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He's become a legend. Have you ever tried to fight a legend?


Robin and Marian
(1976)

(SPOILERS) It’s ironic that Russell Crowe was older than Sean Connery is here when he starred in Ridley Scott’s malformed Robin Hood origins tale in 2010. Because Robin and Marian finds the mythic character at the end of the road. This is an elegiac tale of missed opportunities for love and fulfillment. If it never quite becomes the heartfelt meditation it wants to be, that is more down to Richard Lester’s perfunctory direction rather than the sincere performances from an outstanding cast.

Robin is well into middle age when the film begins; he and Little John (Nicol Williamson) have followed Richard the Lion-Heart (Richard Harris) through the Crusades and now see him die in France. Returning to England, Robin once again finds himself on the other side of the law, reuniting with Marian (Audrey Hepburn, returning to the screen after an eight-year absence to raise her family) and seeking shelter from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) in Sherwood Forest. King John (Ian Holm), informed of the groundswell of support for the outlaw, sends men into the Forest to quash his rebellion.

Richard Lester made his mark directing The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Throughout the ‘60s he experimental style infused comedy movies with a more vibrant, modern sensibility. By the start of ‘70s, he had suffered a major flop (The Bedsitting Room) and then managed to reinvent himself as a more commercial force with The Three Musketeers for Alexander Salkind (he would go on to direct two, or, at least, one and a half, Superman movies for the producer). But he continued to work mainly in the comedy genre (be it corrosive black comedy Petulia or the swashbuckling frivolity of the Alexander Dumas). Action thriller Juggernaught was an exception.

Whilst there is a rich vein of humour running through it, there wasn’t much precedent for the reflective tone of Robin and Marian. Unfortunately, Lester fails to imbue it with much in the way of lyricism. For that he must rely on the actors; even James Goldman’s script seems more willing to announce its themes than properly explore them. The film is certainly very nicely shot (in Spain, due to the tax status of certain cast members) by cinematographer David Watkin (a regular on Lester’s films, and also responsible for showing off scenery in Out of Africa) but the director’s staging is flat and perfunctory. And, while this is hardly an action movie, the fights are scrappily choreographed and edited (the final duel excepted). There’s a difference between creating a contemplative tone and plain poorly pacing; too often Robin and Marian is afflicted with the latter.

As with Lester’s How I Won the War, there a strong anti-war message is present. We are introduced to Richard as a dyspeptic, unbalanced monarch ready to kill women and children. Robin is sick of the death and destruction, wondering at the actions he was required to perform in the name of God, but he knows no other way to live (hence his confrontation with the Sheriff).

Where this leaves his final scenes with Marian is another matter. I’m sure Goldman was sincere in his choice to have Robin die poisoned by Marian. It forms a poetic end in his mind, as he would never have a day like this again (and his legend will live on). But Lester fails to sell this. Marian’s choice just seems loony; maybe this is intended, that her devotion to God has corrupted her outlook. After all, she also poisons herself and admits she loves Robin more than God. The problem is, her act comes out of nowhere and Robin only accepts his fate after much protest. Was Robin dying anyway? Maybe, but he didn’t seem to think so. It seems to be an ending that works for many viewers, but Lester’s “meat and potatoes” execution renders it devoid of tragic romance for me.

Connery obviously built up a rapport with his director, as they would team up again for Cuba a few years later. If Robin and Marian was a critical success and a commercial disappointment, Cuba saw them bottom out in both areas. Connery didn’t work with his director subsequently, placing much of the blame at his door.

Connery and Hepburn are great together, however. The Scot looks a good 10 or 15 years older than he actually is here, but it works for the character. Hepburn is a striking as ever. There is a sincerity and melancholy to their relationship that comes through in spite of the failings of script and direction.

Williamson doesn’t have the brawn of your typical Little John, but he’s a charismatic, lively presence. Shaw reunites with Connery (they previously sparred in From Russia With Love) and makes a less out-and-out villain of Nottingham than you’d expect. He’s portrayed as an intelligent man, with respect for Robin and a sense of honour. Also working with Connery again, Harris relishes his crazed early scenes, which are highly memorable, and they set the scene for a world Robin no longer has much place in. Denholm Elliott is an unlikely Will Scarlet and Ronnie Barker a likely Friar Tuck. Holm is onscreen all too briefly as John, distracted from his edicts by the attentions of his child bride (played by Victoria Abril). John Barry’s score is evocative, very much in Dances with Wolves mode.

This is often cited as one of Connery’s best performances, and there is definitely a warmth and tenderness in his interplay with Hepburn that you don’t often get to see. It’s just a shame that the film as a whole doesn’t make the most of the solid premise and fine cast.

*** 

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