Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

A laid-back, American Christian teams up with a dignified Muslim in an attempt to make a cross-cultural buddy movie.  But non-P.C. troubles await these scalawags and their Dark age feminist friend, Marian.  It seems that the Christian’s daddy has been condemned by the local bishop for worshiping the devil, and burnt.  What’s more, the mastermind behind this, and many murders, is a guy who can’t see any difference between Christianity and Satanism (so goes with both) and is advised by a witch.  It looks like the only solution will be a good old fashioned pagan wedding.

While filled with religious imagery and 1990s-style spiritual political correctness, is there some bold atheistic (or theistic) statement you can pluck from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves?  I’m sure many will find that Kevin Costner’s performance is sufficient poof of the non-existence of God.  After all, would a perfectly good God allow Costner’s on-again, off-again, British-like accent to exist?  Or permit his detached, somnolent line readings of inspirational speeches?  Ah, but don’t fall into that trap, for any theist can turn these points around on you, saying that Costner’s complete inability to display basic human emotions is best explained as the work of the Devil, and if there is a Devil, there must be a God.  I’m afraid that this is a neutral flick, with regard to significant theological matters.  So why am I examining it?  Because of its exorbitant religious rhetoric; I just couldn’t’ pass it up.

To get the secular review out of the way: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has much of what makes a great swashbuckler.  It has fast and exciting action, a few breathtaking moments (Robin shooting the flaming arrow with the remains of the explosion behind him), and marvelous humor.  It plays with the basic story so that it’s not just spitting out the same old plot we already know.  It has many beautiful sets and locations, wonderful costumes, and a fittingly heroic score.  It has top flight performances by Alan Rickman (who steals the movie and is the major reason to see it), Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael McShane, and Michael Wincott.  Unfortunately, it has an unnecessary subplot involving Will Scarlett (terribly miscast, since Christian Slater couldn’t have made the character any more of a modern New York resident had he been plopped down in a Woody Alan film).  It also has a series of poorly conceived close-ups, and the occasional line of high school quality dialog (usually given to Costner).  Combined with Costner’s tendency to look like he’s going to drift off in the middle of his speeches, “greatness” slips out of reach.  I’ll call it “fun,” and advise you to make use of Costner’s “serious” moments to get a drink from the fridge or run off to the bathroom; then it will looks like a pretty good movie.

Enough with the secular comments.  For most of the picture, we’re in big-tent religion here; all religions are good and should be respected (well, most religions anyway).  Just ignore the part of your faith, no matter how key it is, that says that everyone who isn’t part of your church is evil and going to hell.  “Ohhhhhh.  Why can’t we all just get along?!”  OK, no one says that, but it’s the only thing missing.  Still, for those of us who aren’t terribly interested in the tenants of any particular religion, it’s a nice sentiment.

Robin represents Christianity.  He’s not too bright, but he’s brave and fair, and can learn.  Azeem personifies Islam.  He’s intelligent, honorable, and skilled.  Together, they work better than when apart.  The message is non-too-subtle, but considering the state of the world in 2006, subtlety may be overrated.

The film’s clerics are an interesting lot.  Friar Tuck is as admirable as they get, and he’s an alcoholic lout.  But he’s a good alcoholic lout.  Initially, he responds to Azeem with a Christian’s ignorance and hatred of Moslems, but he comes to realize his folly.  (Azeem was already OK with everyone, pointing out that people are different because Allah likes wondrous diversity.)  The Bishop doesn’t come off as well.  He is traitorous, greedy, cowardly, hypocritical, and aligned with murderers.  He is part of the film’s negative view of organized religion.  It’s made clear that while the people suffer in poverty, The Church is a place of luxury.  And Robin makes numerous comments about the wrong-headedness of the crusades.  If the Bishop represents organized religion, think of Tuck as the spokesman for disorganized religion.

The final cleric is Mortianna, the witch and advisor to The Sheriff.  She has a Satanic altar and appears to believe in the forces of darkness (or she just might be using it as a tool to control The Sheriff).  Satanism—that is, the one that no one really follows, that involves actual worship of the Devil—is the one religion that isn’t going to be let in under the tent.  It’s depicted as purely evil.  However, it is at the dark altar that the film makes its one unanswered jab at religion.  In a scene that was missing from the theatrical cut, but is in the latest DVD version, The Sheriff, after mentioning that his “other god calls” and he has to get up to the Christian church because appearances are everything to that lot, looks at the inverted cross, turns it right-side up, and then lets it fall back, commenting that while his faith is with the old way, “frankly, sometimes, I can’t see much difference.”

In the end, big-tent, disorganized religion stamps out Satanism and conservative Christianity, with the victory celebrated at a wedding (if it’s a spoiler that Robin and Marian get married, you really need to bone up on your folk stories and pop culture).  However, in a move, that like so many others in this picture, is more interesting than meaningful, the service looks Pagan.