Monday, September 7, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Robin and Marian"

Like "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," which was the Reeling Backward feature a few weeks ago, "Robin and Marian" is about growing old. Rather than using an unknown protagonist, the 1976 film boldly chose one of the most familiar cinematic heroes, Robin Hood, for a meditation on death and dying.

In Robin's case, he's not so much afraid of death as dying without a purpose. In the final scene, Robin has defeated the Sheriff of Nottingham in personal combat, but Marian, the love of his life, has fatally poisoned him (and herself, too). At first he is enraged, but then understanding washes over him: "I'll never have another day like this again, will I?"

Sometimes you have to die to allow your legend to live on.

Robin and Marian were played by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, who were ages 45 and 46, respectively. Connery had worked steadily, but was in between his glory days as James Bond and his resurgence that began with 1987's "The Untouchables." Hepburn hadn't made a movie in nine years, and would only have three more film roles, all small supporting performances.

The story opens 20 years after the heyday of Robin and his merry men. He left Marian and Sherwood Forest to follow King Richard the Lionheart on the Crusades. Unlike the usual portrayals of Richard as a good and noble ruler, here he's played by Richard Harris as a power-mad despot.

In the opening sequence, he orders Robin to storm a ruined castle defended only by an old man and some children. When he refuses, Robin is thrown into chains along with his faithful friend Little John (played by Nicol Williamson, who would go on to play Merlin in "Excalibur" a few years later). Unfortunately for Richard, the old man contemptuously throws an arrow at him and, in some kind of freak display of physics, pierces him through the neck. He dies of his wounds shortly thereafter. (This account is actually fairly similar to the actual way Richard the Lionheart died.)

Robin and John make their way back to Sherwood, and chance upon Will Scarlett (Denholm Elliott) and Friar Tuck (Ronnie Barker). From them he learns that Marian joined the nunnery, and is set to be jailed because Prince John (Ian Holm) is in a dispute with the Pope and has ordered the suspension of all religious services.

Robin "rescues" Marian, which is to say he forcibly stops her from turning herself into the Sheriff's men by conking her over the head. From there the film builds toward the big showdown with the Sheriff (Robert Shaw).

Director Richard Lester paints a picture of faded glory, with the explicit lesson that trying to hang onto your youth is bound to end in the disaster. Robin is deluded about his own diminished ability to in combat -- a fight against a handful of soldiers on the Nottingham battlements devolves into a pair of middle-aged men holding their sides and huffing with exhaustion.

There's a great scene where Marian tends to Robin's wounds, and as she removes his shirt she sighs and talks wistfully about how young and sweet his body used to be. Now it's a flabby stretch of years and scars. But Robin is defiant: "You think I'm old? Old and gray?!"

The big fight scene between the Sheriff and Robin is presented not as a triumphant battle royale, but a pathetic attempt by a has-been to hang onto his own myth of greatness. Even the Sheriff pleads with him to give up the pitiful display.

Made after Vietnam and Watergate, when the country was tired of war and deceit, "Robin and Marian" is a sobering document about clutching too desperately on the past. We were ready to look ahead.

3.5 stars

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