by Alexandre Paquin
A picture with a revisionist approach to the usual adaptation of the Robin Hood legends to the screen, in which the premise is more interesting than the actual treatment. The chemistry between the two leads is fascinating, but Nicol Williamson in a secondary part is consistently annoying, the screenplay is heavy-footed, and Richard Lester was a wrong choice as director.Movie-going audiences, throughout the history of film, have invariably been offered the same version of the Robin Hood story. In this oft-told version, which corresponds to the first part of the various Robin Hood legends, Robin gathers his band of merry men, including Little John and Friar Tuck, in Sherwood Forest, whence he intends to look after the throne of King Richard the Lionheart, away fighting in the Holy Crusades, against the ambitions of the king's scheming brother John and his henchmen, the Sheriff of Nottingham and (Sir) Guy of Gisbourne. While foiling Prince John's wicked plots, Robin falls in love with the lovely Maid Marian, and when King Richard returns, everything in dear old England is as merry as if right out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
"A hit-and-miss revisionist Robin Hood film."
What had never been told on the screen, however, is the second half of the Robin Hood legends, for obvious reasons. The later life of the hero of Sherwood Forest is filled with disappointment and disillusionment, two words which may indicate, given the topic, lower box-office returns than usual on a Robin Hood film. From this perspective, therefore, it is critically laudable yet commercially inexplicable that such a film as "Robin and Marian", dealing with Robin Hood's later life, was released at all by Columbia Pictures in 1976. Not surprisingly, the film was a box-office failure, as the new approach to a familiar theme failed to find an audience, but this approach, as explained later, was not entirely successful in dramatic terms either.
Twenty years after the end of the conventional Robin Hood film, King Richard the Lionheart (Richard Harris), still fighting to reconquer the Holy Land, has become a cruel and ruthless King, and Robin (Sean Connery), who had been following him on his military campaigns for the last two decades, has become disillusioned about his sovereign. After Richard's death from a fatal arrow wound, Robin, accompanied by his right-hand man, Little John (Nicol Williamson), decides to return to England, where he discovers that his old flame, Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn), has taken the veil. With John (Ian Holm) now on the throne, Marian is bound to be arrested by Robin's old nemesis, the surprisingly sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw), and Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh), but Robin comes to the rescue, and brings her to safety in Sherwood Forest, where he had started to rebuild his band of outlaws, with the objective of challenging John's oppressive regime, just as he had done twenty years ago. Unfortunately, time has passed Robin by, a fact he refuses to acknowledge, and even though there may be small victories in the future, the only possible ultimate outcome is defeat.
It was certainly difficult for audiences in 1976 to imagine that Sean Connery could be a successful dramatic actor. Even though Connery had delivered a superb performance in the heavy adventure film "The Man Who Would Be King" just the previous year, the actor was still associated with his most famous part, James Bond. And even though Connery's career went on to include several dramatic or offbeat roles in the following decades, his portrayal of Bond is still regarded today as the highlight of his career. In "Robin and Marian", his character had to be portrayed as an aging man whom audiences could pity because of his determination never to let his age show or interfere with his actions, and this is precisely what Connery does, and very successfully. Wrapping himself in his own reputation and past accomplishments, Connery's Robin starts entertaining the myths about his adventures, and eventually, believing them himself. The hero of a film on a swashbuckler topic has never looked this pathetic since Errol Flynn's last forays into the adventure genre in the early 1950's, but even then, it was the actor, not the character, who was the real has-been of the picture. And it is very likely that we will not see the next adventure film with a thoughtful, non-superficial dark tone any time soon.
As otherworldly as Audrey Hepburn's performance as Marian may appear on several occasions early in the film, her character is the only one who realizes the magnitude of the situation at hand, because the twenty years of solitude while Robin was away had affected her to such an extent that she had attempted suicide and entered the convent. She had felt every year that had passed by, and had managed to put her love affair with Robin behind her, but with his return, it had become difficult for everyone, mostly for Robin, to distinguish the present from the past. Amidst this confusion, Marian, even though she could not repress the return of her love for Robin, became the voice of reason, as she knew that Robin's actions, no matter how well-intentioned they were, could only bring pain and disillusion on him and others. The casting of frail-looking Hepburn, her first role after a nine year hiatus, was enlightened, and she plays each nuance of the part as perfectly as possible.
