Medieval Matters

Medieval Matters: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and Mullets

After my review of the 2003 movie Timeline, I asked Twitter (@medievalguy) what film I should look at next. The winner, by a slim margin, was the 1985 film Ladyhawke.

Alas, I’m having unexpected trouble finding a copy of that flick in my library. So while I get that sorted out, I’m going to go ahead and knock out the runner-up in internet voting: Kevin Costner’s 1991 film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, directed by Kevin Reynolds. (But Ladyhawke will come, y’all. I promise!)

Alrighty then. Let’s cue up Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A.k.a., Kevin Hood.

Of course the plot will require fire arrows.

As you’ll see, I’ve got a real love/hate thing with this movie.

First, though, a few words about the “real” Robin Hood…

There isn’t one.

Okay, with those few words out of the way, let’s get to this film!

So let’s start with the opening titles, which are set against images of the very real and very medieval Bayeux Tapestry. You’ve probably seen pictures of this remarkable artifact before. It shows up in history lectures or television specials just about any time the Battle of Hastings comes up: its most famous image supposedly shows the Anglo-Saxon King Harold getting shot in the eye during that battle, thus giving William of Normandy the throne of England.

This isn’t Harold, folks.

I say “supposedly” because that dude in the tapestry (which is really an embroidery) isn’t Harold, plus he also wasn’t even being shot in the eye originally. (For more on all that, I’d urge you to pick up a forthcoming special issue of Medieval Warfare magazine that will be dedicated to the Battle of Hastings; I’ve got an article all about this tale, and ’tis cool stuff.)

Anyway, the Bayeux Tapestry is all about Hastings and the history-altering events of 1066.

That makes it a rather puzzling choice to set up a movie that begins in Jerusalem in 1194.

Things get even stranger later on in the film when we get a scene of Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and her magnificent hair apparently embroidering … oh yes, the Bayeux Tapestry! How is she making it 130-odd years after it was made? My friends, that’s just the slightest of problems with the history in this film.

I know, I know. I can already hear your comments. “It’s just fantasy!” you might be thinking. “Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the movie!”

Well, (1) I think that ignoring errors only propagates them, and soon folks don’t agree on what’s legitimately a fact anymore—which is pretty much my definition of Hell. (2) These kinds of things are really silly screw-ups because the plot doesn’t even need them. And (3) of course I can enjoy a movie while still noting its numerous cock-ups.

As a matter of fact, here are five reasons why I really do enjoy this movie despite the history problems that I’ll dive back into in a bit:

  • Alan Rickman. Alan Rickman. Alan Rickman.
  • The soundtrack kicks ass. Michael Kamen nailed it with his Robin Hood theme. I hear those trumpets and I wanna go on an adventure. It’s easily one of his best scores, I think. Frankly, I’d put his rousing Robin Hood theme in the top 10 movie themes ever. Yeah, I said it. FIGHT ME.
  • Sure, the film’s love ballad—Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”—was massively overplayed in its time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a damn fine song on its own merits.
  • That camera-on-the-arrow shot was bloody amazing in its time. A quarter century later—holy crap I’m old!—it’s become a worn-out standard for any movie with arrows, but that’s mostly because it was so friggin’ badass here.
  • If we had a means to measure such things I suspect that this movie may be in the top five modern films in terms of stoking popular enthusiasm in matters medieval. For that alone it should be commended. Go team!

Also, I may have had a crush on Maid Marian as a lad.

That said, I really do wish that it gave its wide audience a more accurate picture of the Middle Ages. Because boy does it not.

After those titles we are in Jerusalem. It’s the aftermath of the Third Crusade, and English Christian prisoners are suffering under the brutality of the cruel “Turks.” It’s true, of course, that there were Turks involved in the Third Crusade: Frederick Barbarossa’s army had to pass through the lands of the Seljuk Turks to get to the Holy Land (doing so without old Fred, of course, since he drowned in a river en route). But once in the Holy Land the primary enemy of the Crusaders was the remarkable Saladin, sultan of the Ayyubid Empire. Hollywood’s ignorance of Islam is on full display here, as the screenwriters apparently assume that all Muslims are Turks and all Turks are Muslims … and of course they’re cruel and mean and all that.

Ugh.

So here we get to meet Kevin Costner’s Robin of Locksley, and I have never watched this scene without thinking about how he looks like that chained prisoner from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Our hero!

(clap, clap, clap)

Costner heroically fights his way out of impossible circumstances—because he’s the Kev—and in the process he saves the life of Morgan Freeman’s character, Azeem (it’s really hard for me not to type Azim). Azeem is a Moor, and he swears that he will follow Kevin of Christendom until he saves his life in return.

On the one hand, the character of Azeem feels a bit forced into the film, and in many respects it seems like they make up his religion as the film progresses. On the other hand, Azeem gets some of the best lines— “The hospitality of this country is as warm as the weather” —and Freeman (not surprisingly) delivers a great performance.

The screenwriters, to their credit, also try to show that Azeem’s Moor is way more scientifically advanced than the Christians he’s surrounded by. I like this, as it’s reflective of some historical truth during the period, but they truthfully go a bit too far in doing so:

  • It’s 1194, and Azeem has a telescope despite the fact that such a thing won’t exist until Johann Lippershey invents it in 1608. (And try not to think about where he was hiding this gold watch telescope while in prison.)
  • Up to the 16th century or so, Caesarean sections were performed when the mother either could not survive or was already dead; it was a desperate attempt to save the unborn child. If she was still alive, a mother’s survival rate from C-section remained horrifyingly small until the medical revolutions of the 19th century, due to infection and blood loss. But, here, in 1194, Azeem can conduct a C-section in the dirty hut of what’s essentially a medieval Ewok village—with no anaesthetic or sterilization besides “get some water and clean rags”—and the mother is ready to storm the castle the next morning.
  • Blackpowder is some old stuff in the East, but it didn’t make it West until about 60 years after Azeem the Amaze’en makes literal barrels full of it in this movie using ingredients that are just sitting about in Sherwood Forest.

