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COMMENTARY : Can Merry Men Make It in the S&L; Age? : Movies: The two latest ‘Robin Hoods’ recast the legend in a meaner, rougher manner to mirror the ‘90s.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To live outside the law you must be honest ... --Bob Dylan When Kevin Costner stretches a longbow and crinkles that knowing smile in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” he may be, as many critics have remarked, a little out of his depth. It’s not so much accent as attitude; perhaps he’s too much of a good-hearted, sweet Californian to compete with his swashbuckling predecessors, Fairbanks and Flynn.

And the movie is a bit over its head too--entertaining as audiences seem to find it.

Every age may get the legends and movies it deserves. And the two new “Robin Hoods"--the Costner blockbuster, directed by Kevin Reynolds, and the recent Fox-TV film, with Patrick Bergin, directed by John Irvin--show how weirdly a legend can evolve, over centuries of literary history and 80 years of movies.

Neither is a simple return to Sherwood Forest, to sylvan backgrounds and dazzling swordplay. Irvin’s movie is talkier, denser, more socially intricate. Reynolds’ is a medieval crash-and-burn wall-banger, full of opulent pyrotechnics, arrow’s-eye shots and exploding castles; even its writers have described it as “Robin Hood a la ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ ”

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But are they the “Robin Hoods” we deserve? Wasn’t this story originally about robbing the rich to help the poor: a bandit, who, somewhat improbably, had a social conscience? Has Robin Hood become an anachronism in an age of billion-dollar S&L; scandals--where movies and the media worship success and the rich rob from everyone else, to help themselves?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

The Roaring ‘20s, a decade of wild finance and hedonistic high living, helped give birth to Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 “Robin Hood,” in which the leaping, laughing, dashing Fairbanks whipped castlesful of armored usurpers, with the aid of a forest full of Merry Men. It was a smash hit of bracing optimism.

In 1938, with a World War on the horizon and the country recovering from a Depression, Errol Flynn--best-remembered of all the Robins--sauntered into the castle dining hall and sarcastically insulted the bastard prince of England, the sheriff and a collection of turncoats. He was impudent, full of cold contempt and bravura. And, when they tried to seize him, he overturned the table, killed a few guards and escaped. (Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” plays July 3-11 at the Los Feliz Theater.)

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In the 1950s, TV’s Richard Greene, a soberer, cleaner-cut Robin, wandered through Sherwood Forest, righting wrongs like a social worker without license.

In 1976, in “Robin and Marian,” an older Robin--Sean Connery, his face reflecting the weary majesty of a lion too long at the wars--returned to Sherwood Forest, and found his old love, Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn), sequestered in a convent, and his old foes waiting to kill him, to extinguish the last flicker of rebellion in their stately but wicked world.

Now in the 1990s, the legend seems recast: meaner, rougher, more sordid, but more extravagant.

Both new versions jettison dreams of chivalry for bloody vendettas. And both are set in a world and a forest from which the sun seems to have been screened or even banished: a realm of gray skies, plumes of ragged mist drifting through black trees, huge dank castles lit by guttering candles.

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In Irvin’s Fox TV “Robin Hood,” the sunlessness is a motif. Tyrannized England--with the Saxons groaning under Norman persecution--is under a cloud that only disperses in the final seconds, when the good Normans and Saxons join for a nuptial feast. But, in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” it’s part of a whole style modeled on horror movies: dungeons, blood rituals, satanism. Even the Sheriff of Nottingham’s mother (Geraldine McEwan) is turned into a crazed witch who keeps coming back from the dead, like Freddy Krueger.

Both also have heroes who seem more intent on personal salvation. Like the big action movie monoliths of the ‘80s--the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggers--these Robins are not intentional social crusaders. They’re attacked or humiliated by sadistic villains, flung unwillingly outside the law.

Bergin, a proud Saxon unwilling to accept a token punishment in a Norman court, is locked in a mano-a-mano duel with brutal Sir Miles (Jurgen Prochnow). Costner, even more insulted and injured, clashes with the campy, maniacal Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman)--who has killed his father, stolen his sweetheart, worshiped the devil and now, in a truly creative burst of villainy, is trying to steal the Crown of England: an act of infamy unparalleled among all previous Sheriffs of Nottingham.

