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Robin Hood Spotlight of the Month

March 2005

Princess of Thieves

starring Keira Knightley, Stuart Wilson,
Stephen Moyer and Malcolm McDowell

directed by Peter Hewitt

(Granada/Disney, 2001)

Originally aired in the USA as a TV movie
on The Wonderful World of Disney

Review and Analysis of the Film

ROBIN: You will stay here where you belong!

GWYN: Where I belong? Plucking chickens and mending socks? Then I am chattel?

ROBIN: No! You are my daughter.

GWYN: You do not know me, sir.

-- Princess of Thieves, written by Robin Lerner

The DVD cover for Princess of Thieves, copyright Buena Vista and Disney.Gwyn, Robin Hood's daughter, was left to grow up in Tuck's abbey while her father served King Richard on the Crusades. Now, the king is dying. Robin's come to England to foil the schemes of Prince John and to place Richard's illegitimate son Philip on the throne. Gwyn sees this as her big chance to take part in Robin's heroic deeds, but he forbids her to leave the abbey. Cutting her hair and dressing up as a boy, Gwyn sneaks out of the abbey followed by her best friend, the geeky novice monk (or possibly lay brother) Froderick. Gwyn finds romance with the reluctant Prince Philip. And not surprisingly, she takes up the family business of robbing from the rich - very briefly -, taking part in an archery contest, and fighting Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. But will it be enough to earn her father's approval?

Princess of Thieves is a coming-of-age story about girl power. On the DVD commentary track, director Peter Hewitt remarks "this is, after all, a full-on fairy tale". It's not the best-crafted fairy tale around, nor the most involving Robin Hood story. But as TV movies by Disney go, it's not bad. Not great - mind you. Still if you're looking for 90 minutes of entertainment to teach your children to stand up and be counted, well... I'm sure there are much worse films than this one.

The plot is formulaic. If you've seen this sort of story before, you won't find any real surprises. And the central message is driven home in too ham-fisted a fashion. At the very beginning, the Sheriff of Nottingham laughs too long and cheesily at the thought of Robin having a daughter instead of a son. No one would ever accuse this movie of being subtle.

The dialogue has a curious formality at times that seems at odds with the breezy feel of the movie. Gwyn's dialogue is particularly stilted with lines like "May God strike you down for repeating such a lie" and "I hope, sir, that your wife is barren." Perhaps these speech patterns are meant to show Gwyn's monastic upbringing, but it just doesn't feel right.

The movie's saving grace is in the cast - or more precisely, the lead actress. Even though Gwyn is the title character and star, Keira Knightley's name only comes third in the opening credits. The DVD featurette has the cast and crew proclaiming what a big star Knightley will become. And for once, the hype was actually right. Keira Knightley did go on to find mainstream success in films like Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. And in 2004, she once again used a bow as Guinevere in King Arthur.

Gwyn is essentially the Robin Hood of the movie. She robs a baron to give bread to a child. She has plucky determination to resist not only her Norman foes but also her assigned role in life. She takes part in the famous archery contest, but also shows a human fallibility, which reflects the ballads where Robin lost as many fights as he won. And by and large, Knightley plays the part with youthful spirit and energy, hampered only slightly by the formality of her speech. She can't quite pull of her cross-dressing disguise, which is reminiscent of Maid Marian in the ballad, but then almost no film Marians have convincingly impersonated a man. (Uma Thurman being the one exception.) From Shakespearean comedies down to this film, cross-dressing heroines usually require some suspension of disbelief.

Errol Flynn's sentiments are reflected when Gwyn criticizes Richard for crusading rather than helping England. But her biggest Robin Hood moment comes in the town of Harwich. "Wish for a thief? You'll get one!", Knightley defiantly tells a baron. And yet, she later explains her actions away by saying "John's the thief, not me." It's a defence that's common to many modern Robin Hood stories. She even learns to accept the sense of duty that kept Robin and King Richard in Jerusalem. For all her swashbuckling charisma, Gwyn is still an ardent supporter of the established king and social system - hardly a rebel at all.

