What To Watch: A Legend Skewered in ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ (1993)
Comedy icon Mel Brooks takes aim at Robin Hood.
Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a parody film about the many iterations of the legendary hero, most specifically, the 1991 drama Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
For a long time, the best name in spoof was Mel Brooks, a comedy master who churned out dozens of hits that poked serious fun at the film industry, and while many felt his work degraded with each passing entry, his movies are nonetheless the best in the genre, or at least on par. Gotta give prop to the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams. From his early, groundbreaking work in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Brooks set a high standard and continued to do so for decades after, with hits like High Anxiety and Spaceballs. When he aimed his sights on the famous legend of Robin Hood, he was striking while the iron as hot as a number of remakes and growing interest in the story were already dotting the landscape at the time, most especially the hugely popular Kevin Costner version called Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was ripe for the plucking.
THE STORY: Directed by Brook and co-written by him and Evan Chandler and J. David Shapiro, whose names I bring up because while you might not know them, have some significance. Chandler was a dentist (his son actually came up with the idea of the film) with a notably spotty career to the stars, who became more famous after being the man whose questionable accusations against pop singer Michael Jackson of molesting his son stayed with him until his suicide. His client was Shapiro, whose only other well-known work to date is his adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard‘s Battlefield Earth. No matter their histories, the three came together to make a pretty darned funny take on Robin Hood. It’s also not the first time Brooks took a stab at the legend, having 18 years earlier produced a short-lived sitcom called When Things Were Rotten, a spoof of the story, which even featured Dick Van Patten, who appeared in both.
Either way, the story is fairly close to the one most know, that of Robin of Loxley (played by Cary Elwes), an Englishman who returns from the Crusades, traveling with the son of a prisoner he met in Jerusalem, a young man named Ahchoo (played by Dave Chappele) – his father was Asneeze. Once home, Robin discovers his home has been repossessed, of all things, by the dastardly Prince John (Richard Lewis), who has taken power over the lands while King Richard is at war. Now, along with his faithful but blind servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield), Robin heads out and teams up with Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and his friend Will Scarlet O’Hara (Matthew Porretta) to reclaim the lands, all the while trying to get the attention of the beautiful Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck).
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: If you’ve seen a Brooks film, you know it tends to be a rapid-fire run of gags and jokes, with the latter films aimed at pop culture and celebrity cameos mocking themselves. With Robin Hood, the main target was Costner’s successful but often ridiculed take on the legend, all in good fun, while populating the feature with loads of bits that sometimes fell flat but were mostly very funny. Easily the most enthusiastic and most entertaining in the cast is the great (late) Roger Rees as the Sheriff of Rottingham who chews up the entire film with an explosively funny take on the spirited character, giving him a host of impressive traits that make him a source of endless laughs, including his verbal juggles with Spoonerisms. He’s three levels above anyone else in the movie, perhaps save for a brief appearance by Patrick Stewart.
Certainly not all the jokes land well, some seem just packed in to fit the times, as when Achoo stops a fight to ‘pump up’ his sneakers, an anachronistic jab at a trend in sports shoes that doesn’t really work. Yet more hit than miss and the enthusiastic execution of it all is what probably sells it most. A trademark of the Brooks parody films is the outbreak of songs, of which there are many and very funny. And the movie just looks good, too, with great costuming and sets. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it has grown over the decades to become a cult fave, and deservedly so. Sometimes goofy irreverent fun is just what you need.
A GREAT MOMENT: It’s nearly impossible to choose a ‘best’ moment in Robin Hood: Men in Tights as this kind of comedy is really subjective and there is a broad range of material here, some subtle and some, well, not so much. From Maid Marion’s rather daunting chastity belt to Blinkin’s peripheral sight gags (no pun intended), there’s a lot going on. I still laugh out loud when Little John and Hood have a duel over a tiny stream that sees the large man fall into its depths, which is in fact extremely shallow. The woodsman lies on his back barely wet, yet is convinced he’s about to drown. It’s very funny.
However, forced to choose, the most nuanced moment that combines laughs and a funny pay off is easily when Robin Hood serenades Marion at his hideaway camp. She has come to warn him of a plot to lure him to an archery tournament, but he is overcome by her beauty and breaks into song, one that utterly surprises her as he starts (that gets me every time) and soon has all the merry men feeling the groove. Robin’s singing voice is provided by tenor Arthur Rubin and the song is called The Night Is Young And You’re So Beautiful, a classic from the 40s belted out with heart-swooning gusto that Brooks layers over a shadow gag where is appears Robin is exceedingly aroused for the fair maiden. It’s only a few minutes of screen time but there’s a lot packed within, making it a funny and charming bit that makes this the film’s highlight.
THE TALLY: Robin Hood: Men in Tights earned mixed reviews on release, seemingly dividing critics and audiences into two disparate groups. While it lacks the subtlety and edge of both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, it nonetheless is a very funny movie, especially if you’re in the right mood. And you really ought to get in the right mood. It’s what to watch.