Robin Hood: Men in Tights

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Robin Hood: Men in Tights (PG-1)
1993
48% rotten tomatoes

Is it safe to assume we all know who Mel Brooks is? After the recent traumatic passing of Stan Lee, I’m almost afraid to invoke his name, lest his body remember it’s 92 years old. Just in case any of you are 14 (if you are, please know that this content is not curated for you and is very inappropriate; nevertheless, we love a rebel so hello), Mel Brooks is a titan of film comedy. He is responsible for such classics as Spaceballs, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Life Stinks, History of the World: Part I, and of course, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. As a side note, I, as a lover of people who use grammar and syntax to their full potential, enjoy how many of his titles have colons in them, and how much additional information he’s able to give with just a three word clause. But wordplay is one of his signature motifs, and I am here for it. I dare you to find a five minute stretch of Mel Brooks that doesn’t include a double entendre.

the man, the mensch, the legend

So what perfect alchemy of nature brings forth a comedy savant like Mel Brooks? He was born Melvin Kaminksy in 1926, in Brooklyn NY. And as we all know, the 20’s transitioned right into the 30’s without any kind of hiccup, right? Wait, what? You mean… oh… Oh noooo. We’ll come back to that, yikes.

Back to finding out how to reproduce the conditions that created Mel Brooks (which kind of could be the premise for a Mel Brooks movie). Well, I can’t find any specific details about Brooks’ childhood, but from what I can gather, he grew up poor, but in a very loving home. He was the youngest of four boys, and his father died when he was two. His mother got a job working ten hour days out of the house, and then continued working at home. When his brothers were old enough (12!!) they went to work as well, in addition to going to school. These mid-WW folks are some serious badasses. I’m so soft I complain about my forty hour a week job that pays well and comes with a chair.

look at those lil baby Depression ties!!!

Brooks talks about his experiences as a kid with a lot of brevity and humor. He jokes about running across a particular bridge scared, because if you fell in, none of the other Jews would be able to save you (the implication is that Gentiles wouldn’t WANT to save you), because Jews in his neighborhood couldn’t swim. The only place to swim was in a non-Jewish part of town, and they would be chased away if they tried. Additionally, he recounts a suicide in the neighborhood and being terrified that it was his mother. She had, unbeknownst to him, worked late that night and since there were no telephones in poor areas, much less cell phones, he just had to sit and wait, wondering if she would come home. He wasn’t impervious to the constant near-tragedy of his life, but even from an early age he seemed to develop a “why cry when you can laugh” attitude as a coping mechanism. So maybe that’s it – you get a kid who has the funny gene already, put him or her in some shitty living conditions, but make they have the support of the family. And since we’re heading for a new great depression, let’s take a moment to review, shall we?? We need to be prepared.

Okay, so you know how a meth binge makes you feel like you can do anything and anything you do is the greatest thing ever, but then when it’s done you spend the same amount of time feeling like pure shit? I mean… so I’ve heard. That was pretty much the stock market from the 20’s through the 30’s. The 20’s were just one great big meth party (I assume that’s why it’s called the Roaring Twenties), and then when the economy couldn’t take any more rich old white men taking advantage of it, she crashed. Hard. You know, let me rephrase that – we’re not victim blaming the economy here. Let the record show the guilty party was … yeah rich old white men. Okay fine, they weren’t all old. Here’s how it went down:

All throughout the 20’s, there was a ton of speculating being done. What is speculation? Well if it’s done honestly, it’s just being really good at guessing. You look at a bunch of cheap stocks and think *deeply* about which ones might become valuable stocks one way or another. I really don’t know how people come to these conclusions, and I personally find investing so boring that I couldn’t bring myself to find out. Anyway, I don’t understand everything that happens next (see above: my unwillingness to find out) but I gather that people were speculating on the stock market itself at some point. Like instead of betting on a card game, you bet on the casino winning that night (can’t lose, right?). But when everyone starts betting on the casino and stops betting on the card games, the casino doesn’t make any money. And then instead of trying to regroup by betting moderately on more card games, the bettors pawned their chips off on someone else as fast as they could and ran. Those were the lucky assholes. The unlucky ones were unable to find anyone to buy their chips, so they had to just stand there with their arms full of useless chips while the casino burned to the ground from the chaos and looting that was started by the first wave of panicked rich white guys ditching their chips.

