Ridley Scott likes his movies big. In 2005, he made one of them — an old school sword-and-sandals epic called Kingdom of Heaven that despite its action scenes and moments of brutal violence, is overall a surprisingly quiet, thoughtful cautionary tale about the hazards of extremes.
Here is the Robin Hood we don’t get to see enough. He’s old. As Marian notes,“You had the sweetest body when you left. Hard, and not a mark. And you were mine. When you left I thought I’d die. I even tried … No more scars, Robin. It’s too much to lose you twice.”
As movies go, this one is very odd. It is so flawed and yet so good.
Robin and Marian (1976)
Directed by Richard Lester
“’The day is ours, Robin,’ you used to say, and then it was tomorrow. But where did the day go?”
This 1976 take on the Robin Hood story, Robin and Marion, isn’t terribly interested in the standard “steal from the rich; give to the poor” tale. It’s interested in the pointlessness and vanity of violence. This Robin Hood (Sean Connery) may be a hero but he’s one with a tragic flaw: his pride.
The movie is also a love story. It’s about a love wasted because of that pride.
It’s directed by Richard Lester and fortunately suffers less from his chaotic excesses than other films he made, though they are there.
You know from the opening scenes that this story isn’t going to be about great battles and heroism.
It opens with two knights digging something up. Each knight is weighted down by heavy, shielding clothing and each has a helmet on. The helmets are like huge buckets on the knights’ heads and as they dig their heads bang together. It’s not a heroic image; it is comic. It’s satirical and slapstick.
This movie is about a Robin Hood twenty or more years down the road from the days of exploits in Sherwood Forest. It’s the latter half of the Robin Hood legend, the one not often told (at least in films).
Robin and many of his men have been off to the Holy Land and the Crusades fighting for King Richard the Lionheart (Richard Harris) who happens to be vain, violent and probably psychopathic (as far as the film sees him). Robin follows simply because “… he’s my King.” He’s actually sickened by Richard’s ways.
Richard finally dies so a weary Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) decide to go home to Sherwood Forest.
They do but while on the surface much is still the same, much is very different. It isn’t the world they left. Like themselves, people are older. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is no longer the angry, frustrated man we remember; he’s reflective, even at peace in a way. In some ways, he seems more dangerous because he has learned patience.
When Robin comes across some of his old friends like Will and Friar Tuck, they are older and simply struggling to survive in Sherwood Forest as peasants. And then there is Marian (Audrey Hepburn).
Until she is introduced, Robin and Marian is an average film that satirizes and mocks violence and heroism. Once we meet Marian, the movie elevates itself into something more.
Years earlier when he left to join Richard, Robin left without a word. Robin gave himself to his king. Marian, despairing and after one suicide attempt, joined a convent and gave herself to God. Robin, with Richard dead, is free to come back to Marian and he does, thinking he can go back to how things were with only some minor patching up to do.
But Marian won’t have it. She does God’s work now; he’s her king.
The real story of Robin and Marian is how the relationship between Robin and Marian plays out.
Many reviews of this movie use the word “weird” and they are right to do so. It is weird. It’s a movie that isn’t quite sure what it wants to do. Or, rather, it does know but wants to do too many things and ends up muddled because of this.
On one hand, it is satirical and uses visual, even slapstick comedy. On the other, it is romantic in its love story. There is a mixing of tones and it puts the movie a bit off kilter. Both kinds of movie work; both tones work. They just don’t sit well with each other.
There is, however, a tone of romantic weariness that weaves its way through the movie from Robin to Richard to the Sheriff to Marian and this acts as a kind of anchor. The ship does get tossed from side to side quite a bit but it manages to stay in place.
There are really two Robins in this movie. The first one we meet is more or less a weary old man. He has lost the verve of youth and is tired of the pointlessness of fighting.
Once Richard’s death frees him and he returns to Sherwood Forest the other Robin emerges and this one is the real Robin Hood: a man who is still a boy.
This is where tragedy of the Robin and Marian love story is rooted. Robin has never grown up; Marian has.
What develops is a love story for grown ups. In its resolution, we find the last part of the Robin Hood legend, tweaked a little (in a good way) and a final scene that is touched with nostalgia and sentiment but not to the film’s detriment. It is simply beautiful.
This film definitely has its flaws but on the whole it is wonderful. The story is compelling and the performances of Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn are exquisite. (This is my favourite Sean Connery performance.)
There is also Richard Harris as Richard the Lionheart. He’s wonderful though you can’t help wishing there had been more of him in the movie. Robert Shaw also gives a great interpretation of the Sheriff of Nottingham, a mix of world weariness, patience and guile.
There is battle scene near the film’s end that captures the core of the Robin Hood character in this version. It is between Robin and the Sheriff. Unlike what we usually see, the swashbuckling swordplay we might anticipate, is plodding and devoid of anything heroic. It is two boys, now old men, fighting what is really a schoolyard battle. They can barely lift their swords, much less wield them.
The Sheriff’s men watch, as do Robin’s. Everyone hopes to see their man win. But very quickly the various people watching begin to look on with sad, even horrified expressions. It is so clearly foolish. Even the Sheriff, as their battle nears its finish, fights with a tired, horrified expression. Robin won’t stop. The boy has to win.
When the fight ends, though seriously wounded Robin is invigorated and enthused. He’s alone in this though.
As far as Robin Hood movies go, Robin and Marian is right up there with 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. In fact, they make for a good pairing as they complement one another as well as contrast with each other. You could say Connery’s Robin is Flynn’s twenty years on.
- Film Club: “The years they whittle at you”
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)