Robbing the Saracen to Create the Englishman: Islam and Muslims in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Meriem Pages (Keene State College)

Towards the end of the trailer for the recent feature film on Robin Hood, one released in theaters on May 14, 2010, Cate Blanchett is seen shooting a flaming arrow.  The flaming arrow is reminiscent of that other star-studded commercial film focusing on the legendary outlaw, Kevin Reynolds’s 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  Although it is unclear what role arrows–flaming or otherwise–play in the new Robin Hood, the arrows of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves helped to connect Reynolds’s film to its contemporary background.  Indeed the film was shot almost entirely during the Gulf War and, as Kathleen Biddick has argued in her essay “English America”: “The missile-nose view of targets that became familiar to a television audience watching the trajectories of scud missiles translated into the film’s signature special effect—arrow-nose views of “medieval” archery” (74).  In addition to the use of arrows, there exist other, more overt ways in which Reynolds’s film refers and alludes to the contemporary conflict in the Middle East.  In fact one might argue that the Middle East is present throughout the film in the person of Azeem, played by Morgan Freeman.  As if this were not enough the film begins in the Middle East, in Muslim-held Jerusalem to be precise.  In this essay I would like to discuss the function of this Middle Eastern presence in the film for teachers who might consider using this version of the Robin Hood story to introduce their students to cultural studies analysis.  My analysis can help teachers identify the social and political undercurrents in the movie, in order to then lead students in their own investigations of how stories from the medieval past can be used to influence our present and, indeed, our future. My analysis will focus on how the many references to the Muslim world serve two important functions in Reynolds’s 1991 film.  On the one hand the Middle Eastern setting of the first scene is used to identify, construct, and celebrate Robin Hood’s English identity.  On the other, the decision to cast Morgan Freeman in the role of Azeem allows Reynolds to emphasize very contemporary values.  Through the Middle Eastern setting at the opening of the film and through Azeem, the film is made to evoke both the issue of twelfth-century English identity and that of modern American promotion of diversity and multiculturalism.  Of course by the end of the film the two are neatly connected, thereby providing the audience with a clear, linear narrative about the origins and development of modern American identity.

Despite the complete inability of Kevin Costner–starring in the title role–to affect a British accent, Kevin Reynolds seems to have been at pains to create a sense of Robin Hood’s English identity at the beginning of his film.  To begin with the opening credits are set against the background of scenes from the Bayeux tapestry, ones featuring mostly William the Conqueror and his knights getting ready to cross the channel and engage in battle with King Harold.  To a certain extent the decision to use the Bayeux tapestry as background for the film’s opening credits seems a suitable one: The Bayeux tapestry is one of these rare works of art that are both easily recognized and highly emblematic of the Middle Ages.  Even those who know nothing about the Middle Ages and Robin Hood might recognize the Bayeux tapestry and realize that the story is set in medieval England.  At the same time the decision to use the Bayeux tapestry could be construed as problematic, for the main event commemorated through it is after all the Norman Conquest, a historical moment never addressed in the film.  Nor do war and conquest in general play an important role in the film, which is mostly concerned with the guerrilla-like activities of a handful of rebels.  The use of the Bayeux tapestry would make more sense, perhaps, in a film adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, where Norman is pitted against Saxon in a contest for supremacy over England.  Yet such is not the issue here.  Moreover, unlike Walter Scott, Reynolds seems to focus mostly on the Norman invaders, presenting them rather than their Saxon victims as the progenitors of English identity and culture.

The sense that Reynolds wants his audience to think about the question of English identity is further reinforced as the film starts.  To introduce us to the story, we are told that “800 years ago, Richard ‘The Lionheart,’ King of England led the Third Great Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land from the Turks” [emphasis mine].[1] A second caption adds that “Most of the young English noblemen who flocked to his banner never returned home.”  Here Richard I is introduced not as a legendary king or even as the “good king” of the Robin Hood narrative, but rather as a specifically English king.  Likewise we are meant to think only of the members of the English nobility who died on the Third Crusade rather than all of those–including Frenchmen, Germans, and English commoners–who were lost in the attempt to take Jerusalem back from Saladin.  According to Biddick: “In contrast to the 1938 version of the tale, The Adventures of Robin Hood, the latter Robin Hood constructs a historical context that foregrounds things English and focuses on the young nobility rather than the constitutional crises occurring in the absence of the monarch, the concern in 1938” (72).  In addition to all of these early references to the issue of English identity, Robin Hood himself later alludes to his understanding of himself not as a Christian or a member of the European nobility, but as an Englishman.  When threatened with the loss of his hand by one of his Muslim jailers, Robin calmly shows that he needs no restraint, stating: “This is English courage.”  Robin’s companion Peter echoes this sentiment when he parts from him after receiving a mortal wound, leaving Robin to tell his sister: “Tell Marian that I died a free Englishman” [emphasis mine].

