Film Club: “The years they whittle at you.”

What a lovely thing to revisit ROBIN AND MARIAN — I hope any of you who did so agree. I found the film deepened with time, which doesn’t make sense so I suppose it must be me. A disturbing thought.

Let’s just jump in, shall we? I love the opening montage of ripening and rotting fruit, with the sword held like a cross against the sun, the nervous vulture, and the one-eyed visage of Esmond Knight, a veteran both of WWII and the film’s of Michael Powell (I wonder which was more traumatic?) — he plays the Old General in BLACK NARCISSUS, the  film director in PEEPING TOM (where the fact that he was actually blind may have been a wicked joke) and even turned up in THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW, staying loyal to Powell even as late as 1972. Knight lost his sight in the war, but courageously continued to act, and his actual lack of an actual eye gives his work here a daunting physical reality. But he’s also ferociously committed and fiery.

The grim tone of the imagery is sustained by the martial qualities of John Barry’s controversial score, and undercut by director Richard Lester with a few naturalistic jokes: soldiers helmets banging together as the kneel to dog up a boulder, one of them trapping his finger beneath it as he loads it into a catapult, and then the catapult’s spectacular misfire, the rock falling short of its target. And then the director’s credit comes up, it’s placement a modest joke in itself. (Where Lester puts his credits is often revealing, whether it’s over a pie in the face for SUPERMAN III or over a sedan chair in A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, a sedan chair on a collision course with another sedan chair, which had the producer’s credit over it…)

And then we meet Robin Hood and Little John, two dour Scotsmen. What do you do about Sean Connery’s accent, anyway? Various attempts have been made to deal with it (John Milius, on Connery’s Arab in THE WIND AND THE LION: “We just assume he learned English from a Scotsman.”) but this one is quite extreme: all the Merrie Men have Scottish accents, although Nottingham is a pretty long walk from here. Sean Connery, nevertheless, is ideal casting here, and Nicol Williamson makes a brilliant Little John, glum and philosophical (daring heroes need reflective sidekicks).

Lester felt that ROBIN AND MARIAN went wrong in a few different ways, so he made CUBA with Connery again to make up for it. Unfortunately, everything went wrong on CUBA, and Connery vowed never to work with Lester again, which is an awful shame. As brilliant as he was in his Sidney Lumet films, for my money he’s even better in CUBA and R&M.

Williamson is the first of the movie’s hard drinkers. A friend of mine who worked alongside him in THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS (1996), to date his penultimate film, said he was just barely functioning. Williamson is known as a bit of a wild man… I hope he’s still together. On this shoot he caught the company spy phoning the day’s events back to producer Ray Stark in LA, so he tore the phone from the wall and threw it in a toilet. And I think tried to flush it.

The opening events of the movie, set in France at the end of King Richard’s crusade (but filmed in Spain for tax reasons), concern the quest for a mythical treasure, which turns out to be a carved rock. This is James Goldman’s way of establishing one of his key themes: the characters in the movie are fighting over myths. Arguably the whole crusade is mythologically motivated, and later Robin will attempt to recapture a glory he knows was never really his. Lester’s historical characters are often concerned with their place in history (“We’re gonna be famous!” declare Butch and Sundance in Lester’s prequel, before being caught in a freeze-frame that irresistably recalls their deaths at the end of George Roy Hill’s original movie), and this often makes them comical or tragical rather than seeming to possess any particularly useful foresight.

Now Richard Harris rides up. Another drunk, and another actor Lester worked with twice (maybe once wasn’t enough, but twice was?). The hero of JUGGERNAUT is a villain now, but in his brief time onscreen there’s a really remarkable relationship drawn: Robin is devoted to this tyrant, even as he tries to guide him towards a more humane course. The conscience of the king. It’s rather moving… but nothing compared to the messed-up relationship stuff that’s to come.

I love the stuff with Robin and John in jail, awaiting possible execution. Delightfully written in itself, it also encapsulates the central idea of the film, the theme of old age and approaching death. Lester had been offered a range of projects, and he seized on R&M after a one-sentence pitch: “Robin Hood in old age.” “That’s it, that’s for me!” he declared. Little John reminisces about how his father lived in own small town all his life. “I’ve met a king, traveled half the world, seen Jerusalem… although the sand was blowing and the walls were miles away.” He sounds like a disappointed tourist.

Absolutely the greatest single image of 1976.

