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Men in Tights: Mixing Legends With Modern Sensibilities
By Hannah P.
I first saw the film Robin Hood: Men in Tights on television when I was about nine or ten years old. I don’t remember what I thought about the film then, but I carried the memory of several scenes until I saw the film again a few years ago. The two scenes that I remembered most were a stick fight between Robin Hood and Little John on a bridge, and a scene where a very long row of armored soldiers gets knocked down like a row of dominoes. I was too young to appreciate most of the humor in the film when I first saw it, but age and experience with similar films helped me come to love Mel Brooks’ parody of the Robin Hood legend.
Men in Tights is above all other things, a parody. It spoofs classic Robin Hood films of years past, incorporating elements from them such as fast paced fencing, clever ruses to escape impossible situations, damsels in distress and love at first sight. It plays upon the dashing and heroic image that these films have produced of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. However, being a parody, it takes many liberties with the original tales. Robin Hood can be a bit of a buffoon, and sometime a little too clever for his own good. His enemies Prince John and the Sheriff of Rottingham are conniving and scheming men (appropriate for a pair of bad guys), but they have an amusing side to them as well. Prince John has a mole on his face and as a running gag it constantly changes positions (a reference to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)). The Sheriff is fittingly evil, constantly planning the downfall of Robin Hood. But even he has a comical aspect to his character, a speech impediment that causes him to talk incoherently from time to time. Even the Merry Men can’t avoid the twists that a parody puts on original sources. Robin Hood’s best-known allies, Friar Tuck, Little John, and Will Scarlet, are altered in this parody. Mel Brooks gives a Jewish impression of Friar Tuck as Rabbi Tuckman, a holy man who likes to share his sacramental wine and dispense circumcisions like free candy. Little John has an emotional and childish side, not fitting for a man of his size and stature. Will Scarlet still is quick with his weapons, but comes from Georgia and his name is changed to Will Scarlett O’Hara (a reference to Gone With the Wind). On that note, many references are made to other Mel Brooks films such as Young Frankenstein, The History of the World and Blazing Saddles, and to other movies in popular culture such as King Kong, Lassie, The Princess Bride, Home Alone, and The Godfather.
Another one of the humorous elements of this film is the use of anachronisms. Anachronisms, while irritating in serious period drama, are often hilarious in comedies that exaggerate them, especially in parodies like Men In Tights . For instance, serious costume drama watchers who know their history can become annoyed when filmmakers use items that hadn’t been invented or put into use during the timeline of the film. But when a film intentionally includes modern inventions, phrases or references to famous people, the result can be highly entertaining. Fire brigades, rapping Merry Men, an “England” sign that looks exactly like the famous “Hollywood” sign in California, jockeys riding camels in the Holy Land and Lifesavers candy used as magic healing pills are a few examples of the modern world inserted into the medieval setting of the Robin Hood tale. In one scene Robin Hood, in an attempt to stir the courage and heroism of the villagers, does an impression of Winston Churchill’s famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. When he fails to rouse the sullen townsfolk, Robin’s right hand man Achoo steps in with his rendition of Denzel Washington’s “You’ve been had” speech from Malcolm X (1992). And in perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the film, the Merry Men get together to sing a song called “Men In Tights,” where they dance in a chorus line.
Lastly, my favorite comical aspect of this film is Mel Brooks’ breaking of the fourth wall. Sometimes the actors (and even props!) interact with the camera and audience. Brooks’ isn’t shy about showing the camera; in fact several scenes show crewmembers and equipment. In one scene when Maid Marian is bathing (and absentmindedly singing a love song) the camera fails to stop in a previous tracking shot and breaks through the bathroom window. In another scene an abbot’s staff hits the camera as he passes by, and during a swordfight Robin Hood and the Sheriff accidentally stab a crewmember’s coffee cup. My favorite part is a scene during an archery contest where Cary Elwes (Robin Hood) comes out of character to protest his character’s unfair treatment. He promptly pulls out a script to discover what happens and Prince John and the Sheriff verify with their own scripts.
Men in Tights is a smart and clever parody of a classic story. At times you feel as if you are watching an old-fashioned swashbuckler and other times you feel as if you are watching a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s a cult classic that has only gotten better with age. I have heard people quote from it, reference a scene, or use an aspect of the film to illustrate something many times. The humor is sometimes crude and certain references are lost on younger viewers, but Robin Hood: Men in Tights is a comedy that can stand the test of time.
(Formerly published in The Costume Chronicles - www.costumechronicles.com - )