OH BUT IT GETS WORSE. Right before the shit hit the fan, the rich assholes who owned the banks saw that some of the peasants were getting interested in speculation on card games, too. So what do banks do to poor, uneducated people? That’s right – they prey on them. They make it super easy for those peasants to borrow a lot of money. Lord forgive them, they knew not what they signed. Society was telling people everywhere they looked that they could get rich this way. It’s kind of like when everyone was investing in commercial real estate in the 90’s. Or am I the only one who remembers that being a thing. Anyways, banks were offering chips “on margin” which meant that the peasants could put a little bit of their own money towards the card games and borrow the rest. You know. Like how you buy a house. Ahem. So when they saw this demand, the players already at the tables of course increased their bids way higher and also dragged in a shit ton more tables. Inflation. Greed. Good christian values in our good christian country.

And to be fair, things had been really good in the village for the peasants for a long time. They all had jobs and food, and places to live. We’d been post-WWI for about a decade now. The only thing missing was a shitload of cash from winning at the casino. They were soft and coddled. They weren’t afraid of things going badly because things had gone so well for so long… except for farmers, who had been struggling for a while, actually. So anyway, some say that the tipping point was when casino management upped the rates for playing the game (the federal reserve raise the interest rate by 1%). So… the one thing articles skip over is WHAT DOES IT MEAN when the stock market crashes – not contributing factors, not financial climates – what are the events that happen – how do you know the stock market just crashed? Do you know where I actually got the answer I was looking for? WIKIPEDIA.

So here’s the deal. Direct quote: “Stock market crashes are social phenomena where external economic events combine with crowd behavior and psychology in a positive feedback loop where selling by some market participants drives more market participants to sell.”

It’s basically like someone yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre. One bettor in the casino was like “Whoa, management just upped these rates, and I’m not even sure what this shit is worth anymore – these companies are making massive amounts of terrible shit. I’m out” and then the player next to him is like “oh man, I’ve heard some things about the drought affecting crops, and the interest rate just went up – I bet that guy knows something I don’t. I’M SELLING OUT, BITCHES” and so on. Then the fucking media sensationalizes the whole thing and it’s turned into a runaway train by this point. A perfect storm of events. So basically, it’s the exactly the same as what caused the surge, but in reverse. It’s Newton’s third law, applied to societal constructs.

♪ It seems no one can help me now / I’m in too deep / There’s no way out ♫

Back to real life. Recap: Everyone’s like “WOOOOOO EASY MONEY!!!!” and then banks were like “HEY PEASANTS, GET IN ON THIS HERE’S SOME MONEY***” and then some cocaine crazed proto-yuppies started screaming “BET IT ALLLLLL” and smashing guitars against the wall and then people were like “uh oh there’s too many people here and it’s not cool anymore” and then no one wanted to play and everyone lost their keys in the club. Onward!

Everyone was in a panic to sell all their stock but no one was buying it, so the value plummeted. I think we have a naive trust in the system – not trust meaning that we think any big system has our best interest at heart, but a kind of trust that it just is what it is. Corn is yellow, the ocean is salty, stocks are based on demonstrable value. NOPE. It’s all made up. The value of stocks are based on demand, or how much people want it. It’s why I do not understand stocks at all. I had always labored under the delusion that valuable stocks were from successful companies, but that’s only half the story since there are people out there gambling on whether a particular business, or industry at large, is going to be successful. I still don’t know how someone plays stock on an entire industry, like solar power. I mean… which companies??? More than half of them are going to suck, right??? Do you just invest in all of them?? ARGH I’M ALREADY SO BORED.

Okay, let’s flash forward just a little bit. The market has entered refraction (hee hee hee). People have lost their fortunes and their jobs. Companies have lost their investors and shut down, or shut down because all these newly broke people didn’t have money to buy their unnecessary shit anymore. People who worked there have lost their jobs and couldn’t pay back the banks for the stock game money they borrowed. If you had money to get in the bank, banks couldn’t give it to you, cause guess what. They invested it in the stock market. And they couldn’t make their money back on loans, cause… oh right. Unemployment. Just a big circle jerk of misery.

Oh wait – there’s more. In 1931 or thereabouts, we get the Dust Bowl. Did you think to yourself “well why don’t I just pack up and move to the Midwest, where I’ll become a farmer? At least we’ll have plenty to eat!” EEEEHHHHHHH. So sorry, the American Midwest has decided to stop raining. Here’s some dust wind, though! Now, there were dumbasses who didn’t know how to farm trying to farm long before the market crashed. The government used to hand out grants to people to settle the huge tracts of land they stole, so of course immigrants and fourth sons and what not took advantage. I mean, why would you not? You figure it’s one of those things you’ll just pick up as you go along.