King John’s court: gay courtiers, a castrato singing, and a man with a duck on his shoulder. We’ve already had CARRY ON regular Peter Butterworth as a barber-surgeon, faffing over the King’s fatal injury, and we also get Bill Maynard as a knight — the cream of British acting, padding the background. Harris’s last scene is a stormer, he’s somewhat out of control, but still effective, as only he could be. He tries to run Robin through and ends up collapsing in his arms. “What will you do without me, Jolly Robin, now I’m dead?” On other words, end of prologue, beginning of Act One.

Realism and surrealism are interchangeable in Lester — it may seem odd that King Richard’s coffin is drawn by oxen, but at the same time it’s not implausible. Exposure to the mishaps and desperate improvisations of live television’s early days instilled in the director a vivid sense of the presence of the absurd in the everyday. Meticulous historical research allowed him to create moments of madness with an authentic edge.

We may have notice by this point that when anyone opens their mouth in this movie it’s for a gag or an epigram or a philosophical sound bite. Many of the lines are written in a deliberately casual way to undercut the sense of Important Historical Personages and their Lives, but “deliberately” is n important word here: none of it is exactly naturalistic. It’s the Goldman style. Katherine Hepburn in THE LION IN WINTER does, after all, say, “Of course he’s a barbarian! It’s 1183, we’re all barbarians!” Personally, I enjoy it. (When Richard Lionheart talks about his mother, “the bitch,” that’s Katie H in LION he’s talking about.)

A Bruegelesque image: the addition of a Celtic cross turns Spain into –

Merrie England! A sudden blast of green — ace cameraman David Watkin discovered that the same filter than boosted the tones of the parched Spanish countryside also faded Sean Connery’s inappropriate Marbella tan, so it was win-win. Unlike the weedy woods in ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, here we see a long-shot of a gigantic forest, somewhere a band of outlaws could realistically disappear, or wage guerrilla war on government forces.

And here we meet the other two famous Merrie Men, Friar Tuck, he of the amusing spoonerism, and Will Scarlett, the one everybody forgets about. Tuck should by rights have been played by regular Lester funnyman Roy Kinnear, but for some reason isn’t, so we get Ronnie Barker, a TV legend, in one of his few major movie roles. When I met a sound mixer who’d worked for Lester, he described him as “a very clever man,” with a slight air of suspicion, as if that wasn’t what one expected to be  dealing with in films. Barker said the same thing in his autobiography, going on to observe that when, during the dub, Lester suggested adding an ad-lib  line, Barker protested it wouldn’t work because his lips weren’t moving onscreen. “no one will notice,” claimed Lester, who was fond of stamping all his films in this way, but Barker held firm. The result was that Lester redubbed the whole performance, using another actor, David Jason, who ironically would later co-star with Barker in a popular British sitcom, Open All Hours.

Will Scarlett is the great Denholm Elliott, who returned to work for Lester in CUBA. Another confirmed alcoholic, Elliott swiftly discovered a Spanish monastery where the monks concocted a potent home brew of their own devising. Elliott swiftly moved out of his hotel and into the monastery (perhaps also for the male company?) but somehow managed to find his way to the set everyday and perform his screen duties admirably.

Robin learns that he’s become a legend, his deeds celebrated through the land. “But we didn’t do them,” he protests. “I know that,” laughs Will. I love the faux-casual way Connery asks after Marian. “I haven’t thought of her in years,” he adds, and on earlier viewings I took this straightforwardly, assuming that Lester and Goldman were undercutting the expected romance. But Connery’s shifty look after he speaks shows that he’s really trying to cover deeper emotion in front of the boys. (The detail in Connery’s perf is marvelous.)

I like how Shaw’s cowl makes him seem like a monk.

Meanwhile, we meet Robert Shaw, the last of our quota of boozers, as the Sheriff of Nottingham, nominally the film’s villain — but in fact, he doesn’t perform a single villainous act in the whole film. He’s learned to read, he seems to be administering the district’s laws as fairly as he can, under a weak and despotic king, and is really about the only character in the film who’s both good at his job and capable of doing some good for the country. Until Robin blunders in and spoils everything.

An early clue to the new direction.

