Review: Robin and Marian
After finding fighting the Crusades with Richard the Lionheart (Richard Harris) pointless and needlessly bloody, Robin (Sir Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williamson) return to England to find that Marian (Audrey Hepburn) has become a nun, Robin’s merry men have mostly fled Sherwood Forest, and King John (Sir Ian Holm) has taken to marrying a pre-teen. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) still rules with an iron fist and when Robin interferes in his attempts to have Marian arrested, a showdown between the two (increasingly) old foes is seemingly set in stone. Denholm Elliott and Ronnie Barker play Will Scarlett and Friar Tuck, whilst Kenneth Haigh plays the snooty and arrogant Sir Ranulf, who makes a quick enemy of Robin.
While not all revisionist takes on classics come off, this 1976 flick from director Richard Lester (“Help!”, “The Three Musketeers”, “Superman II”) and screenwriter James Goldman (“Nicholas and Alexandra”) is a minor masterpiece. In fact, revisionist or not, it’s the best Robin Hood movie ever made and incredibly moving. It’s a Robin Hood movie for grown-ups without forgetting to be fun at times, too (Something the later dour slog revisionist take by Ridley Scott, simply titled “Robin Hood” certainly couldn’t claim).
Some purists will suggest that Lester and Goldman have robbed the story and characters of their magic, I call bullshit on that. It’s just not content to merely be a rousing romantic adventure. Its characters have mostly moved past that, and that’s largely the bloody point. The filmmakers have afforded beloved characters dramatic weight previously not given, and the movie is the magic. Robin and Marian are full-blooded, 3D characters instead of symbols or types. That means a lot more to me than Errol Flynn in tights. War is terrible, both sides kill, leaders are prone to corruption or madness, soldiers must do their duty, men fight because that’s just what men do. These are the things explored in this film, there’s clearly a lot going on. The Crusades were a disappointment, Richard has gone to seed, and everyone has gotten too old to be having a macho pissing contest. On that last point, Marian has worked that out already, but Robin and the Sheriff are hard nuts with stubborn streaks and a seeming need to show they can still fight.
Richard Harris is good as the stubborn, arrogant, ruthless yet not entirely evil Richard the Lionheart. He’s definitely not evil, he just proves himself to be like all the other power-mad bastard rulers. It actually makes perfect sense for Richard to eventually disappoint and become everything he likely once hated. Kill enough, conquer enough, and usurp enough and what’s left to do? This is Sean Connery’s movie though, and he’s an absolutely perfect middle-aged Robin Hood; insubordinate, frustrated, an overgrown kid perhaps. At the very least he’s a hard-fighting man’s man who at 40 is somewhat tired, restless, and starting to question the purpose of all of it. Things haven’t quite gone the way he expected when he left to aide Richard in the Crusades and he’s kinda angry about the bloody thing. And yet, he ends up getting into another fight with old foe the Sheriff of Nottingham. Why? Because it’s what he and faithful right-hand man Little John do. It’s in their nature, and they’ve been doing it for so long they know little else. He’s clearly cognisant of the pointlessness and endlessness of all the fighting, but he’s able to stop. There’s a fight to be had and a fight will indeed be had. Robin might’ve seen Richard in a new light after the Crusades, but nonetheless boys will be boys and he’s going to fight The Sheriff, because of course he is. Meanwhile, a ferocious-looking Robert Shaw’s first scene as The Sheriff says it all. In a particularly pissy mood he decides to test one of his own men in combat, waving a metaphorical cock (i.e. his sword) around to show he’s still a manly man who can fight and best men half his age. He and Robin will have their own cock-measuring contest in due course. Even before they clang swords, The Sheriff’s hatred for Robin is barely contained, and Robin’s complete lack of giveashit about that just pisses him off even more. It’s a tremendously pissed off performance by Shaw. Yet, like Connery’s Robin, Shaw’s Sheriff shows signs of weariness too, but like Robin he can’t help but want to fight anyway. He’s waited a long time for this opportunity to fight his long-standing foe. A fight with Robin seems to give this guy a sense of purpose, it’s like he hasn’t been challenged much over the years and is both enjoying and angered by Robin’s re-entry into his world. He definitely hates the thought of losing to him.