These movies aren’t really about social levelers. (Bergin’s Robin even comes up with a pragmatic explanation for helping the poor: so they won’t talk.) Instead, they’re about rebellious rich boys exiled by villainy, social prejudice or even demonic spells, who forge a common bond with the common people.

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The original Robin Hood, if there was one at all, wasn’t necessarily a fallen knight; that part wasn’t added to the legend until centuries after it first appeared. But both these movies seem obsessed with Robin’s status, the way he adjusts to the peasant camps. Irvin’s film is better at this; it has much more social shading and nuance. “Prince of Thieves,” by contrast, is cornier and broader. Compared to the best of the older swashbucklers (the earlier “Robin Hoods,” the Flynn-Curtiz “Captain Blood” and “Sea Hawk,” Lester’s “Three Musketeers,” and Burt Lancaster’s “Flame and the Arrow” and “Crimson Pirate”), both of these modern “Robin Hoods” seem out of control. They look emotionally spotty and ragged, inflated, not sure of their style or their points--and this is much truer of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” than the TV version.

That doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining. To their credit, both movies have ample visual spectacle, exactly what you’d expect, and good villains: Rickman and Michael Wincott (as Guy of Gisbourne) in the Reynolds movie, Jeroen Krabbe, Jurgen Prochnow and Edward Fox in Irvin’s.

“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” even has a great hero: not Costner, but Morgan Freeman--who, as the Moorish sidekick Azeem, has little to do, but does it beautifully.

The Irvin movie also begins brilliantly: with a forest idyll full of scampering, frightened animals and glistening wet weeds and tree-trunks, a poem that darkens into pursuit and vendetta.

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“Prince of Thieves,” by contrast, ends excitingly: an action-packed last third, capped by a hellacious castle revolt. What’s wrong with both movies, though, is their weightlessness, their contrariness, their inability to create alternative worlds. They’re not historical adventures--though Irvin’s movie tries hard--and they’re not really wish-fulfillment films. They seem to exist because, in both cases, the producer-writer-director team had seen a previous “Robin Hood"--most likely the Flynn version--and decided it was a great formula, that, if updated and “improved,” could be a blockbuster. Some of the updates are grating. None of the writers seem to have a clue about handling Maid Marian--beyond making sure that she doesn’t smile sweetly, like Olivia De Havilland. Costner’s Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) greets her great love by bopping him in the groin. Bergin’s sullen lass (Uma Thurman) actually joins the Merry Men, disguised as a surly youth. Later, swinging on bell-ropes and killing men with a battle-ax, she becomes ridiculous--an example of writers forgetting that a cliche reversed is not the truth, but only a backward cliche.

The entire swashbuckling genre, even at its most thrilling, tends to work best when it’s slightly tongue in cheek and high-style, when there’s a sense of fun to the derring-do. Perhaps that’s why Costner has gotten trashed in some reviews and Rickman and his mots du mal steal the movie: the Grinch-like yowls of “Call off the kitchen scraps for orphans and lepers! Stop the merciful beheadings! And call off Christmas!” Rickman seems to belong in “Robin Hood"--a burlesque version of it, anyway--and these wisecracks seem to belong to some other movie.

Certainly, Costner pulls a poor third to Fairbanks and Flynn in any gallery of movie Robins--a poor fourth if you count Connery. Yet, in the end, this may not matter. In the Reynolds “Robin,” there is a wish being fulfilled: the public’s sympathetic link with Costner himself, their desire to see him succeed in a big, archetypal, movie-movie role, after developing an affection for him in movies like “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams” and “Dances With Wolves.”

Are these two “Robin Hoods,"--the over-smug TV version and the anachronistic, out-of-kilter, kitsch mishmash of a movie, accurate reflections of the tastes of our age? I don’t think so--even though parts of both are fun. But it seems clear that “Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves” isn’t the movie the obviously gifted Reynolds really wants to make, and that it probably isn’t the movie Costner wanted to make either--though it may well be the movie the audience wants to see.

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And it’s also clear that, after a decade in which wealth has been viewed as Valhalla and poverty a sin, we may not be ready to enjoy Robin Hood as a swashbuckling outlaw who really bedevils the rich. Or, more probably, the movies may not be ready to give him to us, without fudging.


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