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Robin and Marian

Director: Richard Lester / DP: David Watkin / Editor: John Victor-Smith / Writer: James Goldman / Score: John Barry.

Cast: Sean Connery / Audrey Hepburn / Robert Shaw / Richard Harris / Nicol Williamson / Denholm Elliott / Kenneth Haigh / Ronnie Barker / Ian Holm

Year: 1976

Feel Free To Approach THIS Firework…


A
nglophile Director Richard Lester came to this adaptation of Robin Hood with an impressive hit-run already under his belt: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965) and The Three Musketeers (1973) to name but three. Okay, so there were a few turkeys in there, such as Royal Flash (1975) and Juggernaut (1974), but I can’t fault the man’s prodigious work-rate. Between 1973 and 1976, IMDB lists him as directing SIX features: that’s one every six months! It’s no surprise to learn therefore, that not every one of these pictures ‘caught fire’ as intended.

This is the case with Robin and Marian (‘R&M’), though it’s unfair to call this a ‘failed picture’: it’s more of a ‘notable misfire’…

At least its cast and crew were top-notch. Things always begin with a script; in this case, courtesy of James Goldman (the older brother of screenwriting guru, William), with an original take on the legend: Robin & Little John are returned from a lengthy (and fruitless) Crusade with King Richard, and are picking up the pieces of their old lives in The Greenwood. With each successive generation returning to the legend, film-makers find new relevance in this ageless tale: the mark of a true myth. In the Thirties, Errol Flynn thrilled us with his Technicolor swordplay and sheer chutzpah. In the Fifties, a whole slew of adaptations made it to TV (including Richard Greene’s four-season run and its catchy theme tune). The Sixties was a hard, cynical decade for Hollywood in many ways and 1964’s Robin and the 7 Hoods starring Frank Sinatra (?) as a Hood-like mob boss, was a low-point. The Seventies began with a cultural hangover that collided with a new, starker reality as The Cold War took hold. Okay, maybe I’m reading-in a little too much here, but if all the adaptations prior to Lester’s had been an enticing box of chocolates, with each flavour, a re-imagining of the formula, then Lester chose to give us an empty box, full of wrappers: the party was over. R&M is an elegiac tone-poem about what it really means to grow old: a come-down, after years of blind faith in a glittering future that never was…

Let’s consider the evidence: Act One begins with a salt & pepper-bearded Connery as Robin and a care-worn wife-of-a-best-mate, Little John (charismatic, mercurial Williamson), as they besiege a ruined castle in search of a golden treasure rumoured to lay within. Its only occupant is an old, one-eyed man and a coterie of women & children he freely admits to, to avoid bloodshed. The ‘treasure’ turns out to be a lump of carved stone ‘out in that turnip field’, though that isn’t reason for Richard to desist. On the contrary: on a point of honour, Richard sacks the place. Sure enough, there’s no loot, but to add insult to injury, he takes an arrow to the neck, courtesy of the old man and a lucky throw… That’s not quite how history played-out (thanks, Wiki) but in his interpretation, Goldman saw this as an opportunity to put Robin front and centre to the action. Besides, it also expanded Richard Harris’ role as King Richard. Harris & Connery had acted before, with Connery taking a cameo in a Harris-led picture, so Harris returned the favour here, putting-in a terrific performance as a belligerent, wine-soaked tyrant, deliberately going against previous filmic depictions of Lionheart, as an avuncular, magisterial ruler, the polar-opposite of Prince John. Both Connery and Williamson play well against the mad king; Connery, in particular, willing to risk his neck for his principles, perhaps knowing all along, that Fate would intervene and save them both from Richard’s vile temper: which is precisely what happens.

It’s in that resignation to Fate, that Robin & John have an honest exchange, in the dungeon, as they await Richard’s judgement; both are bemused to have made it to Forty, having seen all that life had to offer back in the Twelfth Century: death holds little fascination, so when summoned to attend a Lionheart who’s clearly at Death’s door, thanks to the festering arrow-wound, they regard him with as much fascination as fear. Once released from his service, they ride for England: but not before they stop to watch Richard’s funeral cortege slog its way up what looks to be the side of a quarry, thanks to a stunning long-shot courtesy of DP David Watkin. In Lester’s films of the Sixties – Hard Day’s Night, say – he needed to capture The Beatles’ youthful energy, so adopted quick-cuts, a variety of kinetic set-ups and movement. Twelve years on and wanting to capture a different, sombre mood, the pace here is deliberately, if not wilfully slow. If they’re not very nearly dead, they’ll pretty soon be actually dead, so there’s no need to rush. Better yet, to let Death come for them at his own pace: he’ll be here, soon enough, so why rush? As messages go, it’s not exactly cheery, yet this is what Lester gives us.

Then we get a gradual reformation of The Merrie Men, courtesy of a haggard Ronnie Barker as Tuck and an unshaven Denholm Elliott (Will Scarlet), who both look like they’ve slept out in the woods in the name of ‘research’ once too often. Such use of ‘pure cinema’ (or the art of telling us what we need to know in pictures, rather than dialogue) goes to explain their continued oppression by the Sheriff of Nottingham: more of him in a bit. First, there’s Maid Marian to add into the mix. Goldman has her now as a nun, in a down-at-heel convent, where she ‘retired’ after losing Robin to the Crusade, after her initial bid at suicide didn’t pay-off.

