The summer of 1991 saw the release of Warner Bros. hugely successful film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves , which starred Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman and Alan Rickman. On a budget of $48 million the film would go on to gross almost $400 million
at the box office, making back half of its budget in its opening weekend alone. Despite mixed reviews from critics at the time, the film was popular with audiences and was the second highest grossing film of 1991 behind James Cameron's Terminator 2
A Tale for the Middle Ages
Acknowledging a large gap between the PG and R ratings in the United States, the American censors - the MPAA - had introduced the PG-13 rating in 1984, following a suggestion from director Steven Spielberg. The BBFC in the UK was slower to catch on;
prior to the summer of 1989, no British rating equivalent existed. This was rectified in August of 1989 when the 12 certificate was introduced for cinema classification, although unlike the PG-13 rating, the 12 was legally-restricted and did not admit
any cinemagoers under the age of 12. It would be almost half a decade before the 12 rating would be adapted for video in the UK, which came into force on July 1st 1994.
Seeing the potential for larger box office takings from a family audience (and with the 12 certificate excluding younger children from seeing the film entirely), Warner Bros. wanted to secure a PG rating in the UK for their release of Robin Hood: Prince
of Thieves. Having obtained a PG-13 in the United States without issue, the film was submitted to the BBFC for theatrical classification but the Board felt that the film was too strong for PG, and minor cuts were requested for a theatrical release.
BBFC on Crusade: Cinema Cuts
Initially, only two reels were cited as problematic; these being Reel 1 and Reel 7.
Cuts: Hands off censorship
The first cut requested was to the opening scene. The BBFC requested to the distributors:
Reduce terror and violent atmosphere of opening scene in dungeon by removing... prisoner's scream in close-up, shot of his back covered in bloody lash marks, and strapping of his hand to block as he realises in terror that it is about to be cut off,
resuming on... burning coals and pan-up with... blade about to descend, thus concealing from audience what is being chopped off [and] settling more quickly on the courageous, reassuring face of Robin Hood.
After these cuts, the only indication of violence that remained consisted of the brief and undetailed sight of the prisoner's hand coming off, and his final scream of pain.
The only other change requested by the BBFC for theatrical release was the removal of the film's sole use of the word 'fuck' , ad-libbed by Christian Slater towards the end of the film. Hollywood filmmakers continue to insert the word into certain
films to secure the 'cooler' PG-13 rating in the United States when they feel that a PG rating will seem too childish to older filmgoers. BBFC guidelines both at the time and today do not allow the use of strong language in PG films, so the words
'fuck me' in the line, Fuck me, he cleared it! were redubbed to the tamer, 'blimey' for the UK version.
Following these changes, the film was passed with a PG rating by the BBFC on July 4th 1991, after 14 seconds of cuts.
BBFC on Crusade: Video Cuts
Later that year, Warner Bros. submitted the pre-cut cinema version to the BBFC for home video classification. After receiving numerous complaints from parents who took their children to see the film in theaters about the suitability of the film's PG
rating, the BBFC decided that heavier cuts were needed before a video certificate could be issued.
Cuts: More hands off censorship
The first change applied to the UK video version was to the opening scene, which was reduced even further from the cinema version; removing all sight of the prisoner's amputated hand dangling on the rope after it has been cut off as well as the close-up
of the man screaming.
A minute or so later, Robin Hood knocks a prison guard onto a stack of hot coals. The initial sight of the guard falling onto the coals and catching fire was retained, but the following shot of him rolling off of the coals and screaming was removed.
Cuts: Fighting censorship
About 20 minutes into the film, Robin fights Guy of Gisborne's men, striking one of them in the face with his crossbow. The tail end of a shot showing the soldier's bloody face was removed.
Following Robin's fight with Little John in the river, Robin helps Little John out of the water. Little John's remark of, Well, I'll be buggered! was eliminated from the film.
Around 20 minutes later, the Sheriff of Nottingham kills his cousin, Guy of Gisborne. A close-up of the Sheriff's sword entering Guy's belly with the oozing of blood was removed.
Cuts: Censorship ritual
The Sheriff later consults his mother, the witch Mortianna, for advice. Using her nail, she cuts into her arm to draw blood as part of a ritual. The close-up of this act was removed for the UK video version.
Cuts: Noble intentions
A few minutes later, one of the Sheriff's men attacks Marian. His sexual threat to her was reduced by the removal of the line, I've never seen the breasts of a noblewoman before , cutting straight to Marian throwing sand in his face.
Cuts: A violent marriage
As part of the Sheriff's macabre wedding celebration with Marian, he arranges to have some of Robin's outlaw friends hanged in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. After the hanging begins, three shots of Little John's son, Wulf, choking on his noose were
removed for the UK version.
Minutes later, the Sheriff is eager to consummate his marriage to Marian. As he struggles with her on the floor, the Sheriff forces Marian's legs apart with his own but Robin quickly arrives to rescue her. The UK video version removed the sight of
Marian's legs being spread apart.
Robin then fights the Sheriff to the death, the fight ending with Robin stabbing the Sheriff in the chest. The BBFC demanded two specific changes to this scene to reduce the overall violence, stating:
Remove sight of dagger being pulled out of Sheriff's chest by cutting final frames of shot (vision only), and reduce sight of blood-covered dagger in his hands before he drops it to the floor (sound and vision).
As a result, the Sheriff's death is over with slightly quicker in the UK video version.