With Shaw is Kenneth Haigh as “the oaf,” Sir Ranulf de Pudsey, the one major character not drawn from the Hood legend. Maybe they could have used Sir Guy of Gisbourne as their baddie, but that character has a history with Robin, and it’s important that Sir Ranulf is ignorant of what he’s fighting. It might actually have been better if the knight were played by a younger actor, boosting his rivalry with the Sheriff, but Haigh is very good. He’d worked for Lester before in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, refusing a credit because he was afraid acting in a pop musical would harm his career. He was happy to be named here though.

Lester was unhappy with Shaw’s performance throughout filming, but couldn’t get him to change it — reading between the widely spaced lines, I think Shaw was pissed as a newt — so he called him back in after to re-dub every single line. Shaw was horrified by what he saw onscreen and couldn’t stop apologising for his sloppy work. Lester found the end result, the laid-back, slightly listless appearance and the tense, taut voice, “absolutely electrifying.” I’m inclined to agree. We do find Shaw looking a bit uncoordinated at times, but really, it’s not a problem.

Enter Audrey. Nervous at returning to the screen for the first time since WAIT UNTIL DARK nine years before. It wasn’t the happiest of shoots for her. Lester works fast, and doesn’t let anyone see the rushes (he doesn’t go himself, either). Sometimes actors feel rushed (Anthony Hopkins didn’t enjoy JUGGERNAUT for that reason). Sometimes, if Lester knows he has a good first half of a take one, and a good second half of a take two, he won’t shoot a take three in order to get it perfect because he knows he can cut them together. And actors often don’t like that. Some directors would shoot another take just to please them — not Lester, who would feel physically ill if he didn’t complete every set-up on the day’s schedule in time. As far as budget and schedule go, the most reliable director in the business.

Of course Hepburn looks stunning, but of course, after nine years away, she worried about how she would look. She asked cinematographer David Watkin how he would light her. Watkin wasn’t a Hollywood-style glamour photographer, he was a self-trained “primitive.” He told her, “You’ll just have to take your chances with the rest of them, luv.” Not really the most diplomatic answer.

Despite this, Hepburn is transplendent, and perhaps her nervousness even aids her performance at times. In her very first scene, when she tells Robin she doesn’t want him, she looks up sharply as soon as she’s spoken: “Did he believe me?” Both Connery and Hepburn do great lying in this film, where we read every thought in their faces. (Stephen Frears remarks that a film about lying needs close-ups so you can see the actors think.)

ALL the big R&M scenes in this had us on the brink of tears, if not actually plunging over the cataracts into weepy helplessness. Lester does get to indulge his atheistic side, debunking the church’s role in the crusades even as he allows the lovers to catch up on their recent history and grow closer together (Lester is almost as anti-clerical as Bunuel, although without the edge of obsession).

The first big action scene is motivated by the need to rescue Marian’s fellow nuns from the Sheriff, leading to some brisk comedy and painful violence, and the protracted escape up the portcullis — “The swashbuckling excitement of old men climbing a wall,” as Fiona put it. On the one hand, the slow, miserable struggle upwards, emphasizing the characters’ age, is pretty much the opposite of what we expect from a Robin Hood climax. One the other, the struggle atop the battlements, once they eventually get there, is like a key scene in the Douglas Fairbanks ROBIN HOOD, as rendered by Peckinpah. I know Lester viewed every Musketeers film he could get his hands on in preparation for his own, so I expect he was similarly thorough in preparing for this. And in each case, very little direct influence can be found, the research being more about what to avoid.

I just love the way David Watkin’s long lenses fragment the dappled light in the backgrounds of close-ups.

Ian Holm as King John, who’s always the baddie in Robin Hood films but here is basically a querulous pup — his weakness and stupidity push the story towards its tragic ending without him having to show any competence as a villain whatsoever, which is pretty pleasing, since the movie has already turned Richard into a bloodthirsty psychopath. Also in this scene (1) Fiona’s favourite exchange in the movie: “Where’s the king?” “In the biggest tent, or course.” and (2) Victoria Abril as the King’s pre-teen bride. She’s credited under her real name, Victoria Rojas, and she wholeheartedly plays the character as a half-witted sexpot.

The waiting game: Shaw and Haigh camp out at the fringes of Sherwood Forest while Robin and his men ponder their next move. As the Sheriff has noted, Robin is “a little bit in love with death,” so he can’t resist the challenge, even though it makes no sense. “We’d be slaughtered,” says Little John, and in Nicol Williamson’s accent it sounds like he’s talking about a football match (Scottish football supporters routinely use the expression “slaughtered,” for some reason). Marian tries to get John to talk Robin out of it, and we get another devastatingly emotional scene where he confesses his unrequited love for her, shyly and indirectly: “You’re Rob’s lady. If you’d been mine… I never would have left.”

