"Bloody Normans."

Film In 1991 one of the first great film concept pile ups occurred. Sometimes its volcanoes, or rocks hitting Earth or Truman Capote and that year it was Robin Hood. There were two releases in the UK -- Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, obviously, directed by Kevin Reynolds with Kevin Costner as the titular hero, which everyone saw and did fantastic business and propped up Bryan Adams' career for the rest of the decade. Then there was Robin Hood from the Working Title film company (the men that later brought you Hugh Grant's career) which everyone ignored, I bought the soundtrack for and was on ITV1 on Saturday afternoon -- and it's absolutely bonkers and the most fun I've had in front of an adventure film in ages.

Eschewing the common icons of the stories and like the recent King Arthur film, this employed a kind of faux-historic realism with Robin engaged as the pseudonym for Sir Robert Hode, a Saxon lord under the occupation from the Normans. In this version, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisburne are replaced by those French nobels who are just as scared of Prince John as everyone else. Marian, then, quite properly according to legend, is also French. It's the kind of stew that would give Simon Sharma nightmares (Richard is mentioned although oddly no one bothers to say were he actually is) makes an unpredictable change. Everyone else is around, Will Scarlett, Little John and Tuck but like the recent BBC television series, there isn't a sense of there being anything special about any of them.

Wearing it's lower budget more or less as a badge of honour, this is Robin Hood as it probably should be done, in the style of Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky, with the mud and all the trappings of the shit end of the dark ages. Everyone is covered in dirt, no one is wearing tights and the merry men are common thieves who only end up giving back to poor their own taxes, looted from the Normans, when they look like they'll revolt if they don't. The Time Out Film Guide criticises the film's lack of swash or buckle but it's not about that -- it's actually quite pleasing to see grown men throw themselves at each other and not being able to land one punch and not be able to pick up a sword and swing because its to heavy for them -- it's a refreshing dash of realism.

There's also a realistic approach to geography. Someone's obviously gotten out a map and read a few history books because the extent of forestation in the country is just right, as is the expression of who the nobility is. Locksley is mentioned in passing, but the main focus of the story is Huntington. When Robin is a kicked out of his kingdom he heads north and so quite appropriately the merry men are from the good counties of Yorkshire, Cheshire and Lancashire and sound like it. For once in a Robin Hood story, the accents are even half right and oh so rural. I'm not sure how accurate the French accents are, although since most of that portion of the cast hail from their own part of the world (with a notable exception, see below), they're probably right too -- granted they all speak English to one another when there isn't anyone else around but that's an affection I'll forgive.

Like Gilliam too, the casting director here has been looked for interesting faces and its filled with caricatures, both men and women, who look like they've walked out of a Hogarth painting. The court jester is a classic grotesque. Add to this an attractive connection to nature - the photography is quite wonderful in places, especially in the opening moments when the creatures of the forest and their reactions to mankind invading their habitat are intercut with Norman soldiers chasing after merry man Much.

It's probably just worth watching for the fascinating dollop of Bitish humour, or 'Saxon Humour' as its even referred to within when the merry men are joshing around. It's a cliche, but in places it's positively Pythonesque, even directly quoting from their work, probably on purpose -- "Bloody Normans" Robin and Will agree after they've been turned out of the former's estate. Unlike Alan Rickman in the other film, who is essentially given chunks of screen time, and a pause in the story, in order to let his performance fly off in all directions, here it's much more democratic, with cameoing Edward Fox's Prince John ripping up the screen with a single weary glance and Uma Thurman's Marian probably getting some of the best lines as she puts down her potential husband - watch for the moment when she subtly indicates to him that she isn't quite the prize her was expecting.

Yes, Uma Thurman is Maid Marian. Still relatively new to the industry, here she is dashing about in medieval gowns with a quasi-French accent, three years before Pulp Fiction, demonstrating all the sassiness that was apparently such a revelation in Tarantino's film. I don't think her co-star Patrick Bergan who plays Robert/Robin/whatever has ever been a celebrity -- his most famous role was probably as Julia Robert's stalker in the annoying Sleeping With The Enemy and yet here he is looking like his career has been made, acting his socks off, channeling Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride and the wild and crazy A Fish Called Wanda version of Kevin Kline.

That's one of the epicentres of fun in this film -- the casting -- this is the ultimate 'That's him off of' piece. Look over there, in the beard - that's a twenty-six year old David Morrisey nobly essaying the role of Little John, all beard and hair and scouse accent. It's still over a decade before he breaks through in tv's State of Play, yet like some old Hollywood character actor he's stealing scenes all over the shop. Robin's sidekick Will is Owen Teale hot from the shortlived Liverpool cop show Waterfront Beat yet to imagine he'd turn up as a cannibal in Torchwood. See also Danny Webb, recently on Doctor Who in The Satan Pit as Mr. Jefferson, and Alex Norton currently Matt Burke in Taggart. And they're all treating this as the best job they've ever had.

The version shown on television this afternoon wasn't brilliant. Panned and scanned and broadcast squashed for the first five minutes because someone at ITV hadn't pressed the right button, it looked like it had been chopped about a bit. As I said, where King Richard had gone wasn't elaborated upon and the sudden relationship change between Robin and his noble Norman friend is somewhat abrupt at the beginning. There are moments too when scenes look like they should be bridged by omitted montage sequences and the origin of Robin's apparent greatness in the eyes of the poor isn't entirely clear -- I'm not sure if he's even really a 'legend' in this version. The Internet Movie Database says that the film went straight to tv in the US because of Prince of Thieves in a hundred and fifty minute version (presumably that includes ad breaks) and that the version I saw must have been one that had thirty-four minutes hacked out of it. I'm not surprised - the pacing is relentless.

But whatever version you can get hold of -- it's only on Region One dvd in very widescreen -- please do and support the underdog. It might not have had the budget, or the cast or a hit theme song, but it has a passion that's rare and an uplifting sense of madness that is infectious. Even when it doesn't quite pull it off (which is quite often) it's twice as entertaining as most recent adventure films and without the pretensions to boot. I think I'll go and dig out that soundtrack album.

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