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Robin Hood Week Day 2: Brian Bedford in Robin Hood (1973)

Robin Hood 1973Director: Wolfgang Reitherman

Writer: Larry Clemmons & Ken Anderson

Cast: Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Phil Harris, Roger Miller, Peter Ustinov, Terry-Thomas, Andy Devine, Carole Shelley, Pat Buttram, George Lindsey, Ken Curtis, Billy Whitaker

Plot: When good King Richard (a lion) left for the crusades, he left his brother Prince John as ruler of England, despite the fact that they were both voiced by Peter Ustinov. The rooster minstrel Alan-A-Dale (Roger Miller) tells us the story of the crusader who fought against John – a clever fox named Robin Hood (Brian Bedford), who defended Sherwood Forest with his friend, a bear named Little John (Phil Harris). The two outlaws disguise themselves and rob a coach carrying Prince John and his right-hand snake, Sir Hiss (Terry-Thomas).

John’s flunky, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pat Buttram) makes the rounds to collect the exorbitant taxes from the townsfolk, snatching up every cent Robin’s friend Friar Tuck (Andy Devine) has managed to smuggle to them, even snaring a rabbit child’s birthday present of a single coin. As he leaves, Robin arrives in disguise and gives the boy a bow and arrow, along with one of his hats. The boy, Skippy (Billy Whitaker) leads his friends to play, but loses the bow in a palace courtyard. When he goes to retrieve it, he encounters Maid Marian (Monica Evans) and her friend Lady Cluck (Carole Shelley). The kids question Marian about her past relationship with Robin, and Skippy winds up playacting a “rescue” of Marian, culminating with her giving the unsuspecting boy a kiss.

Back in the forest, Robin is busy mooning over Marian himself when Friar Tuck brings him the news of an archery tournament, with the prize to include a kiss from Marian. Robin cannot help himself from entering the tournament, albeit disguised as a stork. He wins easily, but his disguise slips and he’s captured. Before the Sheriff can execute him, Little John forces the Prince to release him, and taking Marian with him, Robin and the others flee into the forest.

When Prince John learns how the people of Sherwood have begun to mock him, he triples the taxes and arrests anyone who can’t pay. The Sheriff tries to empty the church’s poorbox to line John’s coffers, sending Friar Tuck into a rage. He’s arrested and John sentences him to death in order to lure Robin Hood out of hiding. Disguising himself as one of the Sheriff’s Vulture henchmen, Robin sneaks into the palace late that night. Little John frees the Friar and the rest of their friends who have been arrested, while Robin sneaks off to steal the sacks of money in Prince John’s private quarters right under the sleeping prince’s nose. As he makes off with the last of it, Sir Hiss wakes up and alerts John (in a cartoonishly violent way). After a daring escape, Robin dives into the moat, followed by a shower of arrows, and Prince John believes him dead… but he pops up and chimes out “A pox on the phony king of England!” sending Prince John crying for his mommy.

Eventually, King Richard returns to England and pardons Robin and his men, placing John, Sir Hiss, and the Sheriff in irons, just in time for Robin and Marian’s wedding.

Thoughts: As with many people my age, this was the first version of Robin Hood I remember seeing, and in fact was the only version I was aware of for many years. In fact, even though Roger Miller’s Alan-A-Dale starts the movie by pointing out there are many versions of the Robin Hood and that this is, in fact, the version told by the animals, I remember being distinctly surprised when I got a little older and realized that Robin Hood was not, in fact, an original Disney character, and that what’s more, most versions of him were human and did not start anthropomorphic animals. Then I had to stop and look up what “anthropomorphic” meant, because I was like eight years old.

What’s more, this is the first time I watched this movie in years, and I’m catching a number of things I never would have noticed before. For example, the first scene with Robin Hood and Little John, after some cartoon antics escaping Prince John’s men, sees them engaging in a moralistic debate over the ethics of the whole “robbing the rich to give to the poor” angle. It’s a bit more thoughtful than one would expect from an early-70’s Disney movie, but it’s highly appropriate. In fact, there’s a lot of ethical moralizing in this movie. Whereas Errol Flynn (despite his loyalty) blamed Richard for leaving England in the hands of his brother to engage in the Crusades, Disney lightens it up a bit by making Richard the victim of the hypnotic Sir Hiss, who sent him off on what John calls a “silly crusade.”

