Alan Rickman, Caesarian Sections, Kevin Costner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Medieval England, Medieval Europe, Needlepointing the Bayeux Tapestry, Robin Hood, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
I saw Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, dir. Kevin Reynolds) when it first came out. I was a budding young medievalist in grad school, and I hated the movie. Over the years it’s acquired a fairly negative reputation for its many egregious anachronisms (like Robin Hood’s mullet). So I sat down to watch it was some trepidation. But about half way through the film, I realized that I just couldn’t hate it. It’s not that it’s a good movie; it wasn’t when it came out, and it hasn’t aged especially well. It’s just that the movie so obviously doesn’t take itself even remotely seriously. It’s not a comedy, but the movie just gleefully doesn’t give a damn about anything other than the story it wants to tell, even if that story isn’t especially good. Alan Rickman completely dominates the film with his manically villainous Sheriff of Nottingham, who is basically Snidely Whiplash made flesh. This movie is interested in history about the same way that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was interested in talent.
The film is mostly a paint-by-numbers version of the Robin Hood story with a few new touches thrown in. Robin Hood (Kevin Costner) is trying to thwart the evil Sheriff, who is planning to depose the absent King Richard by marrying Richard’s cousin Marion (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), which will somehow allow Nottingham to ignore the fact that there are several closer claimants to Richard’s throne, such as his brother John and his nephew Arthur (at the end of the film, Nottingham is so monomaniacally-focused on this goal that even as Robin is literally battering down the chapel door to kill him, Nottingham just wants to finish forcing Marion to wed him so he can have sex with her. That’s real commitment to villainy). Robin Hood is a former crusader who rescues and brings back to England a black Muslim named Azeem (Morgan Freeman), who repeatedly demonstrates that Islam is more scientifically advanced than late 12th century England by inventing things that won’t actually be invented for centuries. And Nottingham is working with a witch, Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan), as part of some sort of Satanic cult. Oh, and Will Scarlett (Christian Slater) is actually Robin’s long-lost half-brother.
The Top Ten Biggest Anachronisms in the Film
- Azeem gives Little John’s wife Fanny (Soo Druet) an emergency caesarian section. He knows how to do this because he’s watched horses delivered this way. That in itself is possible, since the earliest-known c-section was performed in 320 BC in India. But what’s more problematic is that Fanny not only survives but is up and running around literally the next day. Prior to the 16th century, c-sections were generally performed only when it was already accepted that the mother was not going to survive the birth or had actually died; the procedure was a last-ditch effort to rescue the child. Prior to the 19th century, they were performed without anesthesia or blood transfusions, making them insanely risky for the mother; most women probably died of shock or bloodloss before the process was finished. And even if the mother did somehow survive the procedure itself, in the absence of modern hygiene, there was a very good chance of severe infections setting in. (See Update below)
- Azeem owns a primitive telescope, two glass lenses than he fits into a leather tube. It’s not clear where he got this; since he’s first met in a prison and literally escapes with nothing, the most obvious explanation is that he made it after Robin and he escape. Given that the first known telescope was invented by the Dutchman Hans Lippershey in 1608, and the film is set in 1194, Azeem’s telescope is roughly 400 years too early.
- Mortianna and the Satanist coven. But that deserves its own post.
- Robin’s father has a framed portrait of Robin hanging on his wall, which is pretty much about 200 years too early for framed portraits.
- Robin and his men all use the so-called Welsh Longbow, like pretty much all other Robin Hoods. Longbows themselves date back to the Neolithic period, the Welsh only began to use them in the late 12th century (within a decade or so of 1194), and the English only generally acquired them in the late 13th century, after Edward I’s conquest of Wales. The bow came to play a very important role in English warfare in the 14th and 15th centuries, and given that the original tales of Robin Hood seem to originate in exactly that period, it was as natural for Robin to use a longbow as it was for Dirty Harry to use a Smith & Wesson .44 magnum. But in 1194, it’s about a century out of place unless Robin Hood is actually just a Welsh bandit wandering around England.
