This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Robin and Marian (1976)

"I love you...more than God!"
-Maid Marian to Robin Hood.

To ring in Valentine's Day, I'm looking at a film which was ahead of its time, but used a classic, beloved love story as its template.
The first film version of Robin Hood I remember seeing was Disney's animated Robin Hood (1973), in which animals played the parts, including a Baloo-esque bear as Little John. It is not as praised as other Disney outings such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) or Beauty and the Beast (1991), but it is fun, with great, funny voice work from Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince John (who is a lion) and Terry-Thomas as his aide Sir Hiss (who's a snake).
But the most famous film version of the outlaw who robbed from the rich to feed the poor during the Crusades is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which its wonderful set pieces and Errol Flynn's Robin sword fighting with Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played by the great Basil Rathbone. The movie deservedly won Oscars for Art Direction, Film Editing and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's musical score.
There have been other film versions of Robin Hood, including a TV series which ran from 1955-1959. But, after Flynn's version, the most well-known version is probably Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves(1991), in which Kevin Costner played the title role. Costner himself was criticized for not sounding British, but other aspects of the movie were praised, including Alan Rickman's funny and scary turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Morgan Freeman's work as Robin's Moorish friend Azeem. Another nice touch was Sir Sean Connery's cameo as Richard the Lionheart at the movie's end. This gave celebrity cameos in films a good name because his presence was a delightful surprise for both the audience and the characters. It was also fitting because Connery played the role of Robin Hood himself 15 years earlier in Robin and Marian.
This version tells the story of the outlaw with a unique twist. It begins years after Robin thwarted the Sheriff (Robert Shaw) while romancing Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) are now in France as the Crusades are reaching their end. They begin to express disapproval over the violent methods used by Richard (Richard Harris) when he needlessly slaughters the people inside a castle Richard mistakenly thinks houses a gold statue. After ordering Robin and John's incarceration, Richard is wounded before he carries out the killings.
Robin is later brought before the dying King, who attempts to kill him, but is too weak and, with his dying breath, releases Robin and Little John.
Following Richard's funeral, Robin decides that the time is right to return to England. Once there, they reunite with their friends Will Scarlet (Denholm Elliott) and Friar Tuck (Ronnie Barker), who inform him that Marian is now a nun. Robin and Little John head to the abbey she is at. Marian is surprised to see her former love but has no interest in reuniting with him, as she is ready to turn herself in to the Sheriff for going against the orders of King John (Ian Holm).
Robin saves Marian despite the pleas of both her and the Sheriff, neither of whom wish for any trouble to arise.
When they return to Sherwood Forest, Robin and Marian have a heart-to-heart in which she asks him if he really wants another conflict with the Sheriff on his hands. Robin replies by telling her an incident in which he and Little John witnessed Richard ordering the killing of many Muslims while the churchmen accompanying them praised the carnage as a sign of God's greatness. He then says that the only reason he didn't return to England at that point was out of his loyalty to Richard.
At the same time, the Sheriff's compatriot Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh) leads troops into Sherwood to take Robin, despite the Sheriff's warnings that he won't succeed. Robin kills Ranulf's men and spares him with a hostile warning. He then tells Marian he simply wants to resume his life in Sherwood with her.
Robin's return also brings cheers from the populace, some of whom wish to join him. This leads to King John ordering the arrests and murders of many of them. During this, Little John kills Sir Ranulf.
Robin then realizes that the only way he can end this is to challenge the Sheriff to a duel. This duel ends with Robin being mortally wounded before vanquishing the Sheriff. Little John and Marian take her to her abbey to tend to his wounds. It is then that she clandestinely gives both Robin and herself poison. Anguished at first, Robin then realizes that he would not have been able to recover and Marian simply took the step that would ensure they'd always be together. He then aims an arrow out the window toward Sherwood and tells a tearful Little John to bury them where the arrow lands.
Fittingly, the last shot of the film is a P.O.V. shot of the arrow as it goes up in the air.
Needless to say, all the actors are letter perfect in their roles here. Connery and Hepburn in the title roles elevate this movie to one of the great movie love stories, right up there with Casablanca (1942), and has a nice, romantic John Barry score to match.
The two stars are matched by Williamson whose Little John is loyal to Robin without simply being 'the sidekick.' One of the most touching moments in the film, though, is when he tells Marian:
"If I was Robin, I never would have left you."
This notion of Little John being in love with someone who is attached to his best friend makes for a moving twist and makes Little John's sadness at the end of the picture even more poignant.
Harris's brief but memorable appearance as Richard is also great. Depending on who you ask, the real Richard was either a hero or a tyrant, so it's interesting that a Robin Hood movie paints him as the latter, especially when Connery's depiction of the character in Prince of Thieves was more heroic.
Also great is Shaw, whose Sheriff is that rarest of antagonists: thoughtful. Robin wishes to return to the glorious life he led before joining Richard, but the Sheriff does not necessarily wish to restart their old conflict. But he also believes that they are tied by destiny, hence his line to Sir Raulf when the latter proclaims Robin is a dead man:
"Yes, but not just anyone's. He's mine!"
Their climatic fight scene is also a highlight, without falling into the trap of simply being a redo of the fight scene between Connery and Shaw in From Russia With Love (1963), the second James Bond movie. That conflict, between Connery's 007 and Shaw's Grant, is, without a doubt the best mano-a-mano fight scene in movie history. Their fight in this film is just as memorable because the characters and the motivations are different (Robin and the Sheriff actually help each other get to their feet before their fight begins). In both films, their characters have nice dialogue exchanges prior to their fight scenes.
This movie also became noteworthy for marking Hepburn's return to the big screen after eight years. When he introduced the picture on Turner Classic Movies in 2002, Robert Osborne stated that Marian was her last great role.
In a way, this takes Robin, Marian and the others in a different direction the same way The Dark Knight (2008) took the character of Batman in a different direction. The key difference is that the ending to this picture is even more downbeat (even Prince of Thieves, with its gritty tone, has an ending that makes you smile).
Replace the well-known characters with people we never heard of and this picture may have been as successful as Love Story (1970). But the fact that this picture was a Robin Hood picture led to expectations from the public that it'd be a fun adventure (indeed, the original title was The Death of Robin Hood, but Columbia Pictures, which released the film, thought a title change would make it more marketable), especially since it was directed by Richard Lester, who previously scored with the one-two punch of The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).
Hence, the film's bold decision to do something different with these beloved figures proved something of a double-edge sword as audiences were initially not inclined to see a film which didn't end with Robin and Marian living happily ever after.
But this film deserves credit for doing something different. It also aims to put a lump in your throat and succeeds wonderfully.

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