As it celebrates its 30th anniversary, 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is best remembered for two of its performances. Kevin Costner was famously ridiculed for his lack of an English accent, but Alan Rickman’s wildly eccentric take on the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham drew praise from even the film’s most scathing critics. Rickman added something new to a role that had been depicted countless times before, lampooning the tired nature of the story with a brilliantly self-aware performance.
The Sheriff of Nottingham had appeared in virtually every Robin Hood adaptation since the timeless 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, and it’s not exactly a complex role. The Sheriff wants to bring the hooded hero to justice, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves doesn’t deviate from any of the core tropes of the story. Rickman wasn’t given a whole lot to work with, so he played everything to the extreme, taking pleasure in each venomous threat and not ever attempting to be a real person.
This was completely necessary, as there’s not much depth to the one-dimensional character. Instead of trying to force a tragic backstory or hint at any underlying motivations beyond pure evil, Rickman chews the scenery with a droll energy. A threat like “I will personally remove your lying tongue” delivered to Will Scarlett (Christian Slater) may have initially been written to be menacing, but Rickman’s delivery makes it comically over-the-top.
Unsurprisingly, Rickman had a lot to do with the dialogue itself. After he famously lamented to his friends in the theater circuit that the screenplay was terrible, Rickman decided to liven it up by adding in his own lines to spice up the material. Many of the Sheriff’s best threats and put-downs came from Rickman directly, including the famous retort “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”
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It wasn’t just that Rickman was playing for camp, but he pointed out the tired mythology. It’s hilarious watching the Sheriff attempt to explain Robin Hood’s appeal, ponderously musing as to how he’s disrupted his operation of Nottingham. “Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public,” he proclaims. “They love him for it?” His confusion is priceless.
The Sheriff and Robin don’t actually trade blows until the film’s final moments, so for the most part Rickman is left on his own in Nottingham Castle concocting villainous schemes. It’s structured so that watching Rickman conceive of a strategy should add tension to the scenes of Robin gaining allies, but they end up playing for laughs as the Sheriff watches all of his tactics crumble. The Sheriff dispatches forces to Robin’s family home in Locksley Castle, and then the next moment his supply lines are raided. Rickman can only hilariously react to his own incompetence, driving him to make more outrageous threats like his assertion that he’ll cut out Robin’s heart with a spoon (a detail that he extends for several more jokes).
Director Kevin Reynolds famously reported that no one on set was aware of Rickman’s additions ahead of time, allowing his co-stars to react authentically. The amount of new dialogue was significant enough that it sparked friction within the production, with Costner famously asking for Rickman’s role to be diminished, as he feared his title character was being overshadowed in his own movie. Viewers brave enough to explore the 155-minute extended cut released in 2009 will discover even more snappy lines from the Sheriff that were initially left on the cutting room floor.
The film’s conclusion in which Rickman and Costner duel once the latter arrives to rescue Maid Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is actually the least interesting part of the film. At this point the rescue and subsequent battle for Nottingham Castle can only play out as expected, and Rickman has to engage in the actual story and not be left to his own devices. He’s a fairly impressive swordsman and the sword fight is fun, but it lacks the energy of the standalone moments save for his gloriously hammy death.
Inserting a satirical character within a film that played everything else completely straight ended up being more successful than an outright parody. Mel Brooks’ 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights primarily targeted Prince of Thieves, but other than recognizing some of the chief complaints it contained very few clever jokes. There’s not much new to say about a story most viewers know by heart, and prolonging that doesn’t justify an entirely comedic reimagining. Rickman created contrast within the film itself, and it’s hard to watch any of the overlong sequences of Costner and Morgan Freeman’s Azeem Edin Bashir Al Bakir trudging through the English landscape without yearning for the energy of the Sheriff scenes.
Just as Errol Flynn created a gold standard that later Robin Hood actors would desperately try to emulate, subsequent attempts at depicting the Sheriff were caught in Rickman’s shadow. Ridley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood was initially conceived of as a reimagining from the Sheriff’s perspective, but the eventual film reverted to a more familiar take with Matthew Macfayden in the role. The 2018 Robin Hood tries to exist in the mold of a superhero origin story, and Ben Mendelsohn’s performance awkwardly attempts to combine a tragic backstory referencing childhood abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church with more exaggerated haminess inspired by Rickman’s interpretation. Even if it’s the most interesting thing in the film, it feels stale considering how similar the role is to Mendelsohn’s performances in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Ready Player One.
Robin Hood ranks alongside Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and the Three Musketeers as one of the most frequently adapted fictional stories, and since it exists in the public domain, there will be more Robin Hood movies coming, as Disney announced recently that a reimagining of the 1973 animated film was in the works at Disney+. While future adaptations may attempt to create distinguishing factors, Alan Rickman’s creativity was the last time the story actually felt fresh. Rickman has given a lot of great performances in classic films and it’s just as remarkable that he was able to save a bad one.
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