The 70s were sort of a nebulous time for Disney. Walt was gone and, although it was still many years before the company’s second renaissance would begin with The Little Mermaid, it was also long before they would really hit the skids in the 80s. There’s a roughness to the quality of the films of the period, and while it now marks them indelibly as products of their time, it’s also the time in which I was introduced to Disney animation. I’ve got a soft spot for it. Even this film has a lot going for it in terms of animation and performance – the way Sir Hiss slithers his body underneath himself to simulate the elbows of a petulant teenager is a great image that gives you the perfect amount of character development. Brian Bedford and Phil Harris as Robin Hood and Little John remain the voices I hear when I think of the characters, and folk singer Roger Miller made for a fantastic bard.

Despite the animal players, the movie has lots of tiny moments that humanize the characters, such as Robin’s gift to the rabbit boy. As the kids leave, he gives the mother a sweet speech about keeping faith that Nottingham will return to glory. While Errol Flynn was loud and bombastic with his approach to rousing the townspeople, Brian Bedford’s Robin Hood is a quieter hero, one who sneaks in and out, going unnoticed until he’s discovered. Of course, once a disguise fails and he’s made, he’s just as likely to bring forth a spectacle as any other incarnation of the character. (The disguises, it’s worth pointing out, are only slightly above Bugs Bunny quality in the concealment department, but they usually work exceedingly well.)

The movie also sidesteps the usual beginning of the Robin/Marian relationship. In the Flynn movie, and in most other versions, the two are initially at odds, as he’s an outlaw and she’s a ward of the King and (technically) under the protection of the Prince. In this version, Marian loved Robin as a young girl and still does, eliminating the need for him to win her over and cutting right to the chase. I would imagine this is in deference to the cartoon nature of the film – while the scenes of Robin winning Marian over can work really well from an emotional standpoint, I can imagine in 1973 the animators thought a young audience would lose patience with such a thing.

Compared to the Errol Flynn film, the villains are far less menacing. Prince John is a spoiled mama’s boy with no air of danger about him whatsoever. Sir Hiss – a stand-in for Sir Guy of Ginsbourne – is a pompous, browbeaten serpent. The only thing about him that’s even remotely dangerous is his ability to hypnotize people, which he never even really uses to any serious effect once the story begins. (Dispatching Richard on the Crusades, the most important plot point to his hypnotism, happens before the film opens.) Only the Sheriff is an improvement in the villain department from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and that says more about the latter’s buffoonery than anything in favor of the Disney version. He’s less oafish and more dangerous than the other two, but still not the sort of villain that would give any kid trouble sleeping.

The biggest complaint I’ve got about the film is the ending. The final rescue at Prince John’s palace is fine, but Richard’s return to the throne and the arrest of the villains happens entirely off-camera. It’s not all that satisfying to cut from Robin’s escape, even as the prince pouts, to seeing them in chains with nothing in-between. Sure, these cartoons films are often short (at a crisp 83 minutes there’s little filler in this movie), but it certainly feels as though they could have given us just a bit more closure.

This isn’t the grand adventure of the Errol Flynn Robin Hood nor the attempt at an epic that the character would take later. It is, however, a grand and entertaining family version of the film with some sweet music, excellent voice performances, and mid-era Disney charm. It’s hard to say anything bad about that.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 17: The Exorcist (1973)

exorcistDirector: William Friedkin

Writer: William Peter Blatty, based on his novel

Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, Mercedes McCambridge

Plot: In Washington, DC, we meet Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), whose faith beginning to crumble as his mother lies dying. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress who in town to make a movie. Her marriage is dissolving, but she’s clinging to her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). Regan begins to exhibit strange behavior, beginning with disrupting a dinner party by announcing to one of the guests, “You’re going to die up there,” and urinating on the carpet. Later that night, her bed begins thrashing wildly, terrifying girl and mother alike. Although Chris initially seeks out a medical explanation for Regan’s odd behavior, the horrible events persist, increasing to violent outbursts, exclamations of profanity and blasphemy, and even levitation. Meanwhile, the local church has been desecrated, and the director of Chris’s movie dies in an apparent accident, assuming one can “accidentally” turn his head around 180 degrees.

