On top of being a brilliant parody of other Robin Hood movies, specifically skewering Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights works pretty decently as a Robin Hood story on its own. The mugging for the camera, anachronisms, and meta-humor about being a Mel Brooks movie remove the story from the specific setting of late 12th century England and make it speak to the experience of its contemporary audience. And the meta-textual satire recalls the spirit of the festival plays which popularized and developed the Robin Hood myths, where Robin would directly encourage the audience to boo the Sheriff and help him hide.
Some of the very topical jokes have gone from cutting to dated to nostalgic (“Hey, remember Home Alone? What about Reebok Pumps?) But the film isn’t for us, it’s for movie goers in 1993. So jokes like the Sheriff of
Nottingham Rottingham’s daddy getting him into the National Guard do double duty: it’s a shot at Dan Quayle’s “service” during the Vietnam War, and it’s a good shorthand for how Robin, a veteran, views the Sheriff, who avoided joining Richard’s crusade.
On the other hand, the homophobic, transphobic, fat-phobic, racist, sexist, and able-ist jokes are a lot more offensive to me now than they were when I was 13. Brooks finds the idea of men in women’s clothing inherently funny, and so presents cross-dressing as the beginning and end of many of the jokes (including the title and title song). And while Brooks has been using racist imagery to confront and challenge racism since Blazing Saddles, it’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s making fun of the oppressors and when he’s making fun of the oppressed.
Fortunately, most of the time, Brooks is making fun of Kevin Costner, and that’s where Men in Tights really shines. While I can’t actually recommend watching Prince of Thieves, having seen it does make Men in Tights that much funnier. Brooks takes broad shots at Costner’s crap-fest: the title, the characters of A’Choo, Blinkin, and Latrine, lines like “unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak in an English accent.”
But Brooks also makes some subtle but pointed jabs as well. Men in Tights Little John is afraid he’ll drown in an inch of water, making Prince of Thieves Little John look just as dumb for being afraid of drowning in a foot. The Abbot calls out the weirdness of learning the Sheriff’s first name, Mervin, at the wedding ceremony, but that’s really no dumber than learning Rickman’s Sheriff is named George. If you didn’t know it already, Men in Tights makes it super clear that Prince of Thieves is really a terrible movie.
But Brooks doesn’t stop with the Costner version. There are plenty of jokes aimed at the Flynn Robin Hood, mostly in the person of Cary Elwes, and a couple of shots taken at the Disney version too, mostly in that Men in Tights is an unapologetic musical. There’s a rapping chorus of Merry Men, both Robin and Marian get big solos, and of course there’s the title song. If only the Sheriff and John got a duet.... At a certain point, I have to assume that the more Robin Hood movies I see, the more jokes I’ll get.
The plot is basically the first half of The Adventures of Robin Hood mashed up with Prince of Thieves: Robin returns from the Crusades to find his family dead and his lands seized, inspiring him to lead a troupe of Merry Men against Prince John. When Robin’s captured during an archery contest, his men ride to his rescue in the climactic scene.
As much as Kevin Costner deserves the blame for making Prince of Thieves terrible, Cary Elwes deserves that much credit for making Men in Tights great. Fresh off his very Flynn-like performance in The Princess Bride, rumor has it that Elwes was offered the lead of Prince of Thieves but turned it down because he did not want to get typecast as a swashbuckler. More likely, he turned it down because he read the script, because here he is swashbuckling up a storm in a pitch perfect performance.
Elwes’s Robin Hood is the apotheosis of the character: brave, funny, and a right smug bastard. He responds to torture by making sassy jokes. He treats his final duel with the Sheriff as a fencing lesson. He is basically the Errol Flynn Robin Hood, from the design of his costume to his hearty laugh. When he bursts into Prince John’s feast with a wild boar over his shoulders (“Traif,” John remarks without enthusiasm) he is nearly shot for shot recreating Flynn’s best scene from The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Elwes’s Robin Hood’s main character flaw is that he’s a little too into being Robin Hood, prone to giving long heroic speeches (full of liberal promises like a four day work week and affordable health care) that bore his listeners into sleep. Like Graham Chapman’s Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Elwes’s Robin is a mostly serious take on the character trapped in a cartoonish world that isn’t taking this is as seriously as he is. So he’s constantly pushing against the silliness of the people around him, trying to get them into the shape he needs them to be.
But since Elwes’s Robin Hood is also an incredibly patient soul, Robin’s pushing generally takes the form of polite exasperation. The Merry Men don’t know whether “Yea” or “Nay” means yes, so Robin tells them (while rolling his eyes). Blind Blinkin wants to keep watch, so Robin lets him. Will Scarlett tells Robin to fire an arrow directly at him, so Robin shrugs his shoulders and does so. Even his pointless quarterstaff fight with Little John over an non-existent river is an indulgence of Little John’s challenge. The only people he can’t indulge are bullies like the Sheriff and Prince John.
Oh, and Kevin Costner. Elwes is constantly showing up Costner’s Robin Hood. Costner escapes from an Islamic prison. Elwes escapes and frees all the other prisoners. Costner looses two arrows at once. Elwes looses six. Costner’s father dies. Elwes loses his father, mother, all his brothers, dog, cat, and goldfish. (“My cat?” “Choked on the goldfish.”) And, of course, he does so with an authentic, English accent.
The Merry Men
Taking the role of Robin’s right hand man is nineteen-year-old Dave Chapelle as A’Choo. In his first film role, Chapelle is a revelation: smart, goofy, kind, likeable. He’s also the most anachronistic, contemporary character. He’s not playing a Moor in England, he’s playing a 20th century, black American in a 12th century farce, wearing his feathered cap backwards, teaching Robin to fist pound, and falling into Malcolm X impressions. If Elwes is playing Flynn’s Robin Hood, Chapelle is playing himself. As one giant improvement over Prince of Thieves, A’Choo owes no clichéd “life-debt” to Robin. He just falls in with Robin’s band as a voice of cool, 20th century reason.
In another improvement, A’Choo being the second in command does not deprive other characters of important roles. Little John has a lot of great moments as a super-strong giant of a man who’s also a little slow (“Don’t let my name fool you. In real life I’m very big”). And Will Scarlett plays a wonderfully confident back-up who’s inhumanly fast with a knife and knows it. He’s also not called Scarlett because he wears red, but because his full name is Will Scarlett O’Hara (“We’re from Georgia”).
And then there’s Blinkin. If Duncan, his Prince of Thieves counterpart, existed just to suffer and die, Blinkin is there just to be ridiculous. Yes, Brooks makes every last joke he can about a blind Merry Man, constantly fighting the wrong target and looking the wrong way, only to pull out a super human catch at the crucial moment, but Blinkin is a clown for many reasons. An idiot who doesn’t understand Robin might not be happy to hear about the death of his entire family, a lecher first seen reading Playboy in Braille who quickly fondles a statue he believes is Robin returned for the wars, and the voice of the most regressive opinions expressed by the good guys (“A Jew? Here?”). Honest talk, guys, I love Blinkin.
Mel Brooks takes up the Friar Tuck role as the Rabbi Tuckman in a cameo short enough to establish the character before returning to officiate the wedding at the end. He takes another crack at men who wear tights and gets in a couple of circumcision jokes, in case you might have forgotten this was a Mel Brooks movie.
The rest of the Merry Men are a random assortment of villagers Robin and his men round up in their insurrection against Prince John and, in an odd nod to realism, they never actually get good. Despite the requisite training montage, they remain basically inept fighters to the end. But they do make good back-up singers and dancers.
Amy Yasbeck plays Marian as Madeline Kahn playing a Disney Princess. (In case it’s not clear, Mel Brooks introduces her singing topless in a clamshell with mermaid hair.) In another sharp bit of satire, Brooks really lays heavy emphasis on the Maid part of Maid Marian, down to her wearing an obvious, plot-point chastity belt. Everyone in the film, from Robin to the Sheriff to the Merry Men to the cameras crashing through the windows, leer at Marian, openly discussing her virginity. This highlights how much other Robin Hood films, especially Prince of Thieves, fetishize Marian’s virginity, building to the moment when Robin and Marian can finally bang. (Even the Disney film ends this way). That the film ends with Robin calling for a locksmith, that for all that effort they still can’t have sex, shows just how foolish that trope is.
Though she’s never given the supposed knife skills of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Marian, Yasbeck’s Marian is still more active in her own story. She warns Robin of the Sheriff’s trap (even if Robin blows her off) and she agrees to marry the Sheriff to save Robin’s life, making her one of the more pro-active Marians.