This lack of rebellion, pro-status quo feeling affects other characters far more than it affects Gwyn. Stuart Wilson is a good actor and genuinely likeable in his part. The only problem is - despite what the character's called, despite his passing resemblance to Sean Connery in Robin and Marian - Wilson isn't playing Robin Hood. For most of the film, there's no trace of the outlaw hero in this Robin. He's stern, authoritarian, paternalistic, duty-bound, rarely cracking a smile. Sean Connery played an older, world-weary Robin Hood too, but that Robin still had flashes of the ballad hero and of Errol Flynn - some wit, rebellion and passion. Not so here. And that's because Gwyn is this film's true Robin Hood. The character named Robin Hood has been forced into the role of a disapproving dad. But wouldn't it have given the film a bit more depth is Robin wasn't quite as stern and straight-laced? For example, the comic book hero Green Arrow is as hellraising as they come, but he can still be the overly-stern father. There are only a few moments here where Wilson gets to be a bit more like the real Robin Hood. Robin is flippant under torture - "you have egg in your beard" - and he does get a swordfight. But there could have been more done with this character, and I suspect Wilson would have done a lot more if given the chance by the script and the direction.

Roger Ashton-Griffiths plays a thoroughly-respectable older Friar Tuck, which seems like a missed opportunity as a disreputable Tuck would have livened things up. As something of a junior Tuck, Del Synnott's Froderick has a "geeky, best friend with an unrequited crush" charm to him (partly because I'm far more a Froderick than a Robin Hood), but he lacks the vitality of that original rebellious cleric. Only Crispin Letts as Will Scarlett truly conveys the idea that the aging heroes were once outlaws. With a gleam in his eye and a roguish smile, Letts makes the most of a small part. Will is also the character who approves of Gwyn's activities from the start, including her theft of bread from a baron.

From the DVD packaging of Princess of Thieves, copyright Buena Vista and DisneyStephen Moyer doesn't quite inspire as Philip, the romantic male leader, but neither is he absolutely dreadful. Philip starts the film as a womanizing coward, saying such things as "I confess I have no desire to wear a crown. Public life has no charm." By learning to accept his responsibilities, Moyer's Philip goes through more character development than Costner's Robin Hood ever did. The character development comes off as obvious and bland - but at least an attempt was made.

In Prince of Thieves, it was Rickman's sheriff who stole the show. But there are no acts of villainous theft here. As the Sheriff of Nottingham, Malcolm McDowell phones in a performance that is a pale imitation of even his lesser bad guy roles, such as Soran in Star Trek: Generations. Jonathan Hyde is a little better as Prince John, but he's let down by the writing. (This isn't the first time that Hyde has plagued Robin Hood. He was Alan Wheatley/the Sheriff of Nottingham in the fantasy sequences of Fellow Traveler, an HBO movie which gave a semi-fictional account of the 1950s Adventures of Robin Hood TV series.) And the less said about Gaye Brown as the Countess Tourtelot, she of the bad French accent, the better.

Of course, as befits a television movie, everything looks a bit cheap. The swashbuckling swordfights lack much swash or buckle. The limitations of the Romanian filming locations are betrayed by the establishing shot of the "Port of Harwich", which shows a village nowhere near water. Still, the limited production values are forgivable. Compared with other made-for-TV movies, Princess of Thieves looks pretty good.

And there's the secret to enjoying this movie - lowered expectations. It's okay, but terribly obvious, safe and inoffensive. And I have to wonder, does a story based off an outlaw hero have any business being completely safe and inoffensive?

As with nearly all Robin Hood movies, Princess of Thieves plays fast and loose with history. The film begins in 1184, which is billed as "Reign of Richard the Lionheart". In reality, Richard didn't become king until 1189. The king's historical reign would not have been long enough for Gwyn to grow to near womanhood before Richard's death in 1199, and some creative dating was required on the part of the filmmakers. The film also implies that Richard's troops, including Robin, would be in Jerusalem, but actually the Third Crusade ended in failure years before when the film is set.

A more serious - and yet interesting - breach comes with Prince Philip. Reports suggest that Richard may indeed have had an illegitimate son named Philip of Cognac. The historical Philip died in obscurity having made no mark on the world stage and with even his existence disputed. But this Philip probably inspired the more prominent character of Philip the Bastard in Shakespeare's play King John. Philip certainly never became king of England, something the script cheerfully acknowledges when Prince John declares "History will ignore you."

A better known rival for the throne of England - both in reality and fiction - was Arthur of Brittany, the young son of Richard and John's brother Geoffrey. Prince Arthur appears in several episodes of the 1950s TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood. While the exact circumstances of Arthur's death are not known, it's generally believed that King John had him murdered.

Princess of Thieves is not the first, nor last, story to feature Robin Hood's daughter. Most of the traditional Robin Hood ballads, plays and the like do not mention children. But there are exceptions.

Ballad 103 in Francis Child's collection of English and Scottish ballads is titled "Rose the Red and White Lily", but the C version is titled "The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John". Two cross-dressing sisters marry Robin and Little John after Rogee Roun (Rose the Red) says "For I'm wi bairn to Robin Hood,/ And near nine month is gane." However, Child felt that Robin Hood's presence was grafted on a pre-existing ballad (the A version features Brown Robin, not Mr. Hood) and does not group it with his collection of Robin Hood ballads. In Parke Godwin's novels, Robin and Marian have two children - a son named Edward or Robin and a daughter named Moira.

Cover art by Kelly Yates. Issue 3 of Robyn of Sherwood from Caliber Comics.Sometimes these children take centre stage. In film, Cornel Wilde played Robin's son in the 1946 The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (adapted from Paul A. Castleton's novel Son of Robin Hood) and John Derek played a similar role in 1950's Rogues of Sherwood Forest. But the 1958 film actually called Son of Robin Hood doesn't feature a son at all. Rather, June Laverick played Robin's daughter Deering. (In those days, a woman wasn't considered sufficiently inspiring, and so a male character has to pretend to be Robin's son in order to lead the band.)

Since I created this website, several stories about Robin's offspring have appeared in different media. In 1998, Paul Storrie wrote Robyn of Sherwood, a four-issue comic book series starring Robin's daughter. In 1999, Aimée Castle played another "Robyn Hood" - she was Robin's time-travelling descendant from the 20th century in the Canadian TV series Back to Sherwood. In 2002, Nancy Springer's children's novel Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest kicked off her series of novels about yet another daughter of Robin Hood. In 2002, a film called Blood of Sherwood - about Robin's son Jarrow - entered the planning stages with Rupert Wainwright as director. And most recently, Martin Charnin, Thomas Meehan and Peter Sipos created the musical Robin Hood - The Legend Continues which premiered in Seattle in December 2004. An older Robin returns home from the Crusades to discover that he's got a daughter. Like Gwyn, this daughter wanted to prove herself. Fortunately, Gwyn never had to sing a song like "Flower of Your Seed".

Read my interview with Paul Storrie regarding Robyn of Sherwood, his comic book about Robin's daughter, and his feelings on Princess of Thieves.

Princess of Thieves The movie has been released on video and DVD in North America. The DVD release includes a commentary track by the director and a "making of" featurette.
Order the North American (Region 1) DVD on Amazon.com

Order the North American (NTSC) VHS on Amazon.com

King Arthur (Director's Cut) Knightley takes up archery yet again as the scantily-clad Guinevere in this 2004 version of the Arthurian story. Clive Owen is a fairly human Arthur and as ever Ray Winstone - Will Scarlet in Robin of Sherwood is a delight as Bors. It's a pity that the script and direction aren't that good. This unrated version is a bit more violent than the one that appeared in theatres.
Order the North American (Region 1) DVD on Amazon.com

Order the European (Region 2) DVD on Amazon.co.uk

Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest by Nancy Springer. The first in a series of books for children and teens starring Rowan aka Rosemary, daughter of Robin Hood and a magical woman named Celandine.
Buy it on Amazon.com
Buy it on Amazon.co.uk

The Forestwife Trilogy by Theresa Tomlinson. If you're interested in the adventures of Robin's daughter, then you might like this excellent young adult series starring a young Maid Marian (and later Little John's daughter). Available in the UK only (except online), this collects all three Forestwife books (slightly revised) into one big edition.
Buy it on Amazon.co.uk

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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2005.