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Robin Hood Week Day 3: Sean Connery in Robin and Marian (1976)

Robin and MarianDirector: Richard Lester

Writer: James Goldman

Cast: Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw, Richard Harris, Nicol Williamson, Denholm Elliott, Kenneth Haigh, Ronnie Barker, Ian Holm, Veronica Quilligan, John Barrett, Esmond Knight

Plot: The aging Robin Hood (Sean Connery) has become one of King Richard’s (Richard Harris) most stalwart captains, leading Richard’s men to war in France. Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) lay siege to a castle, seeking a rumored treasure, but find only a single one-eyed man (Esmond Knight) guarding a few poor citizens. Richard orders Robin to storm the castle for the treasure, but Robin refuses and is arrested. The one-eyed man throws an arrow at Richard, wounding him in the neck. Richard has the castle destroyed. Dying from his wound, he summons Robin. He tries to draw his sword and slay Robin, but lacks the strength and collapses. As Robin rushes to his side, Richard pardons him before dying.

Robin and John return to England, where they’re assaulted by two old men. As they fight, they recognize Will Scarlet (Denholm Elliott) and Friar Tuck (Ronnie Barker). The friends reconnect, learning that Robin’s old adventures have become exaggerated and turned into legend, and now-King John (Ian Holm) has gone mad with power, with the people of England and even the Church turning against him. They take Robin to an Abbey where they find Marian (Audrey Hepburn), now a nun. As the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) arrives to arrest her for refusing the King’s order for all clergy to leave England, Robin “rescues” Marian against her will, and the Sheriff orders Robin’s arrest. In the forest, Marian abashes Robin for his part in the Crusades, and Robin confesses to the horrors he saw in war. When they return to the Abbey, they find the Sheriff has arrested all of the nuns but one.

Robin and John disguise themselves as peddlers and free the nuns, but are almost captured in the escape attempt, with Marian, Will and Tuck arriving to rescue the rescuers. Marian confesses to attempting suicide when Robin left, and the two almost kiss before Will signals them that a Sheriff’s posse approaches. After driving them off, Robin tells Marian all he wants now is a life with her in Sherwood. That night, as they relax in the woods, townspeople who saw them rescue the nuns arrive in the forest, wanting to join him to fight against King John.

King John sends out a force of 200 men to drive Robin from the forest. As they amass, Robin and his men watch, knowing they are hopelessly outnumbered. Marian tries to plead with him not to fight, but Robin insists he’s still the warrior he was in his youth. She swears to leave rather than watch him get slaughtered, and goes instead to Little John, hoping he can convince Robin not to fight. Although John agrees it is suicide, he refuses to speak against Robin, and vows to ride into battle with him.

Robin approaches the Sheriff with a proposal – a duel between the two of them. If Robin wins, the soldiers retreat; if the Sheriff wins, Robin’s men surrender. The Sheriff agrees. Both men are grievously wounded, with Robin taking a horrible slash to the side before finally killing the Sheriff. As he dies, the King’s men charge, and Little John slays their captain. John and Marian help Robin from the battlefield to the Abbey for treatment, while his men are scattered into the woods, with many captured or slain.

Lying in the Abbey, Marian gives Robin medicine and speaks of how – once well – he’ll lead his men into battle once again. When his limbs begin to go numb, he realizes Marian has poisoned him. When he asks her why, she processes her love for him – a love so deep that she cannot allow him to go on, knowing he would never be the warrior he was again. What’s more, she has taken the poison as well. Robin agrees that it’s better this way, and asks John for his bow. He fires an arrow into the air and asks they be buried together where it falls.

Thoughts: A few years before diluting Richard Donner’s Superman universe with a recut and reshot Superman II, Richard Lester put no less than James Bond and one of history’s most beautiful women in this odd rendition of the Robin Hood saga. From the beginning it’s clear this isn’t the Robin Hood most people are familiar with. This is a Robin who fought in the Crusades with Richard, something most movies don’t include. What’s more, this is a Richard who may have the name “Lionhearted,” but carries none of the patience or understanding one would expect from one of noble rank. Robin calls him a “bastard” in the opening scene, and as he’s presently ordering him to murder women and children over a non-existent treasure, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.

Unlike the bold adventure most Robin Hood films become, Richard Lester’s version take a weird sort of anti-war stance, with Robin giving a monologue about watching King Richard order the slaughter of innocent Muslims after his single great victory of the Crusades. This isn’t the bold Robin Hood we’re used to, but a worn-down, tired man whose glory days are behind him… and what’s worse, he finds himself questioning if they were ever truly glorious to begin with.