What do Azeem and the other Muslim characters present in the opening scene add to this construction of late twelfth-century English identity?  To quote Biddick again, the film: “ . . . . relies on a very old anthropological move, the introduction of the Other, to guarantee this fragile imaginary space” (75).  Narratives like this, which use the Middle East and its Muslim inhabitants to help define and establish the concept of Western — in this case, English — identity by negation, can be called Orientalist, according to scholars like Edward Said.[2]  Simply put, not only do the director and characters, like Robin and Peter, tell us what it means to be English, but we are also shown what the absence of English identity entails.  The contrast with the Muslim world is so important that the first image of the film is dedicated to laying a foundation for it.  Before the image even comes into focus, we hear the muezzin’s call to prayer and, when it does, we see a man at the top of a minaret calling on all Muslims to come and pray as the sun sets in the background.  When I show this scene in class, I ask my students, whom I have previously introduced to both nineteenth-century Orientalist art and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 The Crusades, whether they find it familiar.  They immediately make the connection to Orientalist paintings and to DeMille’s film, bemoaning the fact that Reynolds presents the Muslim world in much the same way as nineteenth-century European artists and a director active in the 1930s and 1940s.   With this conventional, cliché image, the setting of the opening scene is made clear to the audience: We are now in the Muslim world.

Although the manner in which this information is revealed has become hackneyed, no value — positive or negative — is assigned to the Muslim world in this first frame.  Yet the point is quickly and emphatically made that the Muslim world is one full of pain, darkness, and injustice.  We barely have time to register that the specific setting for this scene is Jerusalem in 1194 before we hear screams of pain.  After a second of confusion we realize that Reynolds has cut to a Muslim prison somewhere in Jerusalem and that the cries of pain emanate from a man who, already whipped and tortured, is being led to the chopping block where his hand will be cut off.  Not only are the Muslim guards vicious and cruel, but they are also profoundly unjust, as Robin makes plain when he and Peter are threatened with a similar fate, stating that “they [his captors] are not interested in the truth.”  The darkness of the jail, as well as the cruel treatment of the prisoners at the hands of their Muslim captors, lead the audience to conclude right from the beginning of the film that the Muslim world is full of misery, suffering, and wretchedness.  Here it is interesting to note that the sun sets in Jerusalem, but does not rise until Robin and Azeem are in England.  Clearly Kevin Reynolds wishes his audience to experience the Muslim world as a land of perpetual darkness, both literal and figurative.[3]

If your students grasp that the Muslim world has been portrayed as a stereotype, their first puzzle emerges when you confront them with the character of Azeem, Robin’s Muslim companion in arms, who seems to convey a very different message about Middle Eastern Muslims and the world they inhabit.  Throughout the film Azeem is depicted as a positive, intelligent, and cultured character.  Where the Muslim guards of the opening scene are unjust and cruel, Azeem is kind, generous, and honorable to a fault.  After Robin rescues him from jail and certain death in Jerusalem, Azeem insists on accompanying him to England to pay back his debt.  He makes it clear to Robin that he will not be dissuaded from his purpose and goes so far as to repel the men who, on Robin’s orders, attempt to knock him out and take him forcibly back to Jerusalem.

Not only is Azeem presented as the embodiment of honorable behavior, but he also appears to personify both common sense and scientific knowledge in the film.  After Robin’s final failed attempt to send him back home, Azeem tells him that he knew he was about to be attacked because he could smell the garlic on his attackers’ breath.  Later when the two start walking towards Robin’s ancestral castle, Azeem remains two steps behind, arguing that it is wiser for a stranger to pass himself off as a slave rather than as an equal.  In addition to common sense — a trait that stands in stark contrast to Robin’s sometimes naive idealism — Azeem possesses knowledge that Robin and other Englishmen could not even dream of acquiring.[4]  Azeem’s talents are varied and wide-ranging: He owns a portable telescope; he delivers a baby by performing a C-section; and he knows how to make gunpowder, harnessing its destructive power for the benefit of Robin and his men in the film’s climactic scene – the one which also features our flaming arrow.  Realistically speaking, most of these feats would have been simply impossible for Azeem to accomplish: “Even more of a strain on our credibility is that a twelfth-century man, even if he is a more civilized Muslim, has a knowledge of Caesarean births, optical telescopes, and gunpowder” (Aberth 190).  Anachronistic though they might be, Azeem’s prodigious skills further reinforce his image as the film’s wise man, depicting this particular Muslim character in the most positive light possible.  Looking at Azeem from this perspective, one can well understand why Jack Shaheen, the expert on the cinematic portrayal of Arabs and Muslims, should conclude in his Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People that the film represents one of the most tolerant depictions of Muslims on the silver screen.