Boom goes the powderkeg.

Speaking of explosives, I truly wish Hollywood would stop trying to find ways to blow things up in medieval films. Explosions were really super rare in the pre-modern world. Find another way besides “Then it explodes!” to make up for your bad screenwriting, please.

Back in England, we meet BRIAN BLESSED! He doesn’t shout all of his lines, which is a bit of a bummer since this is BRIAN BLESSED, but we do get to see that he has the most magnificent handwriting. I mean, seriously, it’s a beautiful, printed font. (Robin’s “Wanted” posters later on are even more obviously the result of printing … almost 250 years before the invention of the printing press.)

Also, for a dude who owns a castle and is apparently a warrior and all, BRIAN BLESSED is an enormous idiot for not bothering to look outside before he opens the gate. Seems like the Klan rally going on outside shouldn’t have been a surprise. They’ve got robes and torches, man.

Stay away from BRIAN BLESSED, you freaks!

But, hey, Robin’s dad is really only here to introduce us to…

Alan Rickman.

The man. The myth. The legend. Rickman plays the Sheriff of Nottingham, and he is easily the best thing in this film. Sure, I’ve no idea why he’s wearing a mask for his first appearance in the film, especially since he takes it off immediately to expose his identity (worst villain disguise ever, Alan!). And in the interest of historical veracity—that’s my gig here, after all—I should note that no one in the twelfth century had a mullet perm. But you know what? I don’t care. Rickman and his Perm of Evil steal this here show. He relishes this role, sleazing every moment he’s on screen.

Alan Rickman is so delightful, in fact, that I didn’t even balk at the moment where the film reveals that the Sheriff of Nottingham apparently invented modern time-keeping:

Sheriff of Nottingham [to a young woman]: You. My room. 10:30 tonight.

Sheriff of Nottingham [to another young woman]: You. 10:45… And bring a friend.

Sigh. Come on, Hollywood. Can I not get a shout-out to “Compline” instead?

He’s so great.

But back to Robin, who has thankfully both trimmed his hair into an utterly not-medieval mullet and abandoned all pretense of an English accent. He and Azeem are arriving at the white cliffs of Dover, which are stunning. They’re also about 250 miles from Locksley Castle, which Robin and Azeem walk to in a few hours.

I find the two men’s speed particularly remarkable given the fact that Azeem’s scimitar is absolutely massive in all the ways that medieval scimitars were not. Even more impressive, at one point they’re also walking along what appears to be Hadrian’s Wall, which Robin reports is five miles from his house—despite the fact that the Wall is about 150 miles past Loxley. Hollywood geography for the win!

When they reach Locksley, the main plot unfolds as they learn that the Sheriff of Nottingham coerced BRIAN BLESSED to confess to heresy (devil-worship, his servant will tell Robin), and that as a result Nottingham declared his lands forfeit to himself. Because he resists all this, Robin becomes an outlaw.

(Medieval laws don’t work like this.)

Azeem will later throw this ‘scimitar’, and it will inexplicably fly straight.

Nottingham, though, is the real heretic. He’s got his torch-bearing acolytes in that scene with BRIAN BLESSED, a secret Satanic altar, and even a private witch (who also turns out to be his mom) named Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan), who has a lot of fun making up all manner of nonsensical hootenanny involving dominoes, spit, and Terrible Portents of death.

(Medieval Satanism, such as it even was, doesn’t work like this, either. For a fun read on why, including the proof that Mortianna really had magical powers, check out this article.)

In his Bigger Plan of Permed Evil, Nottingham contrives to marry Marian, who is said to be the cousin of King Richard the Lionheart, in order to gain the throne of England for himself. When it comes to the real genealogies of history, Marian could at best be an unrecorded illegitimate daughter of Henry II (who, to be fair, had quite a few illegitimate kids). Though how anyone would think that marrying her would gain Richard’s throne is beyond me.

There are tons of other historical problems as the film goes on:

  • Kevin of Locksley turns out to be like the greatest archer in history without any explanation beyond the fact that he’s Robin Hood.
  • He uses a Welsh longbow, which an English lord pretty much wouldn’t be caught dead using in 1194.
  • Nottingham’s men are all outfitted with Norman helms (compare the explosion and tapestry images above), which hadn’t been used much for about 100 years in 1194.
  • Well, pretty much no one is in the right garb (though I confess I love the aesthetics of Robin’s outfit).
  • Friar Tuck is a friar 15 years before St. Francis invented them—and about 25 years before any of them came to Merry Ol’ England.
  • Nottingham hires Celts to be thugs, and they make Braveheart’s Celts look relatively accurate in comparison. (To be clear, this is not an approving comment on Braveheart.)
  • Said Celts, while roaring un-Celtic barbarity, nevertheless have a line of flame-hurling catapults with some kind of newfangled stealth technology so good that they can follow a blind man through the forest with them without being noticed. I suspect it’s a caterpillar drive. (Meta-film joke!)

Meh. As I said, Rickman so thoroughly steals this show that I sorta stopped caring about it all. The history sucks, but I just don’t care.

As for my ratings:

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Historical Accuracy: 2/10 mullets.

Good Fun: 8/10 exploding powder kegs.

gates-hellMichael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy series set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven and its sequel The Gates of Hell, is available from Tor Books.

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