Robin Hood Men in Tights: The Swashbuckling Spoof

Introduction

This paper will analyze the Mel Brooks film Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) from a genre theory perspective.  In order to understand this analysis there are a few things that the reader must know. The following section will describe two genres, and a form of one. Once the reader gets an idea of genre theory and the genres being used to analyze the film, the analysis will commence.

Genre Theory

 According to Stam (2000) genre criticism began as the ‘classification of the diverse kinds of literary texts and the evolution of literary form” (p. 13). Every genre is diverse with specific: events that are portrayed, narrative structure, and effects (Stam 2000, p. 13). Or as Aristotle put it: “the medium of representation, the objects represented and the mode of representation” (Stam 2000, p. 13). Film also divides works into types, categories, classifications or groups. Each film genre has iconographic or visual elements. These visual conventions provide a framework or setting within which stories can be told (Stam 2000, p. 126). Directors sometimes use iconography so that the audience can more easily associate the film with a particular genre (Stam 2000, p. 126).

The Swashbuckler

One of the first kinds of action movies in Hollywood were the swashbucklers’. These films are highly energetic, with good-looking action-heroes, in a historical 18th or 19th centuries setting. These films have lavish sets and costumes and feature weapons from the past.  The films are built upon action and their scenes often depict sea battles or castle duels. In swashbuckler’s there is always sword or cutlass fighting, whither it be among pirates, masked men, or chivalrous men. Aside from the all important sword fights, it is an action movie after all, the second most important part of the swashbuckler is the romancing of damsels in distress.

The Comedy

The comedy is designed to draw out laughter from the audience by amusing, entertaining, and provoking enjoyment. In order to do so the films often exaggerates situations, actions, and characters. Comedies scrutinize the shortcomings and frustrations of life, providing momentary escape from day-to-day life. Comedies generally have a happy ending. There are many forms of comedies: Slapstick, Deadpan, Verbal comedy, Screwball, Black or Dark Comedy, and Parody or Spoof; are just a few.

The Spoof (And Mel Brooks)

The spoof is a form of comedy that is also known as the parody, satire, farce, put-ons, send-ups, charades, lampoons, take-offs, or jests. Spoofs humorously ridicule, impersonate, scoff at, and/or mimic the styles, conventions, formulas, characters, or motifs of a serious work, film, performer, or genre. Mel Brooks, as a director, is known for his spoofs, the first being The Producers (1968) and the second to last being Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Brooks directed 12 films, all of which spoof a genre.

The Analysis

Shout-out to Robin Hood films

According to Canby (1993) “Robin Hood: Men in Tights is Mel Brooks’s breezy send-up of every Robin Hood movie ever made”.  Upon watching Robin Hood: Men in Tights it is easy to see how it references other Robin Hood films that came before it. One of the most obvious times that the film makes fun of another film is when Robin Hood (Carey Elwes) says the line: “Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.” In this case the film is pointing a finger at Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Robin Hood in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In many spoofs characters imitate or make fun of the original character, and though Costner is not the original Robin Hood, it is still funny that he is called out for his portrayal of the classic English folk hero.

Another obvious way that Robin Hood: Men in Tights makes fun of other Robin Hood films is the flaming arrows that open the movie. The arrows are shot by a row of archers and explode onto the screen giving the opening credits. As the credits conclude a few stray arrows it the straw roofs of the cottages and villagers start running about in panic. As the fire department shows up, with a wooden barrel-shaped cart that says fire department on it. As the fire brigade sets to work some of the villagers start to comment on how “there must be another way of doing the credits” and that “every time they make a Robin Hood movie, they burn our village down”. Here the film is directly calling out and critiquing other Robin Hood films, by showing and to an extent exaggerating what happens. It is exaggerated in that the screams are cheesy and there would not have been a wooden barreled cart with the word fire department on the side in medieval times, the time period in which the film is supposedly set. The characters also directly address the camera with “leave us alone Mel Brooks!” telling the audience that the characters are aware of the film industries presence.