The final battle — a lovely detail where Robin helps the Sheriff up after they’ve been kneeling in prayer. Hard work, moving in that armour. The fight is realistically slow and exhausting, the only element of movie exaggeration being that they probably fight for longer than any two men could while wearing full armour and carrying broadswords. The bloodstained grass around them is an eloquent touch.

It’s fascinating that Lester had such success making action movies in the 70s an 80s, when he rarely if ever moves the camera. I’m not sure but I don’t think there’s a single tracking shot or crane movement in R&M. There are about two apiece in the MUSKETEERS films. Lester was dumbfounded that he had a reputation among critics for visual pyrotechnics and “fast camerawork” when he was known in the industry as somebody who never required extra tracks. His theory is that he creates an impression of speed by crowding the edges of the frame with movement.

This final duel is a model of clarity and restraint compared to the incoherence of modern fight scenes. And it’s not even overly concerned with being “exciting” — it takes the mature view that if the action IS exciting, then just watching it is enough, and if it isn’t exciting, no amount of jiggle and swish will add drama. Really, the fight is painful, earnest, anxiety-provoking and desperate.

So, Robin, having returned from the wars, kills the Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s actually got himself an education and is the county’s best chance for social progress. Robin achieves nothing except a memorable fight, and staggers off, seriously wounded. Marian, rather than see him slowly wither away to a shadow of himself, and perhaps rather than let him do any more damage, poisons herself and then him. Connery’s performance here is remarkable, exactly capturing the delirium of a man high on adrenalin and oxygen starvation (I’ve seen my dad this way after a particularly strenuous bout of cycling). And with surprising generosity, he accepts Marian’s murder as a romantic gesture…

The Death of Robin Hood is a major part of the legends, but nobody before or since seems to have filmed it. Robin fires an arrow and asks to be buried where it lands. (In the legend, it’s another woman who poisons him: this version improves on the folk tale, and Robin asks for Marian to be laid by his side.) Connery fires the arrow out the window and it simply disappears into the sky, in a moment  critic Neil Sinyard rightly calls screen poetry.

UK: Robin And Marian [DVD] [1976]

The Lion In Winter [DVD] [1968]

US: Robin and Marian

The Lion in Winter

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37 Responses to “Film Club: “The years they whittle at you.””

  1. Knight also played the director of the film-within-the-film in Peeping Tom.

  2. Wow — a pre-Almodovar Victoria Abril!

  3. John Seal Says:

    Have you ever seen The Wilby Conspiracy? To refer to Nicol Williamson’s performance in that film as ‘deliciously evil’ would be a wild understatement. Never has pure wickedness been captured so gleefully and accurately on film! He’s just a remarkable actor…it’s a shame he hasn’t had more work recently, but perhaps that’s by choice.

  4. Saw Richard Harris on a late-night talk show once many years ago. He told a tale about how he was once fixated on an actress, one he didn’t name, and how he tried and tried to woo her, to no avail. He ended up climbing in through her bedroom window, and she finally decided to succumb to his advances, for no better reason than to get him to leave her well enough alone. He took the sheets from the bed they’d coupled on, and made an outfit out of it. He was wearing it on the talk show.

  5. Also impressed by Victoria Abril… didn’t expect to recognize a half-naked girl wandering out of a tent in the second half of the movie.

    Didn’t realize when I started this that I’ve actually seen the ending before on Turner Classic. It meant nothing when I’d only been watching for five minutes, meant a lot more this time. Between this film and PETULIA, Lester sure had a way with devastating endings. The lovers don’t even get their final embrace… John pointedly breaks in and gets between them before their hands can touch, damn him.

    The arrow-in-the-neck in the first scene was a huge surprise, as was the brutality of the fight scenes. Sadly, swords-and-armor movies still remind me of Monty Python/Holy Grail to the point that I can’t take most of them seriously, but this one broke through. Cheers for the recommendation.

  6. Esmond Knight is also there in Renoir’s The River as well.

    Robin and Marian reminded me a lot of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and it’s like a Western in a lot of ways. In this case, a late60s revisionist Western and it’s shot in Spain, Sergio Leone-style. There’s also a hommage to Stagecoach, the fourth image of the coffin procession which is followed by a sudden pan to the right of the frame, much like the famous introduction of the Indian charge in that scene, the pan from a Monument Valley vista to the left.