- Azeem manufactures gunpowder so they can blow stuff up in the climactic confrontation at Nottingham Castle. Black powder certainly existed; it may have been invented in China around 492 AD. The Islamic world acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time between 1240 and 1280, and the earliest European recipe for it dates to around 1300. So Azeem basically has to invent black powder. Apparently he’s a 12th century Thomas Edison. (See the previous picture for a nice example of a Stuff Blows Up scene.)
- Nottingham decides to hire some “Celtic” mercenaries, and what we get is a bunch of Time-Traveling Killer Picts. They are dressed in ragged furs and kilts and paint their faces, and several of them actually wield Stone Age axes. These guys are even more out of place than the Viking mercanaries King John hires in Ironclad.
- Nottingham’s men pretty much all wear Norman helmets, a simple bullet-shaped metal helmet that left the face and cheeks exposed, but provided a nasal strip to give a little protection to the nose and eyes. This style of helmet was widely used in the 10th and 11th century, but in the 12th century it gave way to the closed helmet (for those who were better equipped) and a helmet that left the face exposed but provided coverage for the cheeks (for those less well-equipped). So I suppose we could say that Nottingham is just a cheapskate who gave his men very old, crappy helmets, but it’s sort of like making a movie about the 21st century American military and giving all the soldiers doughboy helmets. (See the above photo for a guard in a Norman helmet.)
- After Robin Hood begins the whole ‘stealing from the rich to give to the poor’ routine, Nottingham’s men post wanted posters (an anachronism in itself) that are written in modern English and look pretty clearly printed rather than hand-written.
- Friar Tuck is a friar wandering around England in 1194. St Francis didn’t invent the concept of the friar (a wandering monk, basically) until 1209. The Franciscans didn’t come to England until 1224. Tuck seems to be a priest, since he presides over Robin and Marion’s wedding at the end of the film, but the early Franciscans were generally not priests. So everything about Tuck is wrong.
- Bonus Anachronism 1: Marion’s female servants are named Rebecca and Sarah, which means they’re Jewish, since in medieval Europe, most Old Testament names were associated with Jewishness (the major exceptions being David and Adam). Because English Jews were a despised minority, Christian women would not have used Jewish names, and Marion would have been very unlikely to hire Jewish servants.
- Bonus Anachronism 2: In one scene, Marion is needlepointing a panel from the Bayeux Tapestry, a now-famous but then fairly obscure embroidery from the late 11th century. Marion is Richard’s cousin, meaning she must be French, so I suppose we could hypothesize that she paid a visit to the bishop of Bayeux at some point and fell in love with his wall-hanging and did a quick sketch of it, but why bother actually trying to explain the little details? The film sure doesn’t.
Update: A couple of readers have asserted that Azeem doesn’t perform a caesarian section, merely turn the baby. At the start of the scene, he declares that the baby has not turned and so cannot be born. Then he tells Marion to get a needle, thread, and water. Then he says that he has seen some technique used on horses. He never says exactly what he’s going to do, but it’s presented as some exotic Middle Eastern knowledge. So I suppose there’s some room for debate about exactly what the film wants us to think is going on. However, if he’s only planning to turn the baby, asking for a needle and thread makes no sense. That request only makes any sense at all if he’s planning on cutting Fanny open and then sewing her up after the baby is out.
The whole scene is quite silly. There is approximately 0% chance that a Muslim man without specialized medical training would know anything about gynecology and midwifery. Even most trained physicians in the Islamic world knew nothing beyond some vague theories about childbirth, because gender segregation and the practice of women veiling meant that even physicians almost never had physical contact with unrelated women. Honestly, Robin Hood had more chance of knowing something about delivering a baby than a Muslim man did, because Western men had somewhat greater familiarity with women’s bodies (since veiling and segregation were not as rigidly enforced in the West as they were in the Middle East). Childbirth was women’s work and not something men would get involved in.
Furthermore, breeched babies are, if not common, still a recognized phenomenon across the medieval world. Being able to recognize it and address it was not something that required exotic Middle Eastern knowledge. Marion probably would have at least known the concept, even if she hadn’t encountered it before.
Want to Know More?
I’m not sure why you’d want to know more about this film, but Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves [Double Sided]is available on Amazon.