Despite Shaheen’s endorsement of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I would argue that the positive portrayal of Azeem does not, in fact, contradict the negative image of Muslims revealed in the opening sequence of the film.  Indeed it is important to remember that Azeem is not accepted in the Muslim world.  When we first encounter him, he begs Robin to free him because his “is a sentence of death.”  Upon hearing these words Robin decides to release him.  Presumably even he and Peter are not threatened with death at the hands of their captors.  Later on Azeem himself emphasizes this point when Robin, upon finding his home destroyed and his father murdered, once again enjoins him to leave England and go home.  Azeem responds by stating: “ . . . . there is nothing for me to go home to.”  Azeem may be a highly admirable character, but the Muslim world, to which he belongs by birth and education, refuses to recognize his intrinsic value and has, therefore, rejected him.  As such he seems less a character capable of redeeming the Muslim world than simply the exception that proves the rule, much like Shakespeare’s character, Othello.

One might also argue that Azeem does not so much represent a “noble Moor,” as he does a very different and more modern Other.  Here I would like to emphasize that the decision to cast Morgan Freeman, one of the most revered African-American actors of the 1990s, constitutes one of Kevin Reynolds’s few innovations and one of the rare moments where Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves parts from traditions established by other films and television programs concerned with the Robin Hood narrative.  The inclusion of a Middle Eastern figure is no novelty in and of itself, for such a character already appears in the 1984 British TV series Robin of Sherwood, at the beginning of which Robin rescues the Arab Nazir (Aberth 187).  In fact John Aberth goes so far as to declare Reynolds’s Azeem a clear example of cinematic plagiarism (188).

However in discussing the resemblance of Azeem to Nazir, Aberth overlooks one of the most important aspects of the character in Reynolds’s film.  In Robin of Sherwood, Nazir is a fair-skinned Arab.  Because the character is played by Morgan Freeman in Reynolds’s version of the story, for a general audience Azeem visually references not Arabs or Arab Americans, but rather African Americans.  As such Azeem’s acceptance by Robin and his band of merry men becomes an allegory for modern American society, one that values diversity and allows for a lone black man to be tolerated — and eventually respected — by an overwhelming white majority.  Using a slightly different lens, Dan Georgakas argues that the film’s producers may have been motivated by more mercenary commercial considerations when choosing to cast Morgan Freeman in the role: “Thus, the conditions are set for a possible medieval version of the white guy/black guy buddy films such as the Lethal Weapon series, so successful in the 1980s” (76).  Perhaps because they expect this type of dynamic, students generally do not question Reynolds’s choice.  To them it has a certain logic, and they have difficulty even considering the possibility of an Arab-American actor in the part.

That Morgan Freeman’s character is meant to remind the film’s audience of the plight of African Americans in modern American history and society–as opposed to that of Arabs, medieval or otherwise–is illustrated at the beginning of the film.  At the end of the opening sequence, the focus shifts to Robin’s father, still in England.  When we meet him Locksley is about to fall into the trap of the Sheriff of Nottingham, whom we encounter for the first time in this, the film’s second scene.  What is interesting here is that when Locksley finally exits his castle and discovers the presence and purpose of the Sheriff and his acolytes, the latter appear dressed in white robes and hoods.  Assembled in a semi-circle around the castle gate, Locksley’s future murderers even hold torches.  The visual message will be familiar to students: The Sheriff and his men are portrayed as members of the Ku Klux Klan, and it makes perfect sense that they should oppose the cause espoused by Robin and Azeem (Schubert 581).  Thus the casting of Morgan Freeman in the role of Azeem transforms the character into a representative of contemporary American values such as diversity and multiculturalism while also reminding us of the history of race relations in the United States.  This anachronistic Ku Klux Klan reference can help students see how the film uses the Moor Azeem as a kind of bridge that connects an imagined birth of modern Anglo-American identity in the medieval past – the specifically English nature of heroism in the opening sequence — with the more multi-cultural and racially tense present.