    Really gets into the fact that the Western is really the American re-telling of the Old England knights and troubadour stories or the Spanish picaresque. Pity a genre never took of in England devoted to Ye Olde England stories. Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois is also a medieval story which resembles a Western in many ways.

  7. Never seen The Wilby Conspiracy, will make a point of seeking it out. I want to see more Nicol. I liked him in Excalibur as a kid! It sounds like he’s just become uncontrollable and nobody will take on the challenge of working with him these days…

    I remember Richard Harris on a talk show talking about getting sober. “The best thing about sex when you’re sober is — you remember it. And there’ll come a time when we’ll be grateful for that.”

    Lester’s other devastating ending is How I Won the War. Never before or sense has the image of Michael Crawford eating a biscuit carried with it such existential terror.

    The Holy Grail effect is an interesting one. If you once think of Monty Python while watching Excalibur, the film is kind of ruined. Boorman makes no allowance for the audience having a sense of humour (except via Williamson’s performance). Lester invites us to laugh at small details so we can take the big things seriously.

    Arthur, you’re quite right about the Stagecoach moment! Ought to have spotted that as I’m about to polish my Stagecoach article.

    Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General is an English Civil War western inspired by Reeves’ love of Don Siegel. But generally British historical films have followed a dull pattern of respectability. For years Alexander Mackendrick wanted to film Mary Queen of Scots, and his ideal was to make it as exciting as a western.

  8. That is sad because English history is full of strife in landscape. I am often amazed at the vast richness of British history and how unexplored it is by the English themselves. They invoke it only by literary and theatre adaptations.

  9. Even Indian history is extremely untapped. The only countries whose national cinema has really given a sense of history over the years is America and Japan. France on some occassions. Eisenstein did Russian culture proud with Ivan the Terrible. Italy has had Visconti and Rossellini and Fellini.

  10. david wingrove Says:

    On the subject of Lester and his ‘devastating endings’…when Raquel Welch died at the end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (strangled with a necklace by Faye Dunaway) I was paralysed with shock for days afterwards. OK, I was 12 at the time – but it just wasn’t the sort of movie where you expected the ‘good girl’ to die!

  11. I always think of this film in connection with Welles’ Chimes at Midnight.
    The two great films about the end of “merrie England”. They both de-construct the myths of the age, both powerful films. They’re also curiously both directed by Americans in Spain.
    Although they’re both quite offbeat and ‘modern’ (neither conservative nor romps) they’re also stylistically different from each other-Lester didn’t even like Chimes that much when he saw it at Cannes
    I also found it interesting that Lester chooses to make his film so summery, autumn or winter would seem the more predictable choice-but it works

  12. English history (and English alternate-future) had Peter Watkins, but it didn’t want him.

    Forgot to mention, I especially enjoyed Robin & Marian because I revisited the Disney version of Robin Hood a couple months ago, having found out that the great Roger Miller wrote and performed in it. Disney’s came out only three years before this… I wonder if Lester considered Peter Ustinov to reprise his King John role.

  13. I don’t really see any similarity at all between the two. Robin and Marian is really an alternate take on a popular legend whereas the Welles is the single most radical film ever made on Shakespeare. And Chimes at Midnight is not about “merry england” at all. And Richard Lester was American by birth but had years become naturalized English(much like MacKendrick) whereas Orson was a citizen of the world.

    Chimes at Midnight is a political film about power, nation destiny. The Henry plays about the coming-of age of Henry V is about the consolidation of the Tudor dynasty(which eventually patroned Shakespeare at the time of first performance) and essentially the determination of England’s imperial identity. But the Welles film is also agonizingly personal. Welles identified with Falstaff but also with Prince Hal who betrays the person who loved him most because of his own relation with his father. It’s really a passionate cri-de-coeur.

    Whereas Robin and Marian is a very good adult entertainment rather than a cinematic masterpiece.

  14. Culloden is really something, a story about the end of the Scottish clans shot in the style of a film crew who while making newsreels in Vietnam managed to get lost in a time portal and decide to make the most of a rupture in the laws of physics.

