A blue-gray miasma hangs over England in the 1991 film version of "Robin Hood." The director, John Irvin, sustains this visual pall through almost the entire film. At times the only color seems to come from the flames of campfires or, in one stray shot that echoes Maxfield Parrish, the glow of the moon on a starry night. Irvin and his cinematographer, Jason Lehel, don't use the film's bare branches and mud and overcast skies to provide a wallow in medieval muck; the look of their movie is a visualization of the shadow hanging over the land under the rule of the Norman Prince John while England's Saxon King, Richard, is off fighting the Crusades.
The best known film versions of "Robin Hood" -- the hugely entertaining 1925 silent starring Douglas Fairbanks and the deluxe storybook version of 1939 starring Errol Flynn -- have reveled in visual sumptuousness and rousing high spirits. (The Fairbanks movie features enormous sets that serve no purpose except to provide Doug with places to leap and climb, and the Flynn movie is shot in the lushest Technicolor.) This "Robin Hood" resembles "Excalibur," John Boorman's retelling of the Arthurian legend. Irvin, a solid, craftsmanlike director who rarely gets his due, can't match Boorman's visual sheen or obsessiveness. But like "Excalibur," this is an adult version of a familiar legend dedicated to capturing the feel of its period.
The reason you may not know about Irvin's "Robin Hood" is because it was produced at the same time as the pallid Kevin Costner version. 20th Century Fox, not wanting to compete, released it theatrically in Europe. In this country, it was shown once on the Fox network before going to video. The studio may have felt that audiences would be put off by the darkness of this version. It takes a little while to realize that, despite its look, this "Robin Hood" isn't gloomy.
Irvin's Robin becomes a hero almost by accident, When we first meet him, he's Robert Hode, the Earl of Huntington (Patrick Bergin). Coming upon the evil Norman Sir Miles Falconay (Jurgen Prochnow, sounding like a cross between Bela Lugosi and Inspector Clouseau, in the Sheriff of Nottingham role), who's about to put out the eyes of a poacher, Hode refuses to let Norman "justice" take its course. For that offense, he's brought up before his friend, Baron Daguerre (Jeroen Krabbé), the Norman overseer, who attempts to both do his duty and let his friend off lightly. But Hode's pride butts up against Falconay's insistence on a harsh sentence, and Hode is declared beyond the law and exiled to the forests.
It's in the scenes that follow, when the exiled Hode meets up with the outcasts who become his merry men and takes the name Robin Hood, that the movie finds its tone. The Robin Hood legend isn't as much anti-authority as it is anti-unjust-authority; in the various versions, things are usually put right when King Richard returns. But it's not the lion-hearted monarch who saves the day in Irvin's version, which has about as much use for authority as the old Chaplin two-reelers where every cop means trouble. Irvin's is a "Robin Hood" that's very nearly pagan. His merry men aren't the downtrodden yet noble poor, Marxists under the jerkin. They're a ragtag bunch of cranks and grumblers and ne'er-do-wells. You get the feeling that even if they weren't hiding out from the law or pushed into poverty by the taxes Prince John demands they might prefer this life. Living in caves, they seem to have sprung from the ground, coarse and raucous and perhaps a bit more at home in the rough than they care to admit. On some level, the tyranny of the Normans suits them: it justifies their suspicion of everyone who holds power over them. They're happy to steal from the rich; it takes some persuading from Robin to convince them to give to the poor.
Irvin takes a special pleasure in their blasphemies: Robin disguised as a monk holding his sword to a priest's genitals while his cohorts strip the church of gold; Friar Tuck fulfilling a dying Norman soldier's request for the last rites while sending the poor bastard on his way to meet his maker. "Robin Hood" is the damnedest mix -- a serious retelling of a medieval legend flavored with the disreputability of low comedy. That spirit pervades the movie. Bergin, who has seemed the stiffest of actors in such roles as the evil husband in "Sleeping With the Enemy," plays Robin as a man rediscovering his sense of fun. Even Marian (Uma Thurman, whose swan's neck here seems somehow integral to Marian's rebelliousness; it appears to end somewhere around her arched eyebrows) has none of the prissiness of some Marians. Promised in marriage to Falconay, she fits herself out in drag and heads into the forest to join Robin's band.
And finally, of course, together they all liberate England. The finale comes on the day Marian is supposed to wed Falconay, which also happens to be All Fools' Day, when the common people dress in costume and are admitted to the castle to conduct their revels. All the visual and narrative threads of paganism that run through the movie come together and burst forth in this scene. The merry men get themselves up in branches of green or hoods fashioned from stag's heads. Their entry into the castle has the spirit of D.H. Lawrence's poem "A Sane Revolution," something done because "It would be fun to upset the apple cart/And see which way the apples would go a-rolling." By the time these "jolly escaped asses" start picking off the Norman soldiers with longbows, it seems like the natural outcome of their celebration. In the magical final scene, as Robin and Marian come together, Irvin lifts the gray mist of the movie to transform England, before our eyes, into the fabled green and pleasant land.