Nicol Williamson, on the other hand, is completely miscast as Little John, and his portrayal of this well-known character of the Robin Hood legends could not have been more wrong, as it is constantly on the slapstick side, and Little John comes through as a hot-tempered and boneheaded sidekick -- the important word here is "sidekick", just as Alan Hale had been to Errol Flynn in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) and in several other films with the star. Sidekicks exist for the comic relief they bring to the picture, not for plot advancement, and "Robin and Marian" does not distance itself from convention in this regard.
If there is a picture which should have distanced itself as much as possible from the Hollywood formula, it is precisely this one, because its approach to the well-known topic of Robin Hood is unconventional, but the makers of the film have not dared to do so entirely. Beyond the original premise of filming the later years of Robin Hood, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the picture. "Robin and Marian" should have been deliberately downbeat most of the time, because its originality is rooted in happy memories of times long gone by and in the sadness of aging. Its overall tone was meant to be that of a tragic love story, not of a merry adventure film about Robin and his joyous band of outlaws. However, this tone shows up sporadically, but increasingly as we get closer to the ending of the film. The lack of a clear choice between comedy --appropriate for most Robin Hood films, but not here -- and tragedy, is without a doubt the greatest problem with the film. What should have been a romantic tearjerker -- the finale and a few other scenes suggest so -- is turned into another quasi-slapstick film with would-be witty wisecracks throughout. In other words, the movie tries hard to make us laugh when it precisely should not, and before it finally gets to the serious material (only in the second half of the film), the viewers have the opportunity to watch Robin and Little John organize a daring rescue, which could have been lifted from any other Robin Hood film, and which is of no consequence on the larger plot. The humour and action scenes were undoubtedly included for purely commercial reasons -- after all, audiences already have some idea of what they expect to see in a Robin Hood film -- therefore hampering the originality of the final product. And the film itself was undoubtedly marketed at the time, just as today, as a regular adventure flick. Consider, for instance, the first sentence of the summary on the back of the box of this reviewer's copy of the film: "The legend of Robin Hood continues in this high-spirited adventure." With this type of description, it is very possible that part of the audience ended up being disappointed with the film, but we can see how Columbia's publicity department marketed the film in a way that would not turn away too many potential viewers, and it leads one to wonder how much this film may have been affected by studio politics during its making.
That the film was not more downbeat than it is should surprise no one, considering who are the author of the script and the director at the helm of the project. James Goldman, the screenwriter, had won an Academy Award for the overrated 1968 film adaptation of his own play, "The Lion in Winter", set during the reign of King Henry II, and which dealt with the battle for the succession to the throne of England. "The Lion in Winter"'s success was rooted in its dialogue, which immediately betrayed its stage origin, but the screenplay was written in the modern English language and filled to the brim with witty repartees, so that in the end, "The Lion in Winter" was less a gripping drama on the struggle for power than a medieval parody, albeit a heavy-footed one. Just as "The Lion in Winter", "Robin and Marian" followed the same revisionist approach to its subject, and again included humourous remarks by the characters. While "The Lion in Winter" had been partially successful, the screenplay of "Robin and Marian" fails because the humour is more appropriate to a conventional Robin Hood film than to the subject of this one.
"Robin and Marian" also fails to set itself as a continuation of "The Lion in Winter", as some characterizations, for instance those of King Richard and his brother John (two sons of Henry II), are entirely different in the two screenplays. Only John maintains some similarity in the two screenplays, but because such a link between the two works was never intended, this reviewer is ready to overlook this argument about inconsistency. However, as far as historical inaccuracies are concerned, this is another matter. While "The Lion in Winter" was usually faithful to its historical setting (except for a few notable anachronisms and invented characterizations), "Robin and Marian" is playing with the historical context on a large scale. Of course, it will never be known for certain whether Robin Hood ever existed, but the historical background in which he has been situated is well documented, and there is no reason justifying the obvious historical liberties that were taken with the material. King Richard the Lionheart was crowned in 1189, the year the third Holy Crusade started. Richard went away, was later taken prisoner, and eventually returned to England in 1194. He eventually died in France, not fighting in the Crusades as suggested in the film, in 1199. Total length of his reign: nine years and seven months, only half of the twenty years Robin had allegedly spent away from England fighting with the King. It was, for all these reasons, impossible for Goldman to repeat the success of "The Lion in Winter" with "Robin and Marian".