    David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is also a really great film about England society and especially it’s character vis-a-vis empire, class and colonialism and also a story of sexual neurosis. Frankly the real thing would to be do the ultimate Oliver Cromwell film, this great story of a proletariat turning England into an early fascist state after accomplishing the only successful attempt at dislodging(literally) the monarchy. It says a lot about the national tragedy of English character I think. And it’s filled with contemporary resonance. Instead of making V for Vendetta they should have put their money in that. It’s more sci-fi and dystopian than The Matrix but then I’ve always favoured period films over science fiction.

  15. I’m looking forward to getting around to Winstanley, which seems like a different take on the historical movie.

    Cromwell crops up in Witchfinder General, whose horror movie aspects allow it to push the sensational side of history in quite a positive way. And Ken Hughes film of Cromwell, ironically played by an Irishman, Richard Harris, is no masterpiece but it’s not bad.

    It’s a great shame we couldn’t keep Peter Watkins, but he’s had a spectacular career elsewhere.

    I think Chimes IS about Merrie England in a similar way to R&M — Welles said that the battle of Shrewsbury sequence signified the end of the chivalric myth, and that Falstaff was the embodiment of the bucolic, Chaucerian ideal of England. So he has to die. Chimes is more romantic because Welles really believes in and loves that myth, even though he knows it’s a myth. Lester always wants to pick away a myth or a hero to find the seedy undertrimmings.

  16. Nicol Williamson’s career came to a crashing halt when he attacked another actor (Evan Handler) on stage with a knife in Paul Rudnick’s comedy I Hate Hamlet. As fas as I know he hasn’t been heard of since.

  17. I just found Rudnick’s article on this incident (and many others) –

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/12/24/071224fa_fact_rudnick

    I recall reading him say that Scotland should have some kind of export ban preventing Williamson from leaving the country. He basically should be a controlled substance.

  18. david wingrove Says:

    Mr. Rudnick seems to crop up everywhere! After all, he was the genius behind the inimitable Libby Gelman-Waxner, fictional critic for the US magazine MOVIELINE.

    He has also scripted some of my favourite ‘guilty pleasure’ movies of the last two decades…ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES, IN & OUT, THE STEPFORD WIVES (ghastly but hugely entertaining, if you’re in the right mood) and, best of all, ISN’T SHE GREAT? That’s the cruelly overlooked Jacqueline Susann biopic starring Bette Midler.

    I won’t pretend there’s a true ‘auteur vision’ in Rudnick’s work, but it does show consistency of a sort.

  19. Another Esmond Knight mention – he also turns up as the hero’s sickly mentor in Lars von Trier’s Element of Crime. Apparently he didn’t reveal until he got the role that he was blind, and had therefore a system was devised to lead him around the sets in order to hit his very specific cues (this was this extremely controlled von Trier period).

  20. Tony Williams Says:

    Great review, David C. It brought back so many memories of my one viewing years ago. Also, one variant of the Robin Hood legend deals with his death by poison at the hand of a wicked prioress, something that Lester reworks to very good advantage in the climax.

  21. Fascinating information about Watkins’ filter increasing the greenness, and the dappled light effects (the latter is used with surprising prominence in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, of all films). Those effects accentuate the lushness and summery look of the film, along with Barry’s swelling romantic motifs. “Ripeness is all,” but here what seems ripe is really over-ripe–Robin and Marian’s second youth is really a wasting chimera, and the film winds down with that close-up of shriveled fruit. R&M is a deeply sensual film, and that sensuality is deeply attuned to elation masking decline.

    Connery’s accents have never bothered me–his luxuriant, stirring voice is only superficially a Scotsman’s and really a platonic ideal of the sound that we expect to issue forth from the mouths of legendary figures, no matter where they’re originally from. Whether Connery appears as an Arab chieftain or Russian submarine captain he’s making a universal statement that great men are the same, regardless of nation. To put it a little cheekily, all heroes of legend have a bit of Connery in them.

    You put your finger on it when you said the Sherrif “doesn’t perform a single villainous act in the whole film.” I didn’t know about the comprehensive dubbing but the effect is great–Shaw’s body and face give the impression of a weary, deadened survivor, but his voice suggests that Robin’s return has awakened a flicker of interest in him, though he knows it’ll take them all into disaster–the Sherriff isn’t in love with death, but he’ll embrace with a fatalistic smirk.

    You’re quite right in saying the version improves on the original legend, where Robin gets done in by a nun hoping to curry favor with the authorities. Goldman must have noticed the nun connection between the folk tale and the idea of Marian going into a nunnery and made a simple but ingenious intuitive leap.