Sean Connery is… well, he’s Sean Connery. Let’s be honest here, he’s always Sean Connery, whether he’s Sean Connery as a young Irishman, a dashing British secret agent, a Russian submarine commander or a whatever the crap he was supposed to be in Zardoz, he’s still Sean Connery. The miracle of that is that he almost always gets a role where “somebody like Sean Connery” is exactly what the movie calls for. Mid-70s Sean Connery is perfectly cast as the aging Robin Hood – still strong and undeniably charismatic, but at the same time, he’s beginning to get a little world-weary. Oh, he’ll still fight, and he’ll still kick your butt, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t getting a little bit tired of it. While Connery’s Robin is still willing to take up arms whenever necessary, it’s clear the only thing he really wants is to reclaim the love of Marian and settle down to a life he wishes he hadn’t sacrificed 20 years earlier.

Audrey Hepburn was 47 when this movie came out, and the line when she asks Robin if she’s “old and ugly” is still laughable. The woman had a grace and a poise her entire life that the greatest movie stars of all time couldn’t touch and the best of today can only dream about. Like Connery, she does a fine job of painting a woman who has grown tired with the world. She lost her dreams a long time ago, but she’s not so far gone that she can’t be convinced to take them up again. She vacillates between her heart and her vows several times, and always in an entirely convincing manner.

In this film, the villains are almost nonentities. The Sheriff and King John are the root of Robin’s problem, but he faces them almost as a matter of course, the way you face a force of nature. This could be the story of a stubborn old man intent on battling a hurricane or an earthquake for all the influence they have on the story. That’s nothing against Robert Shaw or Ian Holm, mind you, their performances are perfectly fine, but they aren’t given that much to do. Even Richard Harris as King Richard comes across as more of a personal obstacle for Robin than the ostensible villains of the piece. In truth, the real antagonist for Connery’s Robin Hood is age itself, the certainty of mortality and the inevitable approach of death.

It’s a cheerful movie, is what I’m saying.

I take that back, there is one bit that’s kind of funny… the duel between Robin and the Sheriff. If the goal of the scene was to thrill the audience, they failed, with the camera often set so far back it’s nigh impossible to tell who is who. If the goal is to depict a semi-realistic fight with very heavy broadswords and axes that look like a chore to swing around… well, Richard Lester, you succeeded, but in so doing you crafted one of the most mundane fight scenes in Sean Connery’s long and storied career. Even the sword fight in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet had more excitement than this one, and that’s not intended as a compliment.

The final scene of the film is really a grand one. The revelation that Marian deliberately poisons him is baffling, but instantly understandable when she makes her declaration of love. It’s a moving scene and both Connery and Hepburn nail it. The movie isn’t a masterpiece, but the finale makes it worthwhile. It’s not a standard version of Robin Hood at all, but it’s an impressive one, and one that serves as a bittersweet conclusion to the legend.

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!

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 20: Carrie (1976)

carrieDirector: Brian DePalma

Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie

Plot: Slow-to-develop Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a high school senior, the frequent scapegoat of her classmates due to her sheltered life and the oppressive nature of her mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s troubles are compounded on the day she gets her first menstrual cycle, without any idea what it means. The other girls torment her mercilessly, and Carrie is sent home. But along with the changes to her body, something is happening to Carrie’s mind as well. In moments of stress or anger, she finds herself moving objects without touching them. When her mother learns about the incident, she tells Carrie the “curse of blood” is punishment for sin and locks her in the closet to pray. The girls who mocked Carrie are given a harsh detention with the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty about tormenting the girl, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask her to the prom. The ringleader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), wants to get back at Carrie for her trouble, and convinces her high school dropout boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her get a brutal revenge. Carrie agrees to go with Tommy, but her mother forbids it. Carrie lashes out wither powers, declaring that she’s going to go and sending her mother into fits of prayer. Billy and Chris, meanwhile, set up a bucket of pig’s blood above the stage of the gym, waiting for Carrie’s big moment. At the prom, Carrie unexpectedly finds a measure of acceptance from her classmates, who treat her as just any other girl – something Carrie has wanted all her life. Her joy is shattered when Chris springs her trap: she’s rigged the prom election so Carrie will win, and just as she comes up to the stage, the pig’s blood spills on her. Tommy is knocked unconscious when the bucket itself falls and strikes him in the head, and the audience erupts in laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you probably recognize this as the point where the students made a particularly stupid mistake.

The already-fragile Carrie snaps, locking the doors to the gym and setting it on fire, trapping everybody inside. When she leaves the burning gym, Billy and Chris try to run her over, but Carrie simply flips the car and causes it to explode. Returning home, Carrie cries to her mother, who now believes her daughter to be the product of the devil. Margaret White stabs Carrie, and Carrie uses her powers to hurl dozens of blades at her mother, killing her. Finally, Carrie destroys her mother’s house and kills herself in the process. The film ends with an image of Carrie crawling from her own grave, but it’s only a bad dream for survivor Sue Snell, whom one suspects will never have a good dream again.