The other source of the problem was the choice of the director, Richard Lester. Lester had won acclaim as a director for a "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and "Help!" (1965), starring the Beatles, and for "The Three Musketeers" (1973) and its sequel the following year. All of these were comedies, in which most of the humour was visual rather than spoken. And there lies the problem with the film. There is, on the one hand, Goldman, writing witty lines and creating over-the-top characters on a serious topic, as he had done before, and on the other, there is Lester, who takes every opportunity to fill the screen with visual humour, whether it is a kick in the groin, an argument between Robin and Marian, or the aforementioned daring rescue. With these two people in place, the serious topic underneath the entire picture -- aging -- never really had a chance to come through. Nevertheless, the handling occasionally shows that Lester must have understood that there was a serious theme at the heart of the picture, but in most of it, he seemed either to have tried to bring the psychological issues to the forefront, usually unsuccessfully, or to have chosen to ignore it completely in some parts.
It is no doubt Lester who has to be blamed for the casting of Williamson as Little John, as well as for his wretched performance, and it is easy to suspect that Lester also brought in three other people because of their past collaboration with him: Richard Harris as King Richard (who had given one of his best performances as a King, viz. 1967's "Camelot", but who also was the lead in the 1974 film "Juggernaut", directed by Lester), David Watkin, the director of photography, with whom he had worked on several pictures, including the two musketeer features, and editor John Victor Smith, with whom he had also worked on the musketeer films. John Barry, the composer, had written the score for two films directed by Lester in the past (and there had been disagreements between Barry and Lester), and for two films originally written by Goldman (although the real connection was with Anthony Harvey, who had directed these two), including "The Lion in Winter", for which Barry had obtained the Academy Award. For "Robin and Marian", Barry was not Lester's choice as the composer, but the executive producer, Ray Stark, overruled Lester and brought Barry in (after a competition had been held to determine who would score the film, according to one source) at the last minute. Otherwise, the composer would have been Michel Legrand, who had also worked with lester on "The Three Musketeers". From taking a look at Lester's choices, we can see where the picture was obviously heading.
What can be said about these people's work on the picture? Harris was excellent as King Richard, but his stay was too brief to make much of an impact. David Watkin's photography is usually splendid, particularly the forest scenes, which convey particularly well the nostalgia which should be at the basis of the picture, but the photography is saturated with the orange colour, which can probably be attributed to the equipment and the film stock, as this exaggeration of brown-orange tones is visible in several pictures from this period. The editing is of a professional level, although by no means exceptional. Also noteworthy is the work of production designer Michael Stringer, who provided a very realistic portrayal of England in the Middle Ages.
As for the John Barry score, it is mostly adequate, except for some notable instances. The love theme, repeated throughout the film, is very moving in the final sequence, which it carries extremely well, and is satisfying in most of the other occasions where it is used, but it is used too often, the music itself is generally too saccharine, and the orchestration (with heavy reliance on the trumpet and strings) does not entirely escape the realm of what we could label "seventies kitsch". Perhaps because the score sounded too romantic, and probably more because of the frustration of having been imposed the choice of the composer who would score the film, Lester heavily disliked Barry's score, and is still making no secret of it. Quite understandable, since it is precisely Barry, who only had two weeks to write the score (which even slightly displeased the producer, who then brought another composer in to rewrite parts of the score and re-orchestrate others), who redeems the picture from Lester's interpretation of the material as just another Robin Hood film given the Musketeer treatment.
Nevertheless, plotwise, "Robin and Marian" is a case of hit-and-miss. The revisionist approach to Robin Hood is appreciated, since it offers a breeze of novelty to the stereotypical Robin Hood tale, but the treatment could hardly have been more conventional. While Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn are perfect in their respective parts, and while there is excellent chemistry between them, Nicol Williamson's performance as Little John is bothersome, and there could have been improvement in most respects, particularly in the screenplay and the direction.Worth seeing for the two leads, the ending, and for what the film could have been, not what it is.
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originally posted: 01/07/02 01:55:29