Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and the controversy over its PG certificate

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Within weeks of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves being given a PG certificate in the UK, the BBFC realised it had made an error – here’s the story of what happened.

Come the summer of 1991, and the two biggest movie stars in the world at the time – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner – were headlining the two must-see blockbusters of the season. As it would happen, both would provide challenges for the UK film certification body, the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC). The BBFC by that stage had up its sleeve the U, PG, 12, 15 and 18 certificates (12A was still a decade away), but even at this time in film history, distributors would approach the board and declare willingness to make cuts to get a certain certificate.

Fox, for instance, wanted a 15 for 1990’s Die Hard 2: Die Harder, and sacrificed an icicle through the eye to get it (the film was eventually released in widescreen on VHS with the icicle kill back in, and an 18 certificate on the sleeve).

In the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1991’s Terminator 2 meanwhile, the levels of violence in James Cameron’s sequel led most to suspect that the movie would follow its forerunner and be awarded an 18. Not so. The film was released with a 15 certificate, and no cuts were required to get it – even though the UK distributors had offered to make them if required.

In the case of the other big blockbuster of the summer ’91 season though, Warner Bros was positioning the Kevin Costner-headlined Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves as the big family adventure to see. As such, it wanted a PG for the film. In the US, the film had already been given a PG-13 rating by the Motion Picture Association Of America (MPAA), with one story at the time suggesting that an F-bomb from Christian Slater was inserted to ensure it didn’t get too soft a rating in the States and potentially put grown-ups off.

The BBFC looked hard at the film then, and concluded that two changes were going to be needed to make Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves get a PG. Surprisingly, the full scene of attempted sexual assault played for comedy in the movie was allowed through absolutely untouched. But the aforementioned F-bomb, unsurprisingly, had to go. That, and the pretty savage opening sequence where a prisoner’s hand is about to be cut off was trimmed back. 14 seconds of cuts in the end were made, and the film’s running time in the UK clocked in at 142 minutes and 42 seconds.

It headed into cinemas, and was a huge, huge hit.

But controversy followed. In the aftermath of the film’s cinematic release in the UK, questions were asked about the darker edges of the film, and about whether it was the family-friendly romp that the PG certificate had led some people to believe. The BBFC – as it detailed in its 1992 annual report – received 36 letters from parents who “took the trouble to write in some detail about the extent to which their children had been frightened and or disturbed” by the film.

The BBFC at this stage was under the stewardship of the late James Ferman, who oversaw the organisation from 1975 to 1999. The board generally edged more and more relaxed into the 1990s (with some very notable exceptions), yet it quickly concluded that a mistake had been made with this particular film. Going back to that annual report, “it was clear from the number of letters and genuine distress to children that an error of judgement had been made”. It advised Warner Bros – that was set to take the rare decision in the UK to make the film immediately available to buy as well as rent – that further changes would need to be made.

At first glance, those agreed changes look drastic. The November 1991 video release in the UK saw the running time edge down to 136 minutes and 53 seconds, but it’s worth noting that a good portion of that was accounting for by the fact that videos ran more frames per second. That a video would run 25 frames as opposed to a film projector’s 24, and thus films on VHS were a little quicker.

Still, there had been definite cuts, Melonfarmers – an excellent site – goes into detail on the video cuts here, and it calculated that another 32 seconds had been trimmed off the movie. Nonetheless, the video sold by the truckload.

Yet the conversation was far from over. In February 1992, James Ferman appeared on the Film 92 programme, interviewed by Barry Norman. It was split over two episodes, and sadly, the exact conversation the pair had over Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves isn’t available online. Still, it’s worth watching the segment in the second week, where Norman and Ferman chatted, and the host gives a postscript questioning why Robin Hood should be cut on video to seemingly protect children. Why not give it a harder certificate in the first place and let adults be entitled to the full version?

It was the 12A/PG-13 debate some 25 years before it became commonplace.

Here’s the segment…

A year later, Ferman would go further. It was often said that Ferman waited until he departed office before expressing his regret over the certification of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Not so. Just two years after its release, as this piece at The Independent testifies, he would say that “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves … was the biggest clanger we’ve dropped since I’ve been here”. The film would remain only available in cut form in the UK for over 25 years.

Ferman himself, though, would pass away at the end of 2002, at the age of 72. Then, the story of this being the only film he had regrets over gathered pace, and it’s certainly hard to find evidence of another major title he’d discuss in the same manner.

As for Robin Hood? The assorted missing cuts to the film would only be reinstated in the UK – and the film made available in its full form – in 2009. There, it got a 12 certificate, which in truth is what the film probably should have been given in the first place. It also got a little bit more story too, taking it to even darker places.

And you can read the story of its extended cut right here


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