Twang!

Hollywood producer Ray Stark makes a cameo appearance.

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.

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10 Responses to “Twang!”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    It is a very underrated film and a deliberate change of style for Lester as you note. I only saw it on TV and was impressed by Richard Harris’s performance in the opening scene as a drunken and loutish Richard the Lionheart, a far cry from IVANHOE and the Dermot Walsh TV series of the 1950s.

  2. The first time I encountered it was on TV also, tuning in partway through and thus missing Harris altogether. So it was Robert Shaw who captured my attention on that occasion, with his intensity (and some of the best lines).

  3. Speaking of score replacements, when Joseph Losey found the score Richard Rodney Bennett had composed for The Go-Between wanting he turned to . . . .Michel Legrand.

  4. And Legrand’s score is outstanding, contributing greatly to that film’s uniquely unsettling atmosphere. I seem to recall Losey often had fraught relationships with his composers, and took a while to be convinced even in this case.

    Bennett, of course, has contributed many excellent scores to the movies, including three for Losey.

  5. Terry Walstrom Says:

    A hardcore film buff who forms expectations in advance of viewing any film does himself and the film a great disservice.
    The Director’s reputation at that point of Robin & Marian’s release was that of a madcap. Who would think otherwise?
    The subject matter of Robin Hood would lead one to expect adventure and derring do. The actor Sean Connery would lead one to expect noble heroism and a wry witty banter. The fresh-out-of-retirement Audrey Hepburn would suggest shimmering romance and rakish charm and savoir faire. The pairing of Connery and Robert Shaw would call to mind the super-exciting fight in From Russia with Love.
    Well, those expectations were not met fully, certainly.
    The tone of the movie was bittersweet at best and pedestrian at worst–IF you were expecting all of the aforementioned chemistry.
    The autumnal tone of Lester’s intentional anti-romanticism served up a surprising gem of a film (expectations aside). The John Barry score rescued the enterprise from bleakness and anticlimax by humanizing the relationships without misdirecting our emotional resonance. These are heroic and beautiful people at the end of their own ability to believe in such things as practical in the world they inhabit.
    Michel Legrand’s tonal chamber music score has the warmth of Psycho while remaining a perfect fit for Lester’s vision. The audience may well have liked such a film if Ingmar Bergman was at the helm.
    But, John Barry gave us, the audience, something of an after-image of the backstory that now only exists in legend so that the film can play against the myth onscreen as contrast.
    This serves the film and the viewer as well as can be done, in my opinion.
    I can only conclude the Director was ill-suited to the project because of his own intention to deflate the myth and give us saggy jowled has-beens confronting their imminent mortality.
    Blake Edwards would be the better choice. But, alas! We have the film we have and I would gladly watch it again anytime without regret.

  6. But — if the film gives you that much pleasure, it’s hard to argue that the director was a bad choice. Good films NEVER result from such scenarios.

    Lester’s approach to the music wasn’t all bleak — he wanted a triumphal orchestral blast when we first see Sherwood, and Barry gave him a solo trumpet. In some cases Barry went in the opposite direction. And we can’t wholly judge Lester’s intent by the existing Legrand tracks because Lester wasn’t quite satisfied with them and was planning to re-record. That meant asking the producer for more cash, which was when the crisis started.

    The other, obvious reason why we can’t assess Legrand’s work is because we can’t hear it alongside the film, properly cued up. I think in some cases the film would give warmth to the score. I’m more willing to trust the director since he supervised everything else we see in the film, and that largely turned out rather well.

    The film is of course romantic but not in a sugary way — love can be destructive and painful too. Here it leads to death.

    You’re right that Barry’s score evokes a vanished world of youth, but I think it foregrounds it a bit too much. It’s there in the Legrand, but much more distant. Moments like Robin and Marian making love in a field needed a touch more restraint to avoid edging towards the world of the TV ad.

    But your comments are greatly appreciated and I hope you’ll join in on Friday — I don’t want to have it all my own way!

  7. Terry Walstrom Says:

    Richard Lester’s Cannes Film Festival winner THE KNACK possessed a jazzy vocalise score by John Barry that is among the best things ever provided for cinema. Lester had remarked it was everything he wouldn’t have done–but, it works.
    This is one of the “problems” of artists such as talented Directors with no musical expertise. The don’t know where their particular genius ends, where the fall-off starts, where they must step back and allow the other genius to step up.
    Nobody can do it all. Well, hardly.
    Robin and Marian was a kind of showbiz opportunity with Connery and Hepburn and the mythic heroism of Robin Hood at his end of days.
    There is a built-in positive to the legend demanding an upbeat thru-line to the dramatic arc. Lester makes the arc inverted and heads toward a downer. What is the audience given (emotionally) to cling to?
    Marian has freakin’ POISONED Robin!! There’s a cheery twist!
    The only “love story” in the film is between Robin and Little John.
    Hepburn isn’t given the opportunity to play off her leading man the way she did with previous legendary leading men because THIS Robin is a bald tire with a blowout.
    I blame Richard Lester for daring to tamper with a sacrosanct shimmering mythos lingering in our subconscious from Olivia de Havilland and Erroll Flynn. These characters deserve a better denoument.

  8. Well, I almost hate to say it, but Lester was a musician before he was a filmmaker, and is one of relatively few people alive who can claim to have jammed with the Beatles. He wrote the music for his short The Running Jumping Standing Still Film. It’s not great, mind you — but just as it’s true to say he couldn’t have scored The Knack himself, he’s not lacking in musical experience. And he gave plentiful notes to Barry — complicated, bizarre ones. So although the score he got was a surprise, as should be the case when you work with a great artist like Barry — it was a score he approved and welcomed.

    Bear in mind also that the ending was written by James Goldman and was central to the concept — the script was called The Death of Robin Hood. And that’s largely how Robin dies in the legend, although it’s another woman who poisons him. Having Marian do it is a twist, but it actually makes it MORE romantic in my view, than if it were a supporting player. Robin loves Marian, but his love is a weak thing compared to hers. Anyhow, we’ll get into the meaning of her last act when we attack it properly on Friday.

    Sounds like you have a lot of problems with the movie despite saying you’d happily re-watch it anytime!

  9. I just saw “Robin and Marion” for the first time since the ’70s and loved it, hugely (not a surprise since I’m an avowed Lester fan). The Barry score didn’t bother me so much. I even liked the brassy ominous parts (not so different from, say, his music for”The Chase”). It’s the Big Love Theme that falls short. Others have done this sort of thing, and better.

    I certainly think it’s classy of Lester to have asked for a Michael Tippett quality (how many other directors would even have known who Tippett is?).

    It did strike me that Marion’s “*Look* at you!” is one of those Sentences They Were Born To Say — and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hepburn directed much the same line at Albert Finney in “Two for the Road.”

  10. Lovely. Glad you liked the film again. I think it keeps getting better for me.

    The irony is probably that R&M is one of Barry’s better late scores, just not the right one for this particular film. I just enjoyed, up to a point, Bryan Forbes Deadfall with Michael Caine and Eric Portman, and a pretty good Barry score. There’s a concert scene intercut with a jewel robbery (very Hitchcockian) and Barry actually appears as the conductor.

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