In the middle of all the testosterone, we have Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian. It’s easily my favourite Hepburn performance…mostly because I’m not a fan of her. Nonetheless she’s perfectly cast as a character just as stubborn as Robin and The Sheriff, but Marian has matured and moved on…and wishes Robin would, too. Just look at her turning her head away when Robin and The Sheriff engage in their silly little pissing contest. She can’t stand that these overgrown boys are back to killing again, especially at their age. Meanwhile, a look in her eyes and a tone in her voice suggests Marian knows Robin’s never going to stop fighting and settle down. Hepburn is so haunting, weary, and sad in this. Marian has even attempted suicide in the years of Robin’s absence. Your heart aches along with hers. ***** SPOILER ALERT ***** That’s why her final act, as much as I don’t agree with it, nonetheless makes sense from her point of view and doesn’t tarnish the character in the audience’s eyes. She commits an unspeakable act, but in the name of aching, all-encompassing, undying love. It’s an impeccably acted finale by both Connery and Hepburn, and incredibly romantic in a tragic, rather Shakespearean kinda way. ***** END SPOILER *****
Nicol Williamson was apparently a very difficult actor to deal with, especially when alcohol was involved. He could act though, and as loyal best friend Little John he’s terrific and works particularly well with Connery. His best two scenes in the film are back to back, one with Robin and one with Marian, both showing his true love and devotion to Robin. The latter scene shows that John has realised what Marian has known all along, that Robin won’t stop fighting and John is just as powerless to stop him as Marian. It’s that Robin/John relationship that also provides the film with most of its humour, especially in regards to their advancing age. Whilst Robin getting lost in Sherwood Forest is probably my favourite comedic moment, the scenes wonderfully showing Robin and John getting puffed out ascending castle steps mid-fight are priceless. It’s even more priceless when set to John Barry’s majestic music score. Derring-do is harder to derring-well do, and sleeping in the forest leaves you with a sore back the next morning. Funny stuff, as is Robin’s initial trepidation in reuniting with Marian after having abandoned her for so many years. Meanwhile, Kenneth Haigh’s Sir Ranulf is a hoot. Sir Ranulf, an idiotic and pompous underling of kid-marrying King John (Sir Ian Holm) is an unwanted presence for The Sheriff, Robin, and an audience that can’t wait for him to be slapped silly. By anyone. When Connery’s Robin says he’ll kill Ranulf, Connery’s eyes suggest only one thing: He fucking means it, so don’t try him, you smug git.
As for Sir Ian Holm’s King John, he’s both creepy and silly. However, I can’t decide if he needs to be in more of the film or in none of it at all. If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the screenplay doesn’t afford much room for him. I also have to say Denholm Elliott (perhaps a bit miscast) and Ronnie Barker are pretty wasted as Will Scarlett and Friar Tuck. Their inclusion feels perfunctory, if anything. Like Lester and Goldman felt obliged to include them but weren’t overly invested in developing their characters beyond one-dimension.
One of the film’s best and most timeless assets is the music score by John Barry (“Goldfinger”, “You Only Live Twice”), which for me is his best-ever work. Like the scores for “Braveheart”, “Last of the Mohicans”, “Forrest Gump” and the 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet”, Barry’s score stirs up something in me every time I hear it. The romantic theme in particular is truly haunting and beautiful and has me in tears at the mere recollection of it. That’s movie magic right there, though apparently the director had Barry foisted upon him by the producer and didn’t like the score at all. Weird.
Still highly-underrated to this day, this revisionist take on a classic folklore is for me the screen’s best Robin Hood film. It’s a film with depth, heart, soul, pain, sorrow, lamented mortality, adventure, comedy, romance, everything. See it. See it now. This is truly beautiful.