Audrey Hepburn took the part, eight years after giving-up films to raise her young family. When her son reputedly heard she’d been offered the part, he urged her to take it: desperate to see his mother play against James Bond, in a Robin Hood picture, no less: two icons for the price of one! Hepburn brings her own, low-key, un-showy technique to the part, which complements a similar delivery from Connery: despite Goldman’s flashes of humour and the occasional, unattributed dialogue from extras (a technique Lester made his own), this boils-down to a film about two people (okay, six. Maybe everyone) contemplating Death and what it means to realise that there are some heights that, once scaled, can never be matched again, only admired from afar.

The other part of this puzzle, comes in the form of Robert Shaw as The Sheriff. He might not have fought in The Holy Land, but Shaw’s jaded Sheriff has been fighting his own battles for the last twenty years and they look to have taken a similar toll. When reunited with Robin, a cloak of inevitability settles about their shoulders. Shaw imbues him with the same world-weariness as his fellow leading players: this is a company of actors who’ve nothing left to prove and who can afford to let a little wearisome drudgery into their characters. Shaw does this, in his measured response to Robin in contrast to his guard dog, Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh); a man whose own impetuosity leads to misadventure. No, in Shaw’s hands, his Sheriff has had decades to prepare for this final confrontation: he knows exactly how to push Robin’s buttons to elicit the right response: as it proves.

Along the way, we see flashes of the brilliant set & production design by Michael Stringer & Gil Parrondo, such as the fully-realised village huddled inside the outer walls of ‘Nottingham Castle’ or Prince John’s cliff-top tent village (reminiscent of a key scene in The Four Musketeers). Terry Gilliam’s influential Jabberwocky would shoot a year after this picture and I’m certain its look owes a debt to the ‘artful grime’ deployed here, if not the weather (Gilliam choosing to shoot in a damp, blustery UK, unlike the warm plains of Navarra, favoured by Lester).

So to the-inevitable-end and Robin’s already feeling the cold hand on his shoulder. “The day is ours, Robin, they used to say: but where did the day go?” Well, where indeed? He’s a man fighting no-one but himself, now. As he snaps back at Marian: “You saw me on the wall. I’m all I ever was!” Here’s someone who wants one last day in the sun, as he can’t face the prospect of growing old, either with Marian or alone. He wants to go out in a blaze of glory, such that songs about him will endure. Marian, on the other hand, is a realist and now, having rescinded the convent, to rekindle her romance with The One Who Got Away, she doesn’t want to repeat old behaviour: not at their age…

Trouble is, Rob’s not listening, so the Sheriff kindly arranges one last pas-de-deux for them both: turns out, he’s equally jaded by it all, though it’s Robin who emerges – barely – from what proves their final encounter. Marian returns and brings him into her old convent, to a bed where Robin – and us – expect him to make a few wisecracks on the road to recovery: but not this time. Marian has other plans and enacts her own ‘Twilight of the Gods’, to end their shared suffering: an unexpected turn, that even Robin accepts; Lester framing his outstretched fingers reaching for Marian’s, as God imparting life to Adam in the Cistine Chapel, except here, the polarities are reversed. The final shot – apples, rotting next-the-poisoned-chalice – is about as symbolic as it gets: and I wouldn’t change a thing.

At the beginning of the review, I called the picture ‘a notable misfire’ and here’s why: I don’t think the comedic elements belong here; tonally, their inclusion sends the wrong message to the audience about the picture they’re watching, so that when events take a deeper turn, there’s confusion over what to feel. I would also have liked to see more of Robin’s reacquaintance with The Greenwood and his old friends, if only to show how everyone’s older and maybe, wiser: what have THEY learnt in the twenty years without Robin being around? Are we sure they’re all pleased to see this troublemaker return? Both Tuck and Scarlet are reduced to ciphers in the picture, representing the only primary elements from Robin’s past, but their appearances are so scanty, they might as well not be there. To add insult to injury, Robin-the-Hero is the only one to get the girl and a noble death… The picture is called Robin and Marian and not ‘Robin and Everyone Else’ for a reason. I get that, but I just felt there was a heart to the film, that Lester wasn’t letting us see, for reasons of economy, either in budget, or in streamlining story and it left the whole weaker – and bleaker – as a result. But maybe that was the point… I should also mention John Barry’s score. Even a Maestro of Barry’s calibre, has the odd uninspiring day at the office, but it’s in-keeping with this square-peg of a film, that his underwritten score should fail to sparkle…

Thanks to Bond, the Sean Connery of 1976 had already become something of a (cantankerous) legend, able to green-light any film of his choosing. Even the occasional mis-step, such as John Boorman’s Zardoz, merely showed the strength of his hand, yet with R&M, I wonder whether such a downbeat picture hadn’t troubled the studio executives shepherding this production to release? That they thought it a risk worth taking, even with Connery on-board, is to their credit, as much as it is to Lester’s, for having gone with such an unexpected version in the first place.

Lester would go on to make more pictures, of course, as would Connery, but R&M remains a curio in both their filmographies. It’s as though, for both men, they decided that they’d earned the right to make it their way; that no-one could deny them: and for that, I applaud this most notable of misfires.

I never meant to hurt you and yet it’s all I ever do.

Triple Word / Score:   Elegiac / Painterly / Composed / Seven

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