Although few critics perceived the character and his function in the film in this light, students can find their critical analysis amusingly confirmed by satirist Mel Brooks, who seems to have understood exactly what Azeem was all about.  In his spoof of Reynolds’s film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), we are initially presented with a group of young African-American men performing a rap song that introduces the audience to the story of Robin Hood.  Later on Robin receives the assistance of Ahchoo, played by Dave Chappelle.  The inclusion of Chappelle’s character and the rap at the beginning of the film forces Brooks’s audience to confront the fact that Reynolds’s earlier film focuses, however desultorily, on the issue of race and that it does so specifically through the figure of Azeem.[5]

Once students have recognized how the film uses race, they can more easily discover multiculturalism and diversity are not the only issues to be touched upon and diluted in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  Class consciousness and feminism also receive their dose of paternalistic approbation – a superficially positive treatment that masks a more troubling set of assumptions.  The issue of class could hardly be absent in a retelling of the story of Robin Hood.  In an attempt to emphasize that most modern and American of messages, that any man is capable of anything, no matter what his rank, status, or title, Reynolds shows Robin transforming his band of “merry men” from a group of disillusioned and disorganized outlaws into hopeful and competent warriors.  Yet Robin Hood’s men seem utterly incapable of becoming independent and able to survive without their leader.  As Georgakas argues: “The Nottingham commoners are an equally uninspiring lot.  They are presented as ignorant farmers, unaware of their economic rights under feudalism and totally unskilled in weapons.  Robin has to cajole them to rebel and he and Azeem must work very hard to make them even minimally competent as fighters” (76).  In her own analysis of Reynolds’s treatment of class, Lisa Schubert goes even further, claiming that: “Throughout the movie Robin demonstrates that he neither respects their ideas nor their leadership any more than the Sheriff does” (588).  Robin certainly imposes himself as the band’s leader without paying any heed to his men’s objections, and he seldom, if ever, treats them as anything more than hired mercenaries.

Moreover one of the few commoners with slightly more promising potential and a bigger speaking part, Will Scarlett, announces at the end of the film that he is in fact Robin’s half-brother, the bastard son of Locksley.  In discussing this particular plot twist, John Aberth points out that this “ . . . . reduces the powerful social message of the Robin Hood story to simply one of ‘family values’” (191).  Reynolds’s message about class seems half-hearted at best: The elite should condescend to speechify to the masses about equality and other lofty ideals while remaining in control.  And just like any soap opera worth its salt, any truly good commoner will turn out to be a long-lost prince or princess in the end.

Similarly, Reynolds introduces the concept of feminism in his film the better to undermine it.  Here we must first discuss Lady Marian, whom Aberth argues is presented as: “ . . . . the soul of late-twentieth-century feminism transported back to the Middle Ages” (190).  I disagree with Aberth on this point.  It is true that when we first encounter Lady Marian, she is dressed as a knight and promptly attacks Robin.  However Robin is equally prompt to defeat her, and this despite the fact that he bears no weapons and that she has taken him by surprise.  When he realizes the gender of his assailant, Robin quickly draws back and Marian viciously kicks him between the legs.[6]  If Marian is the soul of feminism, what does that say about the feminist movement?  According to Reynolds, feminists are weak, but ruthless creatures ready to employ any “below the belt” means to achieve their ends.  As the story unfolds Marian loses the very modest amount of spunk she displayed in her first meeting with Robin, and is gradually reduced to a conventional damsel in distress who needs her lover to rescue her: “While more verbally and sexually liberated (on the surface at least) than previous Marians, the 1991 Marian proves helpless before the sheriff’s intrigues” (Georgakas 77).  The soul of feminism apparently still needs the help of a big, brave man.

Nor is Lady Marian the film’s only female character to exemplify this half-hearted feminism.  Fanny, the wife of Little John, also enjoys a “feminist” moment in the film.  While John, Robin, and Will Scarlett plan on how to rescue their friends from the clutches of the Sheriff at the end of the film, Fanny picks up a sword and announces that she wants to help.  Although John quickly tells her that she belongs at home with their children, Robin proves himself to possess feminist tendencies, for he chooses to include her in their discussion, paying no heed to John’s words.  With the support of Robin, Fanny does join the men in their attempt to save their captured comrades, but her role is limited to procuring swords for the men rather than wielding one herself.  Moreover when the fighting actually begins, Fanny, along with Marian, is relegated to the traditional female role of watching and lamenting.  She may not need to be rescued like Marian, but she is also not deemed competent enough to fight alongside the men.  Once again Kevin Reynolds highlights feminist ideals only to paradoxically reinforce established gender conventions.[7]