There are other ways in which Robin Hood: Men in Tights quietly and subtly makes fun of other Robin Hood films. Through-out the film, the mole on the face of Prince John (Richard Lewis) changes position; this is making fun of the large mole on The Sheriff of Nottingham’s (Alan Rickman) face in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Also, Maid Marians (Amy Yasbeck) hair in Robin Hood: Men in Tights is exactly the same as it is in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, just a little fuller, to poke fun at the very curly hair style given to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Patrick Stewart, who plays King Richard talks in a thick Scottish accent, mimicking Sean Connery’s performance of the King in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights tends to steal scenes from other Robin Hood films, in order to make fun of them. The banquet scene parodies Errol Flynn’s film, The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Robin Hood enters with a pig over his shoulders (instead of a deer), and drops it on the table in front of Prince John.  The discussion between John and Robin Hood is far longer in The Adventures of Robin Hood, than it is in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but the result is the same, Robin Hood promises to revolt unless the taxes are levied, using similar lines. Both end with Robin Hood fighting the guards; the films are after all swashbuckler’s. The archery contest scene parodies Disney’s animated Robin Hood, with Robin Hood dressing as an old man for each. The scene in which Robin Hood finally returns to England and kisses its sandy shores first appears in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but is far more comical in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. In both Robin Hood is seen kissing the sand, but in Robin Hood: Men in Tights Robin Hood makes kissing sounds while kissing the ground and then comically spits the sand out of his mouth, tongue hanging out of his mouth.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights mocks other Robin Hood movies in both an overt and covert fashion. Sometimes this is done by stealing scenes or character appearances. And other times it is done by poking its finger at other Robin Hood movies by stating things that they lack or stating what is done too often. But Robin Hood: Men in Tights does not just make fun of Robin Hood films, it also likes to poke fun at other films as well.

Shout-out to other films

Not only does Robin Hood: Men in Tights reference other Robin Hood films, it references other movies that Brooks directed. The line “It’s good to be the king!” when King Richard is passionately (but comically) kissing Marian, is a direct reference to a line same line that Brooks spoke as King Louis XVI in the film History of the World: Part I (IMDB). At the end of the movie Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle) is appointed the new sheriff and someone in the crowed says “A black sheriff?!” to which Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle) retort’s “Hey, why not? It worked in Blazing Saddles.” These two references to his own films is a way in which he can impersonate his own work, and impersonation is a key element to the spoof.

The music for the Men in Tights song comes from History of the World: Part I and is either based on the Jews in Space song (IMDB) or Lumberjack song (Berardinelli 1993). This scene is fun because it is set up like a musical with two characters are talking and then the whole camp breaks into song, with choreographed movement. In this case Brooks is making fun of film musicals, by having the merry men break into song and dance all because of checking the seams on a pair of tights.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights also references and makes fun of other films. Towards the beginning of the film Robin Hood (Carey Elwes), Ahchoo (Dave Chappelle), and Blinkin (Mark Blankfield) come across as kid who is running and screaming through the woods. The characters interact and eventually the boy’s troubles are solved and the boy says “Well, it’s getting late and I’ve got to go home alone now. Ahhhhhh!” and he runs off screaming. The whole interaction with the boy is hilarious, not only because it wittingly references a film but also because the boy’s actions and screaming are so exaggerated.

One of the other films that is referenced in Robin Hood: Men in Tights is The Godfather. During the discussion between Don Giovanni (Dom DeLuise) and The Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) about how to get rid of Robin Hood (Carey Elwes) Giovanni pulls cotton wads out of his mouth, this is a jab at Marlon Brando’s performance as Don Vito Corleone in the classic Mafia film, The Godfather when Brando stuffed cotton wool in his mouth to make his appearance resemble that of a bulldog (IMDB).

Not only does Robin Hood: Men in Tights make reference to other Brooks’ films, it makes references to other films as well. During these references the other films, characters or genres are often exaggerated, mimicked, mocked or made fun of. But the film and the director does not stop there, society and events also get jabbed at.

Shout-out to society

Robin Hood: Men in Tights also like to mock historical figures. In his attempt to motivate the villagers, Robin Hood gives a speech in which he makes clear reference to two speeches given by Winston Churchill during WWII, specifically the “We shall fight them on the beaches” which was given after the British withdrew from Dunkirk and “Never was so much owed by so many to so few” which was given after the Battle of Britain (Robin Hood: Men in Tights Trivia on IMDB). During this speech Robin Hood has a pompous way of standing and presenting, thus mocking Churchill’s voice and social standing. Ahchoo putting on glasses before talking to the villages, in the same scene, characterizes him as Malcolm X and parodying his speech to students urging them to look at themselves.  “Look at yourselves. Go on, take a look around.” The first line is directly from Malcolm X’s speech.

The Robin Hood: Men in Tights article on TVTropes.com mentions the Celebrity Paradox giving the example of the cast pulling out the script to see what happens next, which makes most people laugh, or at least raise an eyebrow. Most films do not mention that they are film; this is not true with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The pulling out of the scripts is not the only time that this film acknowledges that it is a film. The camera is seen when it breaks the window in the tower when Marian is bathing. And a crewman has his donut skewered during Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Rottingham’s duel. Wither the attempt is to make fun of films in general or to make fun of actors is unclear, either way it is amusing.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights also shows the audience some of the strange objects that exist in modern society. When the newly recruited Merry Men are getting outfitted with clothing and weapons, their tights are seen being taken out of giant white plastic eggs. According to the Trivia section of Robin Hood: Men in Tights on IMDB this is in reference to when L’eggs pantyhose used to be sold in plastic eggs packages.  The eggs in the film are probably about ten times the size of the eggs that held L’eggs pantyhose, making this reference to society over exaggerated. At the beginning of the film Ahchoo is seen wearing Nike air pumps, part way through his fight with the guards he takes a time out because he is “running out of air” and it is “time to get pumped.”

These social references to historical figures, celebrities, films and products are comic and create laughter. It goes to show that even a genre spoof can through in non genre related humor and hold together.

Just plain funny

In all this talk about how Robin Hood: Men in Tights makes fun of and parodies other Robin Hood films, other films and society, it should be clear that Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a comedy. But just in case there are a couple of more things that can be mentioned to remind the audience of how this film draws out laughter. One gimmick that is used in the film to draw out laughter from the audience is how the Sheriff of Rottingham, transposes two words or swaps syllables when he is annoyed. Instead of “Hand over the boy” it is “Over that boy hand” or instead of Loxley has struck again it is “Struckey has loxed again”.  Another amazing example of how The Sherriff of Rottingham muddles up the sentence “it is illegal to kill a pig in the king’s forest.” while watching Robin and Marian kiss at the banquet and says every word out of order“KING ILLEGAL FOREST TO PIG WILD KILL IN IT A IS!!!” The tongue-tied Sheriff of Rottingham is sure to make the audience chuckle.

The film is full of incredibly lame puns, which adds to the amusement. While at the archery tournament Robin Hood is taken prisoner and Little John, Will Scarlet, Ahchoo, and Blinkin send for the villages. In Robin Hood: Men in Tights the quickest way to send a message is through the “12th Century Fox,” which uses a “fox” to send people messages. This whole bit with the fox is a play on words about the fax machine and on the film studio that produced the film. As lam as some critics think “foxing” might be, it is funny. There are other puns that are just as lame, but just as funny. One is when Blinkin mishears Ahchoo, who says “Eh, Blinkin?”, to which in shock Blinkin saysDid you say Abe Lincoln?”  Another pun is “Let’s get out of this ladies clothing and get into our tights!” Puns are big in comedy and Robin Hood: Men in Tights is full of them.

The opening and closing of the film are done in the form of a Greek chorus, with all black men, in the same costume performing a rap, to give the background and the summary (Berardinelli 1993).  The chorus’s costume (based off period garb) help set up the setting for the story, and the rap (being modern) helps the audience know that the story will not proceed in the typical fashion.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a comedy. The tongue-tied sheriff who insights laughter when he tries to speak. The lame puns, which make the audience chortle. As well as the rapping chorus, that is out-of-place, but not speaks to this.

Goofing on the swashbuckler

As Robin Hood: Men in Tights is partially a swashbuckler and partially a spoof there are numerous ways in which the swashbuckler is spoofed upon.