My point is, the Dust Bowl was bad enough on its own, but the Midwest had been only settled by these folks for the past 70 years or so, and they weren’t the most experienced at it. If you stay in a historically continually populated place like France, and there’s a drought or something like that, the collective knowledge about how to weather the season and get as much as you can out of your fields is going to be greater than what we had going on in the Midwest and southern plains. We had people, plenty of whom may not have come from farming families (at least originally), and who didn’t have a lengthy knowledge of the land. Keep in mind, we’d already driven out the First Nations populations, and I feel they’d likely have been disinclined to help us anyway.

So there’s a money shortage, and now there’s also a food shortage.

By 1933, the unemployment rate was 25%. The Great Depression officially lasted from 1929-1939, but for many families, this would shape an entire generation. Heading back east, we have had the great industrialization of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries exploding populations in cities and the surrounding areas, and then suddenly it all comes to a halt. There are now tons of people in crisis, all in a generally small vicinity.

This seems like a good time to briefly recap early 20th century history:

  • 1914-1918 we have Sandbox Scuffle I – 15-19 million people killed
  • 1920’s are pretty decent tbh, even though Prohibition is enacted in 1920; constraints can be freeing and folks get creative
  • 1922 – Stan Lee is born in Manhattan
  • 1926 – Mel Brooks is born in Brooklyn
  • 1929 – Stock market crash
  • 1931 – Dust Bowl
  • 1933 – Record Unemployment, but bonus! No more Prohibition!
  • 1939 – Great Depression unofficially ends, butttttttt… Sandbox Scuffle II kicks off, resulting in 50-80 million deaths by the time it ends in 1945.

You know, for being called the silent generation, these folks ^ sure made some loud history.

Can you imagine growing up in this kind of environment? Can you imagine being a WOMAN in this environment? The ban on birth control (Comstock Act) wasn’t lifted until 1938, and the birth control pill wasn’t approved by the FDA until 1960 AND STILL WASN’T LEGAL FOR UNMARRIED WOMEN UNTIL 1972!!!!!! PS – this was only shortly before the Vietnam war ended. I image that for a very long time, women felt like they were bringing children into the world just to starve or die in war. I can’t fathom trying to raise four boys on my own – mother of shout outs to the titanic fortitude of Mel Brook’s mother. And they were Jewish, to boot, so also racism in the mix!

this shit is too depressing, so here’s a happy dog with happy flowers

Okay, so onto more fun stuff. Mel was a soldier in Sandbox Scuffle II (at 17 years old, mind). He did some camp shows during this time and really got to flex his showman muscles, and after his time in the war was done, he bounced around until he found

In an interview done by Playboy in 1975, Brooks responded to allegations that his comedy is undisciplined and “anarchic,” which he waves away with a joke. This is definitely what I appreciate about him the most. He does things you’re not supposed to do. The fourth wall breaks, the actors break character, the jokes are often in poor taste, but in the charmingest way. Brooks’ movies are nothing if not full of mirth and whimsy, and self deprecation, and exploiting ridiculous things. It’s fun in the way that kids have fun – it doesn’t make sense. I don’t want to reduce him to just a product of his environment, but I can’t see what about real life would make sense to a boy that grew up in the 30’s. So why not turn everything into a parody – especially things that people have decided to take very, very seriously. Like space operas. And Shakespeare. And gothic horror. And Robin Hood.

In an article in the Atlantic, the author points out that he has an “endless fascination with such primal experiences as fear and cruelty, accident and death.” It’s not an uncommon fascination to be sure, but how Brooks manifests it is so unique and somehow light-hearted. Rob Reiner once asked him how he differentiates between tragedy and comedy – Brooks said, “If I’ll cut my finger, that’s tragedy. … Comedy is if you walk into an open sewer and die,” and then denied bastardizing the David Hume quote. Classic Mel.

So – on to Robin Hood. What do we know about him? He probably wasn’t a real dude. He might have been the Tooth Fairy, but for grownups. That belief we have that someone else is going to come and solve our problems; make the bad guys go away. (spoiler alert: that shit is the pipiest of dreams. Vote, mutherfuckers).

