Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out during a very influential time in my life. I was young enough for the neighbors to laugh at my yarn-and-sapling bow making skills, yet old enough to get in trouble for threatening to cut out their hearts with a spoon.
Less intimidating when it’s a 7-year-old.
So it’s no surprise that I was a bit too immature to grasp the deeper story behind a movie like this. As a child I was so wrapped up in the sword fighting, the bow shooting, and the Morgan Freeman-ing, that I missed the important lessons hiding just under the skin. Lessons like how to choose your allies. Why safety nets for the lower classes are important. And why constructing an Ewok village is never a solution.
Re-watch this movie as an adult, however, with a fair working knowledge of class systems and medieval politics, and another story emerges. The classic “Steal from the rich and give to the poor.” goes out the window. You start to realize that Prince of Thieves is more of a “Drive a political campaign that legitimizes your status as a pretender by using the suffering poor.” kind of jam.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few reasons why the Sheriff and Robin are both imposters trying to fill a power vacuum by exploiting the peasantry.
The Sheriff Of Nottingham Is Low-Born, According To Deleted Scenes
King Richard is away on business–business being the polite term for slaughtering foreigners in another pointless crusade to retake the holy lands. In his absence the scheming Sheriff has begun planning to usurp the throne, having grown so influential in the lands around Nottinghamshire that he believes himself a candidate to wear the Big Gold Pointy Hat.
But here’s the thing about the Sheriff–he’s not even nobility, which places him and his descendants squarely outside the line of succession. In a deleted scene it’s revealed that the old witch and royal advisor, Mortianna, is actually the Sheriff’s mother. She switched some noblewoman’s baby with her own, thus placing her otherwise peasant son in a position of power.
This may seem like a little twist the writers threw in for fun, but I believe it was intended to serve as a greater contrast between our antagonist Sheriff George, and Robin of Locksley. Because…
Robin Hood Is Also An Upstart Peasant
First consider Robin’s weapon of choice; the English Longbow. While the nobility sometimes trained with bows, it was largely left to the middle and lower classes to take up archery and hunting for sport and recreation. This gave the king a body of potential conscripts to call upon in times of war. The poor needed bow skills to keep themselves fed (as seen in the movie) while the middle classes were encouraged to keep the art of archery alive for cultural reasons, which can be seen in a decree by Edward III.
Every noble in this movie, from Robin’s supposed father to Marian and the Sheriff himself, grab for the sword when they’re in danger. Whereas Robin loves him some bow. Even if they’re common soldiers working under the Sheriff, they might wield crossbows. Not even the displaced peasants of Sherwood carry longbows. They carry sticks…sticks that don’t even shoot other sticks. That is, until Robin comes along.
Secondly, do we ever encounter anyone who recognizes Robin of Locksley without him insisting his own identity? We have Duncan, an old blind caretaker who’s foraging among the ruins of his master’s manor. Even if Duncan could recognize the now-middle-age voice of his master’s son, would he benefit more by following a pretender, or sticking around the ruins waiting for the real (likely dead) Robin? And then we have Maid Marian, who admits to having no memory of Robin aside from the spoiled child who burned her hair for fun. We also hear the Bishop claim “I see the boy I once knew.” But this comes after word has spread that Robin of Locksley is back in town and raising a fuss.
For all Robin’s claims of warmth and familial love for Marian, Peter, Duncan, and his own father, everyone else seems to remember Robin as a bit of a shitbird. Robin waves this away by saying that prison changes a man. I would argue instead that landing in prison with Marian’s brother, Peter, with nothing but time to chat him up about family history, would give him the tools necessary to craft a backstory that elevates him from peasant archer to the son of a dying noble house. Hell, for all we know Peter was Robin’s first dupe. Or he was in on the plan.
There’s also the fact that Robin, despite his family’s rank, abandons petitioning other royal houses for assistance after striking out with Marian. This is because…
Robin Hood And The Sheriff Are Hatching The Exact Same Plan
The Sheriff, once he learns of Mortianna’s deception, becomes hell-bent on getting the Maid Marian pregnant with his progeny. This would at least place his direct descendants into the line of succession, even if his unlikely secret were later revealed. You know who else seems pretty keen on this plan? I mean, to the letter? Robin of the Hood.
Let’s break this down step-by-step.
In movies there’s an old trope. When the plucky hero squares off with the cruel villain, the antagonist will often use the phrase “We’re not so different, you and I.” Which is a way of saying that if their positions were reversed, the hero would have made all the same choices.
Had the sheriff repeated this trope, it would have been the only accurate usage in the history of cinema.
Time may prove me wrong in my theory that Robin is an imposter, and both he and the Sheriff are playing the same game of fake-it-til-you-make-it in the absence of so many nobles. But damnit if believing doesn’t make this movie that much more entertaining.
Oh, and Azeem’s life debt? That’s not a real thing in Moorish culture. So here’s a bonus fan theory for you: Azeem made it up so Robin would give him an “in” once they reached England.
Happy watching, everyone. See you next week.