Thus contemporary values about class, feminism, and multiculturalism are included in Kevin Reynolds’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves only to further reinforce the need for white upper-class men to stay in charge.  Here the figure of Azeem is key, for his is the character that provides a connection between the medieval setting of the film and the issues discussed therein.  Through Azeem the audience can link the concept of a medieval English identity — one first alluded to through the use of the Bayeux tapestry –to a contemporary understanding of what it means to be American.  Evidence for this lies in the fact that it is Azeem who is the last to refer to the question of English identity when he appeals to the peasants fleeing the Sheriff’s castle at the end of the film (Schubert 589).  Azeem makes it also easier for us to accept the film’s superficial messages about women’s role in society and class.  Because Morgan Freeman plays the role of Azeem, we cannot help but think of the issue of race while we watch the movie, and it is but a short leap from there to Lady Marian “knee[ing] Robin in the balls,” as Aberth puts it (190).  I would, therefore, argue that Azeem’s character lies at the center and that he alone can give meaning — however unsatisfactory that meaning might be — to Reynolds’s film.

That the figure of Azeem is so crucial to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves makes the film an excellent pedagogical tool.  A discussion of the film enables students to question not only the manner in which the Muslim world is portrayed in mainstream cinema, but also their own dependence on commercial films to define terms such as class, gender, and race, and even their own modernity.  Viewing scenes from Reynolds’s film after having read medieval narratives focusing on Christian dealings with Muslims sheds new light on the development of the image of Islam in Europe and North America.  Such a progression allows students to recognize that medieval authors often used the Saracen world as a tool for self-improvement.  For example the thirteenth-century chantefable Aucassin et Nicolete and the fourteenth-century travelogue The Travels of Sir John Mandeville both seem to emphasize that Europeans stand to learn from interaction with the Saracen world.  To a certain extent this is also the case with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  Here, however, the world of Islam possesses little, if any, value in and of itself.  Rather the Muslim world presented to us in the film is meant to leave us with a sense of self righteous pride ironically seldom found in medieval texts.


1 For more on the concept of Orientalism, please see Edward Said’s seminal study of the same name. 

2 All quotations from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are based on my own transcription of the film. 

3 That the Muslim world serves as a negative foil to England, as represented in this scene by Robin and Peter, is also emphasized when one of the guards tells the hapless prisoner about to lose his hand to “show them the courage of Allah.”  When faced with a similar punishment, Robin responds to this statement by claiming: “This is English courage.” 

4 In his 1998 article Dan Georgakas argues that: “ Perhaps fearing comparison with Flynn, Robin was written as a clumsy everyman, more often confused than in command” (75). 

5 As Lisa Schubert contends, Azeem may be a Muslim, but his race makes him different from other Muslims: “Like the ‘enemy’, Azim is a Muslim, which he himself foregrounds by calling Robin a Christian, but unlike the other Muslims in the opening scene he is black.  He’s ‘different’, the movie seems to be saying, but there is difference within difference” (576). 

6 Robin’s chivalry and respect for women here stands in marked contrast to the Sheriff’s own attitude towards women, whom he sees as tools to satisfy his pleasure and ambition (Schubert 582). 

7 In the latest Robin Hood (2010), starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, Blanchett’s Marian not only confronts her assailant when threatened with rape, but she also joins the fray in the final battle between French and English.  In the end, however, she still needs to be rescued by Crowe’s Robin. 

Works Cited

Aberth, John.  “Splendid in Spandex: Robin Hood Films.”  A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film.  New York: Routledge P, 2003.  149-95.  Print.

Biddick, Kathleen.  “English America: Worth Dying For?”  The Shock of Medievalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.  58-82.  Print.

Brooks, Mel, dir.  Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  DVD.  Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006.

DeMille, Cecil B., dir.  The Crusades. VHS.  Universal City, CA: MCA Universal Home Video, 1995.

Georgakas, Dan.  “Robin Hood: From Roosevelt to Reagan.”  Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes.  Ed. Andrew Horton, Stuart Y. McDougal, and Leo Braudy. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.  70-79. Print.

Kirby, Alex, dir.  Robin of Sherwood.  DVD.  Acorn Media, 2007.

Reynolds, Kevin, dir. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, special ed. DVD.  Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2003.

Said, Edward.  Orientalism.  Rev. ed.  New York: Vintage P, 1994.  Print.

Schubert, Lisa.  “Managing a Multicultural Work Force in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”  The Centennial Review 37.3 (1993): 571-92.  Print.

Shaheen, Jack.  Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.  Northampton, MA: Interlink P, 2001.  Print.

 

MERIEM PAGES is Associate Professor at Keene State College, where she teaches medieval English literature.  She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an MA in History from Stanford University.  Her primary research interest is the medieval image(s) of Islam and Muslims.

 


Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume VIII, Issue 2, Fall 2010 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/Fall2010Robin Hood.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies