Thu
Jan 2 2014 10:00am
“Funny Guy! Fun-ny Guy!”—Robin Hood: Men in Tights

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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.

Robin Hood Men in Tights

Robin Hood

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.

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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.

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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.

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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.

Robin Hood Men in Tights

Marian

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).

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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.

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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.

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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”).

The Ending

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).

Robin Hood Men in Tights

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.

Drinking Game

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.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

12 comments
Chris Nelly
1. Aeryl
Men In Tights the movie where people in medieval times did the wave, and they weren't being serious about(I'm looking at you, Knight's Tale)

I loved this freakin' movie. I was in my spoof phase at the time(my other favorite movie about this time was Hot Shots, also starring Cary Elwes) is somewhat smart, while Hot Shots is mostily sight gags.

Looking back, yes, it's got a LOT of problematic stuff, but that's pretty much in EVERYTHING in this time period of movies.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
For all its problematic bits (and what Mel Brooks movies doesn't have those?), this is a terrific film. In terms of quality, it represents an uptick for Brooks, who had been going slightly downhill for a while.

Almost everything works, and those that don't are largely because they rely a litle too much on familiarity with the Costner movie. A case in point is Robin swimming from the Holy Land to England. It still worked for me, though, thanks to The Long Ships in which Richard Widmark appears to swim from North Africa to Norway (silly movie, great book, BTW).

It should also be noted that this wasn't Brooks' first foray into Robin Hood territory. He produced When Things Were Rotten in the mid-70s, which was all too short-lived. And he managed not to repeat himself between the two. The only things I can think of are the Sherrif having a silly name (Hubert in WTWR and Mervin here) and the appearance of Dick Van Patten in an ecclesiastic role (Friar Tuck earlier). The anachronisms are simply part and parcel of Brooks' humor.
Jenny Thrash
3. Sihaya
#2: I always get When Things Were Rotten confused with The Zany Adventures of Robin Hood. The latter, a 1980's TV production, seemed like it should have been by Brooks (and I hate to say it, but I liked it better).
Milton Pope
4. MiltonPope
Robin Hood: Men in Tights works pretty decently as a Robin Hood story on its own.
Brooks obviously has an affection for source material. Young Frankenstein may have been a series of blackout scenes, but the scenes were pastiches of the original movies, in addition to being parodies. At the other end of the quality range, Dracula: Dead and Loving It was by far the most faithful adaptation of the book I've ever seen -- punctuated every minute or two by a lame Mel Brooks joke. It's like he wanted to do Dracula right, but could only sell the studio on a Mel Brooks movie.
Ragnarredbeard
5. Ragnarredbeard
"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."

Which is the whole point behind Brooks' comedy. There are no oppressors or oppressed, only targets to be skewered. He's an equal opportunity comedic director/writer.
Lianne Burwell
6. LKBurwell
I saw this in the theatre with my mother, and we were laughing at parts that others didn't seem to be laughing, mainly because we'd seen nearly all of Mel Brooks' movies at that time.

(And 'It's good to be the king' was hysterical also as a call back to History of the World Part One)
Sean Tabor
7. wingracer
One of my all time favorites. Brilliant movie. It's a shame The Academy ignores comedies, Elwes deserves an Oscar nod for this one.

For another great comedy staring Elwes, check out the HBO movie The Pentagon Wars. He had a few moments in it that rank right up there with this one.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
8. Lisamarie
I think I was in late elementary school when this came out and I saw it at a sleepover - I didn't quite get all the jokes, but I still loved it. For awhile, I went through a phase where I rented it every week from the library.

I still find this movie hysterical, although I agree that the fat jokes and the ugly woman/rape-is-funny-when-it's-woman-on-man jokes are really irritating now. For the rest of it (racism, etc) I always took it more as making fun of the oppressor and various stereotypes and not particularly mean spirited but that's just me.

I love Cary Elwes so much because of this movie, but when I found out he was in a movie playing the young Pope John Paul II it was really hard for me to grasp ;) I do actually really want to see that movie...
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
This isn't the best Mel Brooks movie, but it is far from the worst. And I agree with comments above--by skewering everyone equally, and leaving nothing sacred (especially the sacred), Mel Brooks could create an environment where even the offensive was funny. Like when friends 'slag' each other, trading insults back and forth. Come to think of it, like the way the Merry Men in the Errol Flynn version, The Adventures of Robin Hood, never stopped insulting each other.
And Cary Elwes is a great actor, adept with a wide range of roles, and able to do comedy with the best of them.
And, by having Costner's version as an easy target, there was a plethora of jokes to be made.
Chris Nelly
10. Aeryl
I freaked out when I saw Elwes in the original Saw(the only one I ever care to see).

He is an incredible actor, I was completely floored when found out he ACTUALLY was English.

He's also in a movie about Lady Jane Grey, as her husband. They make it a love story of course, but it's still a pretty tragic story. I've never seen it, but I've heard good things.
Christopher Bennett
11. ChristopherLBennett
This is one of my favorite Brooks movies and a good Robin Hood movie, though I think I'd like it better if it weren't so dependent on parodying Prince of Thieves. Modern movie parody has become too much about reminding viewers of films they've seen in the previous year rather than making something timelessly funny, and Brooks did somewhat begin that trend with this movie. Although unlike a lot of his successors, this one does manage to be more universal, with all the Errol Flynn and other homages.

And Amy Yasbeck is the best Marian ever. She's utterly luminous in this film.

Mildly interesting bit of trivia: The actor who played Will Scarlett O'Hara, Matthew Porretta, would go on to play Robin Hood himself four years later in TNT's The New Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the spate of mediocre action/fantasy TV series that came along in the '90s as imitators of Hercules/Xena.
Joseph Ash
12. TedThePenguin
Again, this is one of my favorite movies. I could probably do the whole men in tights song from memory.

I didnt catch anything about the godfather bit though...

Other favorites:
Opening credits (LEAVE US ALONE MEL BROOKS!)
12th century Fox (who sounds like flipper)

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