    On Old England knights and troubadour stories never really taking off in the UK: even the great Arthurian romances–the works of Chretien de Troyes, the Vulgate, the Prose Tristan, and the Post-Vulgate–were by the French. (And later adapted by Thomas Malory, whose retelling eclipsed his models, even though he sometimes did a lousy job adapting them). So it’s appropriate that the best Arthurian films–Rohmer’s Perceval and Bresson’s Lancelot–are French (and quite faithful to Chretien and the Vulgate, respectively). Boorman’s Excalibur probably comes third, but tries doing too much in too little time. The full Arthurian saga needs the sort of cinematic indulgence given to the Lord of the Rings.

    Though I wouldn’t call R&M as great as Chimes at Midnight, I’d still rank it as a masterpiece–it’s a deeply felt examination of the responsibilities and (irresponsibilities) of growing old (a subject rarely explored in movies, let alone popular cinema), and a loving if critical goodbye to a great legend–a legend that is ultimately larger than even the concept of merry old England.

  22. Thanks, IA! I remember a low budget movie called Gawain and the Green Knight I saw as a kid, which is one of the few British Arthurian movies. It seemed pretty good when I was 12. Wonder how it looks now.

    In Black Narcissus Esmond Knight rides a donkey through a forest, and everybody was very concerned before shooting this. “It’ll be fine,” he said. “The donkey doesn’t want to hit a tree any more than I do.”

  23. jason hyde Says:

    Gawain and the Green Knight doesn’t look so good now, or at least it didn’t to me. It’s nice to see Connery and Cushing in the same movie and always a treat to see the armor from Excalibur getting another job, but Miles O’Keefe is Sir Gawain, and that’s a big problem right there. It’s goofy, but not always in the good way.

    Just saw Nicol Williamson in The Seven Percent Solution. A film of bizarre performances, to be sure, but Williamson’s really takes the prize. I’m not sure how much of the sweating and stammering and twitching in that movie is acting or just Nicol Williamson being himself. It’s also not quite as good as I remembered.

  24. Christopher Says:

    I’d totally forgotten about The Seven Percent Solution..I went back twice to see that in the theatre when it came out in the late 70s..Haven’t seen it since..Nicholas Meyer was doing interesting things with history back then..

  25. The Connery-Cushing-O’Keefe Gawain film is Sword of the Valiant, a remake by Stephen Weeks of his own Gawain and the Green Knight made ten years later. The first version had Murray Head as Gawain and the great Nigel Green as the Green Knight. It used to be on BBC 2 all the time but seems to have disappeared now…

    I just love Robin and Marian. Great review.

  26. 7% is hampered for me, not by Williamson as Holmes, who after all is having a drug-induced nervous breakdown (check Ken Adam’s designs for 22/1b Baker Street: all the books on the shelves are askew, suggesting the inhabitant’s derangement), or by Alan Arkin’s sprightly Freud, but by Robert Duvall’s utterly bizarre casting as Watson. To say he can’t do the accent is to undervalue his extreme strangeness: he can’t even SUGGEST the accent.

    Never watched all of Sword of the Valiant, but I did see the original version several times as a kid during its BBC2 outings. Since Nigel Green is one of the most fascinating and mysterious actors I know of, I’m definitely going to take another look. (I’d forgotten it was him.)

  27. And don’t forget Percival by the dear departed Eric Rohmer. Fabrice Lucchini is marvelous as the apprentice-knight, and Arielle Dombasle sings in it — along with displaying her de rigeur babe-a-liciousness.

  28. I have a jittery VHS of this, high time I upgraded. I saw Nestor Almendros speak in the 80s and he was wryly amusing about his and Rohmer’s decision to abandon all their usual aesthetic choices when the movie demanded it.

  29. One thing I have always loved about Lester – the endless colliding, confusion and tripping about of near, far, and distant background characters. He tones it down here, of course. Finally saw Robin and Marian again last night (Due to work and travel,I’m way behind this blog). Lovely.

  30. Yes! Lester’s crowds are always made up of individuals, with their own concerns and (post-dubbed) voices. His take on history is he’s interested less in the great movements of kings and ideologies than in what it was like to live in those times. And he has this vast talent pool of comics he worked with in TV so his planning process was “calling up my mates and asking who’s free.” So Peter Butterworth, an incompetent Roman soldier in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, pops up again here as an incompetent barber-surgeon.