I wish Marian’s maid was funnier, though. Bess in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Lady Kluck in the Disney version were bold, brassy women who never surrendered and actively encouraged Marian’s romance with Robin. Broomhilde, however, is played as a fat German prude who fetishizes Marian’s virginity more than any man. And there are way too many fat jokes about her (even the super strong Little John can’t lift her).
The Bad Guys
Roger Rees, as the Sheriff of Rottingham, has an interesting line to walk. He has to do a parodic version of Alan Rickman’s Sheriff, except Rickman was already doing a full-tilt, camp villain, so what’s a comedian to do?
For one, Rees plays the villain slightly more straight than Rickman did, trying his best to look imposing when hanging on the wrong side of a horse, bringing in some more of Basil Rathbone’s uptight class consciousness. In this way, he’s the evil counterpoint to Elwes’s Robin Hood, trying to take things seriously but surrounded by people who won’t let him. Then he adds a speech impediment that means he speaks words in the wrong order when he gets upset. And he plays up the Sheriff’s cowardly nature, running from any fight if he has the opportunity.
In contrast to Rees’s semi-serious take, Richard Lewis plays Prince John as himself: neurotic, pampered, and very very Jewish. As much as that’s the joke—the king of England is obviously a New York Jew—it’s also in line with Peter Ustinov’s insecure, thumb sucking lion and Claude Rains’ smarmy, jewel loving show-off. (Compare Rains’s “Robin, I like you,” with Lewis’s “Funny guy! Fun-ny guy!”) Again, the parodic, anachronistic joke is in line with the established character.
Which leaves Tracy Ullman as Latrine (“It used to be Shit-House”). Her role as Prince John’s witchy-advisor/chef is basically a long rape joke about how sex with an ugly woman is a fate worse than death. Which is horrible. On the other hand, it’s literally no more random or off-topic than the witch in Prince of Thieves, so I’m calling this a wash.
Richard and the Crusades
Men in Tights has its own, bizarre take on the Crusades. Like History of the World Part I’s version of the Inquisition, the Crusades are portrayed as bad vaudeville, run by stereotypes of overly friendly Middle Eastern maître d's in sparkly jackets, where torture involves cartoonish yanking of tongues and the forced wearing of fake beards. It’s a weird take that doesn’t get into the morality of the Crusades, but at least the Saracens aren’t portrayed as Morlocks.
For his part, Sir Patrick Stewart’s cameo as King Richard is nothing but a parody of Sean Connery’s cameo, down to a slight Scottish accent. If Brooks has anything to say about Richard, it’s in line with his opinion of all kings: he doesn’t have much respect for them personally (“Here’s your knife.” “Sword.” “Whatever.”), but he has to respect their lifestyle (“It’s good to be king”).
Men in Tights has one of my favorite climaxes to a Robin Hood film, for the simple reason that it’s Robin who’s threatened with hanging, and the Merry Men who have to rescue him. In many ways, that’s actually the most natural climax for a Robin Hood story—that eventually he will be captured, but the common people he fed, trained, and inspired will rise up to rescue him. Also, like any good Robin Hood, Elwes remains a smug, sassy jackass even as the rope goes around his neck. If he’s worried, he’s certainly not going to let the Sheriff see it.
Of course, this is still the Mel Brooks movie, so it’s all a big joke, filled with allusions to other movies, especially Brooks’s. The hangman is the same hangman from Blazing Saddles. The sword fight almost kills a crew-member, as it does in Spaceballs. And the fight is a mash-up of the final duels in Prince of Thieves (Robin interrupts the Sheriff’s attempt to rape Marian), The Adventures of Robin Hood (including a shadow puppet fight), and The Princess Bride (Cary Elwes just looks so natural trading witty barbs while fencing, prettily).
Weirdly, it ends with Robin accidentally running the Sheriff through. The film had been so careful up to that point to avoid explicit violence. Lots of people get conked on the head or pinned by their clothing to walls, but no one dies or is even seriously harmed. And yet the Sheriff is definitely killed, only to be brought back to life by the magic of the witch. Which, again, is a rape joke about having sex with an ugly woman, so, yeah, maybe Brooks should have just left the Sheriff dead.
This is another four drink movie. There’s no one scene that will kill you, but the film is a pastiche of all Robin Hood stories, so it hits most of the common tropes. Additionally, Mel Brooks speaks in the language of historical inaccuracy, so there’s a drink at least once per scene.