Believing Regan’s symptoms to be psychosomatic, a psychiatrist suggests an exorcism, reasoning that if she believes she is possessed by a demon, she may be cured by making her believe she is freed. Chris turns to Karras, a psychiatrist as well as a priest. When he sees how desperate Chris has grown, he agrees to examine the girl. Karras splashes Regan with Holy Water and records the strange words she howls in pain. He later reveals to Chris that he lied – the water was unblessed, which supports the case that everything is in Regan’s mind. When he later plays the tape backwards, though, he hears Regan speaking clearly, threateningly, menacingly… in English.

When Karras turns to his superiors to request an exorcism, they summon Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow). Merrin and Karras begin the ritual of exorcism. As they pray, the demon inside Regan assaults them, first verbally, then physically by hurling things around the room, cracking the ceiling, and finally striking Karras from behind. Karras leaves the room, returning to find Merrin seemingly dead. He attacks Regan, viciously striking her and commanding the demon to take him instead. It leaps from Regan into Karras, and he hurls himself from the window, falling to his death on the steps below. In an epilogue, Chris and Regan leave town, Regan having no memory of her ordeal, hoping the demons of all kinds stay behind them.

Thoughts: This one was a lock as soon as I decided to try this little project. The Exorcist has turned up on just about every “scariest of all time” list I’ve ever seen, and with good reason. The scenes of Regan’s slow deterioration are expertly staged and performed. Linda Blair begins as a charming, gregarious child, transforming stage by stage into a real monster in innocent form. Blair also is very effective as a physical actress, going through her terrible convulsions, flapping her tongue menacingly at the priests, and thrashing about like a madwoman.

The special effects are rather impressive for 1973 as well – the scene where Regan’s head turns backwards is still creepy as hell today. The classic scene with the projective-vomit pea soup is a little cheesy by today’s measure, but you fall right back into fright just moments later when you see Regan, caked in her demon makeup, soup dripping from her chin, and a look of utter hatred and madness in her unnaturally green eyes. And of course, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” remains one of the all-time great horror movie scores. Those haunting chimes, even today, are enough to give anyone who has seen the movie a chill.

However, coming back to the film for the first time in several years, it’s interesting just how different it is from modern horror films. The first real supernatural occurrence – the shaking of Regan’s bed – doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into this 122-minute film! Blatty spends nearly a third of his running time on exposition and character before he actually gets into the meat of the storyline, a technique that a modern movie studio would consider absolute poison. It’s another full 35 minutes before Chris and Karras meet for the first time, and Karras doesn’t see Regan for the first time (in heavy make-up and strapped into a bed that has been heavily padded – in a very effective visual) until the movie hits the 80-minute mark. Merrin himself – the titular exorcist – doesn’t really factor into the story in any substantive way until the final 30 minutes. It’s also hard to imagine a movie today ending without little Regan engaging both priests personally, physically, hand-to-hand, with lots of overdone CGI, instead of allowing her demonic powers to do the work for her. And let’s not forget the most horrific thing in this film that would never, never turn up even in the most soulless, horrific perversion of cinema in 2011: the scene where the doctor lights up a cigarette in his own waiting room.

Terrors.

Speaking of the doctor, the film also continues the proud cinematic tradition of having people in authority be absolute idiots. “She’s thrashing wildly, throat is bulging, eyeballs turn white… oh, and her entire bed is levitating. It must be psychosomatic.” Sure, there’s an effort to justify their disbelief by cooking up the old stories about tiny women lifting up cars in times of stress, but that really feels like quick lip service to get us past the perfunctory need for these characters to exist.

Like all great horror films, it works because it taps into genuine fears of the time. The idea of the devil is nothing new, nor is the idea of possession. This movie – and the novel it’s based on – hit just when people were ready to fear these classic horrors again. Besides the religious implications, the film works because it taps into the fear that comes with changing the familiar into something unfamiliar. Taking a child – particularly a little girl, perhaps the most innocent form of human life one can imagine – and turning her into an object of terror is a very effective way to gut the audience. If it didn’t speak to something primal in the human psyche, it wouldn’t have done so well, nor given birth to so many imitators. In terms of influence, this film kind of kicked off a rash of movies about children possessed by (or embodying) the supernatural: The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist, and Children of the Corn all come to mind. Each of those, and many others, bear the fingerprints of this tale in one way or another.

Once again, we see the fears of America shifting from the supernatural to the demons within. Tomorrow we tousle with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.