Sheriff. If the goal of the scene was to thrill the audience, they failed, with the camera often set so far back it’s nigh impossible to tell who is who. If the goal is to depict a semi-realistic fight with very heavy broadswords and axes that look like a chore to swing around… well, Richard Lester, you succeeded, but in so doing you crafted one of the most mundane fight scenes in Sean Connery’s long and storied career. Even the sword fight in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet had more excitement than this one, and that’s not intended as a compliment.

The final scene of the film is really a grand one. The revelation that Marian deliberately poisons him is baffling, but instantly understandable when she makes her declaration of love. It’s a moving scene and both Connery and Hepburn nail it. The movie isn’t a masterpiece, but the finale makes it worthwhile. It’s not a standard version of Robin Hood at all, but it’s an impressive one, and one that serves as a bittersweet conclusion to the legend.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com 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!