  31. jason hyde Says:

    I had no idea that the Connery Gawain movie was a remake, and of one with Nigel Green in it no less. I need to track that down. I’m pretty committed to seeing everything Green was in. Even when the movie’s terrible, he’s never anything less than mesmerizing. Hammer’s Countess Dracula’s a good example. I’d never call it a good movie, but whenever Green’s onscreen it’s temporarily elevated to something much better than it really is.

    The strangest thing about Duvall’s Watson in The Seven Percent Solution is that I remember reading somewhere, possibly in a book about Holmes films, that he got the part by sending in a recording of himself doing the accent and everybody was so impressed that he got the part. Very strange, when you consider that there were actual British people involved in the making of that film. I actually like Williamson’s uber-neurotic Holmes and Arkin’s Freud. Olivier’s brief turn as a pitiable Moriarty is pretty interesting as well, and Charles Gray’s great as Mycroft. I remember being pretty thrilled to see him return to the part in the Jeremy Brett series in the 80s. Gray’s pretty much always entertaining.

  32. Agreed! There’s a sort of air of madness Green has in his eyes, not always but often in unexpected moments, like all through The Ipcress File. And he’s so electrifying in his small role in Bitter Victory that I sometimes wish the movie was all about his character.

    Recently recorded Meyer’s The Deceivers, with Pierce Brosnan, which I’d somehow never heard of. No British filmmaker would tackle an Imperialist adventure story like that, so I’m pretty interested in seeing it.

  33. Bitter Victory was a problematic production. Christopher Lee counted it as the only film he wanted to leave after one day of shooting. None of the supporting actors knew which parts they were playing until they arrived in Libya and wreer resntful of what they ended up with. An attempted suicide, Nicholas Ray losing his voice and being unable to put his intentions across to the cast, Richard Burton and Nigel Green drinking heavily and Jurgens having an affair with the producer’s wife whilst trying to avoid being killed by Raymond Pellegrin makes the story behind the film rather more interesting than the film itself…

  34. I like the film, but it does show marked signs of confusion — some of which are interesting. The casting of Jurgens was a pretty crazy choice, a German playing an allied officer in a WWII film…

    Almost every Ray film seems to throw out incredible stories. Much as I love the biography, there’s probably a brilliant book three times as long to be written.

  35. Ted Haycraft Says:

    David – so happy to see all this discussion on a Lester film (& one of my favorites of his as well!). I’m getting more and more disappointed and fustrated that he seems to have been pretty much forgotten recently in film books and such (…other than Soderbergh’s book!). Do you have any ideas why he seems to be overlooked & underrated. Is it because of him retiring at a relative early age or that he seems to be pegged only as that ‘BeatlesSwing 60′s Director’ and nothing much else?!??

    Also did you know about Legrand’s unused score for ROBIN AND MARIAN being released on CD along with his THREE MUSKETEERS score: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/12493/THE-THREE-MUSKETEERS-ROBIN-AND-MARIAN-UNUSED-SCORE/
    This is a great CD for Lester fans!!!

    Anyway I’m such a huge Lester fan and I think he deserves a lot more props than he seems to receive. Usually once someone finds out I’m such a big film nerd they have to throw out the notorious question “What’s your favorite film?” and most of the time I end up defaulting (since it’s so hard to really answer that) to Lester’s THREE & FOUR MUSKETEERS – for me they contain everything I love in a film – great characters played to perfection by great actors, action, adventure, history, comedy, romance, great music, spot on locations, set designs & costumes, etc. Outside of Welles and Leone I tend to go back to Lester films more so than many other directors…

  36. thefanwithnoname Says:

    …and speaking of Nigel Green – though I thought physically he wasn’t qutie right I got such a kick out of his preformance as Hercules in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS watching it over & over (when I could) as a kid!!! It’s probably from this film, more so than any of his other ones, that I became such a big fan of his (?!?? – would this be a good example of ‘playing against type’?!??)…

  37. I feel basically the same about Lester. He’s always been unaccountably underrated — you can distrust any writer who refers to him as Dick, since such a person no doubt has an agenda to trivialize his work. It probably does date back to the Beatles, and The Knack, which were seen as lightweight and therefor unimportant, and then regarded unjustly as “dated” for a long time.

    Nigel Green doesn’t have a bodybuilder physique, but he always strikes me as a tremendously strong fellow, when I see him bare-chested.

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