Thoughts: I became a fan of Stephen King in high school, probably when I was about the age of Carrie White in the film, but I didn’t get around to reading his early works until many years later. In fact, by the time I actually read Carrie or saw the movie, I was already a high school teacher myself, so I think I have something of an odd perspective on the story. King was ahead of the curve when it came to depicting the victims of high school bullying becoming monsters in their own right (he explored a similar theme, sans the supernatural element, in his novel Rage), and these days when I see a kid in the sort of dire straits Carrie finds herself in, I feel particularly strong about trying to help them before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do anything.

It’s hard to see Carrie White as a monster, though. She lashes out, and she causes an incredible amount of death and destruction, but it’s hard to say that anyone else wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her situation. Her overbearing mother is a chilling creature, and would drive anyone mad.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make the film, Laurie being cruel and sadistic, Spacek being a broken, shattered creature even when we first meet her, which makes those moments when Chris snatches away her brief moment of happiness all the more tragic. In fact, if Carrie’s rampage had ended with the deaths of her tormenters instead of spreading out to the rest of the school, the audience likely would sympathize with her entirely. The deaths would be understandable, if not entirely justified. But at that point, she can’t control herself. She gets her tormentors, but she also gets Tommy and Miss Collins, the two people who have never been unkind to her at all (even Sue, the lone survivor of the massacre, joined in on the initial mocking of Carrie at the beginning of the film). Sometimes you’ll see that the one person who treats the “monster” well is spared its wrath. Not so, in the case of Carrie White. By then, Spacek’s face grows hard and her eyes empty, as if she’s no longer even in control, just an uncontrollable force of nature being used to guide the chaos all around her to its horrific end.

Even then, though, she’s never as horrible as Piper Laurie in her final moments, walking towards her daughter with a bloody knife in the air, smiling with the confidence that she’s doing God’s work. The last moment of horror comes when Carrie slays her, pinning her up in a sort of grotesque crucifix that mirrors the unsettling one her mother forced her to pray under in the closet.

The story itself is actually very simple – I’m pretty sure this is the shortest plot synopsis I’ve written in weeks – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sometimes it’s those simple beats that hit close to home. We see the archetypes here – Carrie as the victim-turned-killer, her mother as the iron fist that squeezes until her child pops, Chris as the cruel one, Sue as the guilty party that tries to make good. We recognize all of the characters, and that helps us get into the story easily. There isn’t much of a backstory behind Carrie’s powers, but again, one isn’t really needed. She’s telekinetic, and at this particular time in the 70s that was something that was making the rounds of speculative fiction.

The film draws from interesting sources to create its mood. The musical sting we hear whenever Carrie uses her powers is inarguably reminiscent of the legendary shower scene from Psycho, for example. It’s Carrie lashing out, but the music brings Norman Bates to mind. Otherwise, the music is fairly unremarkable – perhaps even a little too soft and lyrical most of the time. It’s there to disarm you, of course, to prevent you from being prepared for the incoming horror, but it doesn’t really succeed.

The odd moments in the movie are when Brian DePalma works in a few moments of comedy, particularly as Tommy and his friends try on tuxedoes. For some reason that still doesn’t make any sense to me, he goes into fast-forward just for a few seconds, speeding up the conversation so the boys sound like the Chipmunks. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. DePalma also works really hard to artificially draw out the tension. From the time Carrie steps on stage until the blood falls on her head we’ve got a long, protracted scene of Sue discovering the prank and trying to warn Miss Collins, all stretched out due to slow-motion and made a little more horrible by the lack of audio. He goes into split-screen at this point, alternately showing Carrie herself or various points in the gym as she begins to trap her victims. Strangely, the split screen works very well, allowing you to see more of the terror and give it a sort of real-time element. I’m reminded of the TV show 24 whenever it breaks this way, although whether the producers of that show were specifically influenced by Carrie, who can say?

The measure of any movie is really the way it’s remembered, of course. Carrie is still considered a landmark horror film, with echoes in every story of high school terror that came afterwards, everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street right down to The Faculty. Horribly, you can see the reactions in the real world as well, any time some high school outcast snaps under the pressure and turns on his classmates. How many times have you seen a story like that on television or in the newspaper that compares a real-world killer to Carrie White? Carrie should have been a simple little horror story. Instead, it became part warning, part social commentary, part prophecy. I liked it better when it was just a horror story.

We’ve spent most of our time on this project in America, mainly because I don’t really know the history of foreign horror enough to speculate on it. But there are a few foreign films with a large enough footprint to make it on to my radar. Tomorrow, we go to Italy, for Susperia.