Before we all sit down to discuss ROBIN AND MARIAN on Friday, there are a few background facts I want to spout out, as perhaps forming a useful context to the film and the director’s intentions. Richard Lester, the gleaming dome of British sixties cinema, had somewhat reinvented himself after a forced break of four years, coming back with THE THREE MUSKETEERS and its part two (not really a sequel as both halves were shot at once and intended as one film) THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. ROYAL FLASH came after that, firming up the idea that Lester was now a director of comedy swashbucklers. But while FLASH is more broadly farcical than MUSKETEERS (which has a distinct serious side and a fairly bittersweet ending), ROBIN AND MARIAN was shot under the title THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD, and was intended from the start as a serious and sombre film.
Reviewers often view one film through the lens of another — I can be guilty of this myself — meaning that what’s actually on the screen can either be intensified or obscured. If you read the contemporary reviews of R&M, it’s striking how critics seem to feel cheated, or disappointed at least, by the film’s solemnity. Lester has protested that “there’s not one deliberate joke in the whole film,” which is an exaggeration, I think — he can’t resist having a knight hurt his finger while loading a boulder into a siege machine, which subsequently misses its target pathetically — but his jokes derive from an acute awareness that life is, and always has, included a portion of the absurd and surreal. The comic moments are part of the film’s realism, not separate from it. My parents couldn’t work out if the film was meant to be serious or funny, and consequently disliked it. I kind of wonder how you can enjoy life if you need to make that distinction.
Along with altering the title (which would have served as a useful warning of what to expect in the film), producer Ray Stark rejected Michel Legrand’s score, held a competition among prominent movie composers for the gig, and hired John Barry, all without telling Lester. Barry dutifully provided the lush, filmic movie score Stark had demanded, ignoring Lester’s calls for a more restrained approach inspired by Sir Michael Tippett’s early string compositions. It’s possible to enjoy the Barry score as a typically romantic and sweeping work, but it tends to push a more light-hearted flavour at odds with the film’s true purposes. Since Lester was never able to finalize the Legrand score, a director’s cut is not possible.
Some violence has also been trimmed from the movie — Lester wanted to undercut any impression of fun action, more forcefully than he had in the MUSKETEERS film, where there’s a constant tension between slapstick and bloodshed — and this is weakened by trims made to the moments of brutality. The idea that an audience can be educated out of enjoying violence onscreen by being exposed to more and more extreme forms of it is a rather discredited one, I feel, but Lester always had the ability to bring in the unpleasant action in a surprising way, so he was not dependent on extremes of gore, but on extremes of contrast. It compares somewhat with Robert Altman’s sudden tonal shifts from comedy to horror.
Despite these compromises, I think we can have a fun time with this movie – -I hope to re-watch it tonight. Join me on Friday and Saturday for the post-match analysis.