Seconds later, another cut occurs when the supposedly-dead Mortianna rises to lunge at Robin. The sight of her bloody face was eliminated to reduce the horror and threat of the scene in the cut version.
Following the above changes, this censored version was passed with a PG rating by the BBFC for video on November 18th 1991. On top of the 14 seconds of cinema cuts made before the UK video submission, the total amount of missing footage when compared to
the uncut version of the film now totaled around 32 seconds.
BBFC on Crusade: Closed Caption Video Cuts
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was resubmitted to the BBFC a few years later, with all of the UK cinema- and video cuts made. This version of the film was in widescreen and featured closed captioned subtitles.
Cuts: Bugger me!
The BBFC requested one further cut totaling three seconds before a PG certificate would be issued:
When Little John chases Will Scarlet and throws him to ground revealing lash marks on his body, remove John's exclamation 'Bugger me', including closed captions.
With this cut made, the film was passed with a PG rating on May 11th 1995.
The BBFC's Director, James Ferman, would later retire from the BBFC in 1999. He would go on to state that his one regret during his time as the Board's Chief Censor was passing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with a PG rating.
The cut version of the film would be the standard version available to British consumers on both VHS and DVD until the Extended Version was released in 2004.
BBFC on Crusade: The Extended Version
This new extended edit of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves reinstated previously deleted (but non-contentious) footage.
The Extended Version had been released on DVD in the United States 'unrated' (i.e. without an MPAA rating) in June of 2003, and this version of the film - which contained none of the original BBFC cuts - was submitted to the BBFC later that year.
Quite a few years had passed since the BBFC's initial decisions about the film and with James Ferman having left the Board four years prior, new classification guidelines based on public consultation were now in place. Warner Bros. wanted to once again
secure a PG rating again for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, but despite a new BBFC Director and new BBFC guidelines, the film still needed to be cut before a PG rating was awarded. As the BBFC state in their records for the Extended Version's submission:
Cuts required to violent detail, strong language, hanging and sexual assault detail in order to maintain previous PG category in accordance with the Video Recordings Act 1984, BBFC guidelines and reclassification policy.
Cuts: Still hands off
The first cut demanded of Warner Bros. stated:
In opening sequence, remove sight of man's face in agony, his bloody back, and his hand strapped and dragged over the anvil, resuming on scimitar being raised.
This change effectively replicates the original UK cinema cuts.
Cuts: Still bellyaching
The next change requested mirrored the same cut requested for the 1991 video release in the scene where the Sheriff of Nottingham kills his cousin, Guy of Gisborne:
Remove sight of Sherriff's sword penetrating man's stomach in close up.
Cuts: Still not hanging around
BBFC guidelines for PG at the time stressed the danger of imitable techniques, including various acts such as head-butts, lock-picking and hanging. As a result, the scene at the gallows in the grounds of Nottingham Castle was cut more heavily than the
original UK video version. Whereas only three shots of Wulf hanging had been cited for deletion, the BBFC now requested to Warner Bros to:
Remove eight medium/close shots of struggling boy hanging. Remove sight of struggling men hanging, in long shot and medium shots.
As a result, footage of the hangman kicking the stools from underneath the outlaws' feet was cut, along with two further shots of the outlaws struggling as they hanged; footage which appeared intact in the original video releases in the 1990s.
Cut: Still no strong language and spread legs
Will Scarlet's strong language that was cut from the UK cinema and video versions was once again removed, as was the sight of the Sheriff of Nottingham forcing Marian's legs apart during the wedding ceremony.
With these changes, the total amount of cuts to the Extended Version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves totaled around 28 seconds and the film was passed with a PG rating on October 7th 2003. In comparison to the original UK video versions, however,
numerous cuts were waived by the BBFC, including:
The end of the opening scene showing the prisoner's hand coming off
the guard rolling off of the hot coals
the bloody face of the enemy soldier after being struck with Robin's crossbow
Mortianna cutting her arm with her nail
the sexual threat to Marian by one of the Sheriff's men
Little John's use of the word bugger
the Sheriff of Nottingham holding the knife after he is stabbed
the shot of Mortianna's bloody face as she rises to run at Robin
The censored Extended Version was released on DVD in the UK on January 26th 2004, with the BBFC Consumer Advice stating:
Contains moderate violence
BBFC returns from the Crusades: The Extended Version on Blu-ray
The Extended Version was resubmitted to the BBFC about five years later for a UK Blu-ray release, only this time with all of the previous cuts reinstated by Warner Bros. The BBFC passed the film uncut with a 12 rating on February 10th 2009, waiving all
of their previous changes, with the Consumer Advice now stating:
Contains infrequent strong language and moderate violence
Finally, after having to live with censored versions for 18 years, the British public could now own Robin Hood Prince of Thieves completely uncut. Unlike many directors' cuts available on DVD and Blu-ray, however, the Extended Version does not come with
an option to watch the original theatrical version of the film. At the time of writing, the original uncut theatrical version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has never been released in the UK on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray, although it is still available on DVD
from some websites in the United States. Fans with the capability to play Region 1 DVDs may wish to track down this DVD, although the disc contains no special features and the picture quality is not of the highest standard.
Cutting Edge Episode 8: Robin Hood Prince of Thieves
In the latest episode of Cutting Edge, Gavin Salkeld examines James Ferman's biggest regret of not cutting enough for a PG.