An important part of the swashbuckler is the wooing of a damsel in distress. In Men in Tights the damsel is Maid Marian, who lives in the castle with Prince John and presumably the Sheriff of Rottingham, whom is completely in love with her, but she cannot stand him. Marian and Robin Hood first meet at the banquet, and it is love at first sight for both. The comical wooing ensues, with the blowing of a kiss that she pucker’s her lips up for only to have the kiss caught be her personal attendant. And there is the romantic love song that he sings to her at the Merry Men’s camp, blowing her hair back, by the power of his voice. When Robin Hood is caught at the archery tournament Marian promises herself to the sheriff and of course Robin Hood tells her his life is not worth it, the words and actions are slow and drawn to mock the typical romantic yet tragic scene. When she is carried off by the Sheriff of Rottingham to the tower, Robin Hood of course comes to her rescue and duels the sheriff for Marian. The duel is funny and will be discussed in a moment. Once Robin Hood has won he rushes to Marian and the two kiss, their lines are cheesy, and Marian easily gets worked up by the kiss. In Men and Tights the love between Robin Hood and Marian is overdone and which makes it funny.

Without a glove slap there can be no duel. This holds true in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. During the banquet The Sheriff of Rottingham becomes so frustrated with Robin Hood that he slaps him with a leather glove and challenges him to a duel. Naturally Robin Hood accepts the challenge, but in doing so he hits the Sheriff of Rottingham with a gauntlet from a suit of armor, which makes the Sheriff of Rottinghman falls to the floor. In a normal swashbuckler Robin Hood would have hit the Sherriff or Rottingham back with a glove, but because Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a spoof, the larger and heavier glove was needed to help show how ridiculous the situation was.

After Robin Hood hits the Sheriff of Rottingham with the gauntlet the guards are called in to help arrest him. However Robin Hood will not be taken easily and a fight breaks out. A fight breaking out in a castle that involves the hero and guards is rather common in the swashbuckler. But again, the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights is not the typical swashbuckler, for it is also a spoof. Robin Hood fights the guards with comic flair, at one point in time bringing a chandelier down on his own head, to which the guards chasing him stop and laugh. In this fight scene we also see Blinkin in fast motion fighting a wooden pole that he has whittled down to about half its size, and at the end of it his being out of breath sounds like a chipmunk. Towards the end of the fight scene Robin is seen on the stairs guards approaching him on both sides, he reaches for a rope, pulls on it says “ah-ha, right rope” – poking fun at himself for his misjudgment earlier in the scene – and joins his friends at the door. In his landing Robin Hood hits one of the knights who falls into another and they all go crashing down, with lots of noise. Prince John covers his ears and says “we went from royalty to recycling.” The whole banquet and fight scene is a wonderful example of how Robin Hood: Men in Tights spoofs on the swashbuckling genre. The film takes the big fight scene and makes it funny by adding witty lines and having characters make mistakes that make even the characters pause.

As with most swashbuckler’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights ends with a duel between the hero and one of the “villains”. Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Rottingham duel in the tower for the hand of Maid Marian. At one point in time Robin Hood mocks dueling by stating the fencing positions that the Sheriff of Rottinhman is using. During the duel the Sheriff of Rottingham also backs up into the fire-place, singing his bottom which causes him to yell and jump, but makes the audience laugh. Towards the end of the duel Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Rottingham take their fight around a corner, all that is scene of them is their shadows. Once the characters realize where they are both of them form shadow puppets and continue to duel. The fact that the duel takes place is very indicative of a swashbuckler, but the fact that the two men stop and make shadow puppets shows that the duel, and the movie itself at not that serious.

Though the setting of Robin Hood: Men in Tights is that of castles, knights and lavish parties and though it has the duels and damsel to woo, the film only makes fun of the swashbuckler, by poking fun at how the damsel is wooed and the duels that take place. That is because Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a spoof that makes fun of the swashbuckling genre.

Conclusion

            This paper has show how the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) directed by Mel Brooks is a comedic spoof on the swashbuckler. There is of course the possibility that the film was not categorized correctly and thus all examples are skewed. However as is shown there are at least some other critics that agree.

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