Jun 202019

Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Warner Brothers, 1991, 143 minutes
Cast: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman, Mary Elizabeth Mastriano, Christian Slater, Geraldine McEwan, Michael McShane, Brian Blessed, Michael Wincott and Nick Brimble
Screenplay: Pen Desham and John Watson
Producer: Pen Desham, Richard Barton Lewis and John Watson
Director: Kevin Reynolds

Historical Background

When Henry II refused to name his eldest son Richard as heir to England and Normandy, Richard allied with Philip II of France, and soon defeated Henry, who died two days later on July 6, 1189. Richard had finally inherited the crown, but he was eager to join the Third Crusade, and reclaim the Holy Land from Saladin. A crusade would be insanely expensive but squeezing revenue from his territories of England, Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine proved easier than arranging a treaty that would allow both Richard and Philip to go on crusade without fearing that the other would take advantage of the situation to attack. More troublesome was his younger brother John, who clearly lacked either the martial ability or the plotting skills required to seize the throne directly but might try his luck if Richard would be absent for months or even years. After a tremendous amount of organization, the English and French kings left in the summer of 1190. On the way to Palestine, Richard announced that he would marry Berengaria, daughter of the king of Navarre, ending his very, very, very, very long engagement to Philip’s sister, transforming Philip from a grudging ally into a rival. When Richard was captured by the Duke of Austria on the way home from the crusade, Philip seized the opportunity to invade Richard’s lands in France. Once a massive ransom had been paid, Richard spent several years struggling to reclaim his territory.

Plot Summary

Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner), a crusader, escapes from a Muslim prison thanks to help from Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a Muslim, who accompanies Robin to England. Meanwhile, the sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) tortured a confession from the Lord Locksley (Brian Blessed), Robin’s father, that he worshiped the dark arts, and declared Locksley’s lands forfeit, which is mildly hypocritical since the sheriff was raised by Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan), a witch who lives in the bowels of the castle. After landing in England, Robin saves a young poacher from Guy de Gisborne (Michael Wincott), the sheriff’s cousin. Discovering that his family’s castle has been abandoned and his father’s servant has been blinded, Robin seeks information from a childhood friend, Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrianno), but is pursued by Gisborne’s men, so they seek shelter in Sherwood Forest. Caught by a band of outlaws, Robin beats John Little (Nick Brimble) in a quarterstaff duel. Taking leadership of the band, Robin trains an army of archers, and recruits an initially reluctant Friar Tuck (Michael McShane). It turns out that the sheriff is squeezing money from the people of Nottingham to bribe barons to support him against King Richard. He finally convinces them by abducting Marian to marry her and claim the throne through her, since she is the king’s cousin. Tired of Robin’s meddling in his affairs, the sheriff unleashes first a horde of Celts, and then his army on the outlaws. Most of the outlaws are captured and Marian agrees to marry the sheriff to save the outlaws’ children, prompting Robin to lead a dramatic rescue.

Historical Accuracy

I think that the screenwriters did the least amount of historical research among all of the Robin Hood movies I have seen so far, which is saying a lot. The historical context consists of: “King Richard led the Third Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Turks.” Now, he is in France, for some reason that no one thinks is important enough to mention. Furthermore, there is no reference to Richard’s lengthy imprisonment and the massive ransom required to free him from a moderately comfortable room in a German castle.

Sooooooooooooooooo, no John? Instead of the sheriff serving as Prince John’s henchman, the writers made him the star of the movie. Technically, Robin was the star, but let’s be frank, Kevin Costner was blown away by Alan Rickman. I wonder if they realized that Alan Rickman would overshadow everyone else, and simply made him the lead villain to avoid embarrassing any actor playing John.

Early in the movie, it becomes clear that the sheriff has a mysterious plan, and is squeezing every possible penny from the people for a sinister purpose. Lord Locksley’s worries about dark forces conspiring against the absent king are confirmed when he is lured into a trap. Dismissing the threat of a revolt caused by crushing taxes, the sheriff’s primary concern is that Richard will return from France, and stiffen the spines of the barons in his conspiracy, ruining Nottingham’s plans. That is a major understatement given Richard’s well-deserved reputation as a fearsome warrior. In addition, the sheriff’s conspiracy is quite fragile, given its small size. Although there were over 150 barons in England at the time, the sheriff is conspiring with only six, presumably to save costs on actors. In exchange for their support, the sheriff offers the barons Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, which had me rolling on the ground laughing. Aside from Cornwall, the English kings struggled to stop those kingdoms from raiding them.

Nottingham hopes to acquire a claim to the throne by marrying Marian, the king’s cousin, but she is uninterested because she only has eyes for Robin. However, she agrees after the villainous sheriff threatens to murder the captured outlaws’ children, but the bishop is reluctant to perform the ceremony because she is clearly unwilling, which reflects the screenwriters’ belief that consent actually mattered at the time. Honestly, the sheriff’s plan to forcibly marry Marian in order to gain a claim to the throne is probably the most accurate part of the movie. Heiresses to wealthy lands were genuinely in danger of abduction by a lord who wanted to move up the social ladder by finding a pliable priest who would marry them regardless of the prospective bride’s consent. Once there had been some form form of wedding ceremony, the lord simply needed to consummate the marriage, and then her titles and lands became his titles and lands. Today, we call it abduction and rape, but back then it was just lords being lords.

Somewhere along the way since their escape from the prison, Azeem acquired a primitive telescope which freaks Robin out when he looks through it for the first time. While there is no denying the coolness factor of a telescope composed of two lenses in a leather tube, this is artistic licence. Lenses for vision would be produced in Italy in the late 13th century but the telescope was invented in the Netherlands in the early 17th century.


The film is not unpleasant to watch, and there is a great deal of humor, but sadly, much of it was unintentional.

In particular, the capture of Robin’s father is just silly. Locksley is lured into a trap, where a group of hooded men are standing right outside his castle, holding torches for dramatic effect, although the scene is so brightly lit, the torches are unnecessary. Apparently, he has no guards, so he is captured. Perhaps I am just being overly critical, Marian has a big castle but has no guards either.

I am not sure if it is intentional, but Robin is immature and annoying. If that is what he is like after five years in a prison have apparently matured him, I would hate to have seen him before he was captured. Maybe it runs in the family, since his younger half-brother Will Scarlett (Christian Slater) is irritating as well.

Moreover, two supposedly rousing speeches compete with each other to be the most bland and lifeless. No discredit to the actors, they did the best they could with speeches that seemed to have been written in a rush to meet a quota. Robin takes leadership of the outlaws with an agonizingly dull speech because Kevin Costner is the star of the movie. Later, Azeem’s speech about freedom to make the townspeople rise up is silly, so, so silly.

However, Azeem’s dialogue make the film bearable: “Is there no sun in this cursed country?” “Move faster, hit harder.”

Even though the outlaws claim that they steal from the rich to give to the poor, they still have a massive treasure room, which may indicate issues with their distribution system.

Alan Rickman makes the movie work. I usually hate closeups but his expressions of frustration are worth it. Learning that the people still love Robin Hood even though the sheriff hurts the people because Robin steals from him, he reacts by ordering an end to kitchen scraps for widows and orphans and an end to merciful beheadings. The revelation that the sheriff is Mortianna’s son produces an honest exchange between two twisted people, which was one of the few scenes in the movie that seemed to have a conversation between real people. The marriage scene where he is trying to consummate the marriage while Robin and Azeem are trying to break down the door with the sheriff’s statue of himself is simply brilliant. I will admit it, I wanted the sheriff to win, he had a bold plan worthy of Games of Thrones but lacked reliable henchmen. Upward social mobility at its most direct.

Giving credit where it is due, at least the screenwriters accepted that archers are not trained in a few days, so the creation of the outlaw army takes months. Then, all of their good work is thrown away when supposedly skilled woodsmen are completely surprised by an army with catapults…in a forest.

Filmed in England, all of the actors have English accents, aside from Kevin Costner, Christian Slater and Mary Elizabeth Mastriano, which I suspect was probably for the best.

Oh, I almost forgot, Sean Connery’s cameo at the end of the movie as King Richard is so, so, so, so lame.

Despite my many complaints, the film is mostly pleasant, if occasionally stupid, but too long.

  • Kevin

    It is an entertaining movie and makes it clear from the beginning that you better turn off your brain. Your review is spot on and i agree with the conclusion. I love the line about the distribution system. I prefer a movie like this that does not take itself seriously to a pious piece of crap like “Braveheart”. Rickman clearly did not take it seriously and his performance is a camp classic. I know Costner took a lot of grief for his lack of an accent, but frankly I don’t care about stuff like that. Neither did the public as the movie was a huge hit.

    • historyonfilm

      Yeah, aside from a couple of unnecessary stirring speeches by Robin, the movie was extremely enjoyable, unlike supposed epics like Braveheart and Robin Hood with Crowe. Can not praise Rickman’s performance enough.