1991 blockbuster Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves enjoys notoriety for a few key reasons: Alan Rickman‘s outrageously over-the-top Sheriff of Nottingham; Bryan Adams’ once painfully ubiquitous theme song (Everything I Do) I Do It for You; and, of course, Kevin Costner‘s English accent. Or rather, his decision not to adopt one.
Despite being a beloved figure of English folklore, in Prince of Thieves Robin Hood has the accent of California-born Costner, something that the actor and the filmmakers clashed over during production. The decision to have Robin Hood sound American was made not by Costner, who wanted to use an English accent, but by director Kevin Reynolds, who thought Costner speaking like a Brit would only distract the audience.
“Costner was determined to sound English”
When Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves went into production in September 1990, Kevin Costner was on top of the world. The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams had made him one of the most bankable dramatic leading men of the era, and his stock in Hollywood would only rise further with the release of Dances with Wolves, his 1990 directorial debut which became a multi-Oscar-winning blockbuster.
Still, while Costner’s box office appeal was never in doubt, his easy-going, all-American persona made him a slightly odd choice to play medieval English folk hero Robin Hood. The actor himself recognised this, and initially set out to come across as English in his performance – but his efforts did not convince the film’s director, Kevin Reynolds.
Costner and Reynolds are known to have had a somewhat rocky relationship over the years. Having first worked together on 1985’s Fandango, they fell out badly during production on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. One key aspect of Costner’s performance that the two butted heads over was the voice.
A 1991 report from Entertainment Weekly claimed that the actor and the director “were at odds over how much of an accent the quintessentially American actor should attempt. Costner was determined to sound English. Reynolds, fearful that would prove distracting to audiences, urged him to drop it. The issue was never resolved: Costner’s English accent surfaces in some scenes and vanishes in others.”
“It was inappropriate to have him sound like Prince Charles”
By contrast, Costner’s American co-stars Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Marian) and Mike McShane (Friar Tuck) maintained near-flawless English accents throughout production. Will Scarlett actor Christian Slater meanwhile sounds relatively English at first, but seems to give up as the film progresses (the actor perhaps wondering why he should bother when Costner isn’t).
Prince of Thieves co-producer John Watson (himself British) defended Costner’s accent, suggesting it could be considered “mid-Atlantic… He had a tempered accent, a softened-up Americanization. It was inappropriate to have him sound like Prince Charles. We didn’t want to go all the way to British royalty. But we didn’t want him to sound Californian.”
Many would argue the producers did not get their wish.
Accent arguments were far from the only issue on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The cast and crew struggled with a demanding schedule in the unforgiving weather conditions of autumnal England, and Costner’s urge to exercise greater creative control saw him frequently at loggerheads with Reynolds, who ultimately quit the film during post-production.
“The audience loves him. It didn’t bother them at all”
After all the behind the scenes drama, once Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves hit screens in June 1991, it went down a storm with audiences worldwide, ultimately making a then-staggering $390 million at the box office (making it the second biggest hit of the year, after the $520 million-earning Terminator 2). As far as Costner’s accent went, producer John Watson remarked, “The audience loves him. It didn’t bother them at all.”
Even so, no critics could talk about the film without remarking on Costner sounding more Beverly Hills than Sherwood Forest. Parodies soon popped up all over the place, most famously the 1993 Mel Brooks comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights, in which Cary Elwes – who had turned down the lead in Prince of Thieves – pointedly remarks to camera, “unlike some Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.”
None of this hurt Costner in the short term, as his subsequent films JFK and The Bodyguard also proved huge successes. Alas, a string of lesser films saw Costner’s career gradually slide, leading him to make peace with Kevin Reynolds and team up with the director a third time on 1995’s Waterworld – which proved to be a career-ending flop.
Despite his own inability to convincingly come off as English, Costner has expressed great admiration for England’s actors, praising the English accent as “elegant” and “hypnotic.” In 2014, Costner summed up his thoughts about the English in a complimentary, yet somewhat curious choice of words: “The accent is cool. It’s like a girl with big breasts… they get your attention first.”