The legend seem to originate at the tail end of the medieval period, in the 13th century. You might say he was the original anarchist, but he probably wasn’t. We love a good political rebel, though. William Wallace, Pancho Villa, pirates, Spartacus, Boudica, the American colonies, dudes who wear socks with sandals. The latter excepted, we like people who break stupid rules. Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men robbed and murdered rich assholes, and redistributed the wealth to poor people. Was it wrong? Legally, yes, but they were rebelling against a legal system that was never going to be beneficial for the poor. Was it wrong morally? If you take out the murder, then I don’t see the big deal. Yes they were stealing, but if you take the “laws” out of the equation, the money taken from peasants did not represent a fair return on investment. And guess what happened in 1381?? A Peasant’s Revolt! See, the peasants felt they were being unfairly taxed, among other things. Why is every organized government since the dawn of time convinced that overtaxing the poorest population is a solution? I mean, I understand the greed, but I just don’t see how they think, “oh, but this time it’ll work!” Ugh. Anyway.

Later stories liked to portray Hood as being a nobleman himself, but I prefer the idea that he was a commoner who tried to take the reins of destiny. Power to the people and all that. It feels more honest to me if it’s a man of the people. When it’s a lord who’s lost his home to the same dirty leaders that have been abusing the peasants for years, and it’s only then that he looks around and goes “huh – this is fucked up” it feels too selfish. Don’t tell me you’re doing it for justice, Robin. You’re doing it for your old feather bed and 2,000 acres. So in this way, Mel Brooks has given us the standard post-medieval version of the Robin Hood story – good little nobleman breaks bad.

via GIPHY

But put yourself in some medieval shoes. The forest would have been the most valuable resource after water. You gots wood to make your houses and tools, li’l animals to eat, weird plants to munch on and use as medicine, shelter for outlaws on the lam. You know, the necessities. But usually these kinds of laws were meant to keep huge areas of undeveloped land EMPTY so the king or regional leader and his cronies could go hunt without any peasants getting in the way or reducing the game population (cause they like everything to be easy; more deer = less effort). It’s the theme of greed and powers – the convenience of the few is more important than the survival of the many.

You can see why a figure like Robin Hood would be appealing. Hell, it’s appealing now. It’s kind of like how we’re all hoping Anonymous is going to swoop in and save the day. So when there are historical records of outlaws in Northern England using a surname from the Robin Hood legends it’s tempting to jump to conclusions. But this doesn’t mean that they’re likely the real Robin Hood or his descendants, but it’s more likely a wishful Dread Pirate Roberts situation. These men were desperate, and taking his surname was a way they could convey that their actions were not done in malice, but in service to the ideology of Robin Hood. This is not to say there wasn’t an actual Robin Hood, but it makes it even more complicated to try and figure out what’s what. Like that one part in The Dark Knight Rises where all those hockey dads kept dressing up like Batman.

There is one possibility, apparently. There was a Robert Hod held as prisoner in 1225. He had lived in York, which is indeed in the North of England. The timeline, proposed by John Major in 1521, states that this Robert Hod was Robin Hooding in the 1190’s, had become a proper outlaw by 1225, and died in 1247 (there’s a grave that supposed to Robin Hood’s in the place where the legend says he died). Also helpful is that the legends usually mention King Richard and Prince John. That would be King Richard the Lionheart (ruled 1189-1199). He was a great warrior, but an absent king. He was off templaring with the knights on crusades more than he was at home being king. Prince John ended up being King John (ruled 1199-1216) and he sucked in the opposite direction, and was also much less handsome. John did try to steal the throne before he “earned” it, which is often a big part of his character’s political machinations in the stories. He was a real asshole as a king, more so than a normal king. He like… invented red tape and bureaucracy for medieval England. There was great record keeping, but come the fuck on. He also micromanaged everything. They kind of go together. As does a fee schedule for getting out of military service, or for getting expedited legal services and shit. Oh, and he cared more about creating revenue for military adventures than he did about his people being able to eat. Not like – we’re at war, but like, I really want this territory. But it’s cool. He got excommunicated, he never took those territories he wanted, his court rebelled against him (his northern courtiers, I should mention), and he died of dysentery. This seems like the perfect set up for Mel Brooks. A scheming schmuck, an unlikely hero, and a disgruntled populace. Just throw in some love triangles and some visual puns (as well as verbal puns) and you’ve got a comedy.

So. There are a lot of movies out there about him. I looked it up on Wikipedia and counted 79. That’s just movies and dedicated TV shows – that’s not including Robin Hood themed episodes of stuff. And there are at least half a dozen projects currently in development. What is it that makes this story so enduring, and if it’s relatability, how are we no better off than we were 800 years ago? The details are a little different, but the resources are still being horded by a small but powerful percent of the population. We rebelled and made our own country to get England to quit it, and we’re getting right back to where we started. The majority of our country isn’t represented in our government, so maybe we all need to tap into the Robin Hood that lives in our hearts.

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