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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!

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 23: Alien (1979)

alienDirector: Ridley Scott

Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Plot: In the far future, the mining ship Nostromo is making a run to Earth, hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of ore for a Corporation. The ship’s computer awakens the crew from its cryogenic sleep, and they expect they’re approaching hope. Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) informs the crew they’re only halfway to Earth, but the ship has intercepted a strange transmission that may be of intelligent origin. The ship is damaged upon landing on the planetoid, and Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go off to search for the source of the transmission while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) remain behind to monitor them and make repairs to the ship. Kane’s team discovers an alien ship in ruins. The body of the creature inside the alien craft is enormous, and was apparently destroyed from the inside-out. Kane discovers an alien egg, which bursts open, allowing a tiny creature to affix itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert return him to the ship, but Ripley initially refuses to allow him to enter the ship, citing quarantine regulations. Ash defies her and allows them inside, where he tries to examine the creature. Dallas and Ash try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acidic blood. The creature dies and Kane wakes up, seemingly in good health. As the crew sits down to dinner, though, he begins going through horrible convulsions. He falls over on the table and his chest explodes, setting free a tiny creature that escapes into the ship.

Hunting for the beast, Brett and Dallas are killed in short order. Ripley investigates the ship’s computer, only to discover that Ash is acting under special orders of the Corporation that sent them into space in the first place. They were deliberately sent to the derelict to find an alien organism and return it for study, and the crew is considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, displaying extraordinary strength and leaking a strange white fluid when wounded instead of blood – he is an android. Parker and Lambert save Ripley and destroy the mechanical man. Parker and Lambert go off to retrieve coolant while Ripley preps the escape shuttle, planning to blow up the ship. The alien kills Parker and Lambert and Ripley rushes to activate the ship’s self-destruct mechanism herself. She manages to fight her way to the shuttle and escape the Nostromo before it is destroyed, unaware the alien has boarded the escape craft with her. She comes across the creature sleeping, puts on an atmosphere suit and opens the hatch, blasting the creature into space. As the film ends she records a message to anyone who finds the ship and climbs into suspended animation, hoping she is found sooner rather than later.

Thoughts: I’ve largely avoided science fiction movies in this list, mainly because I hope this “story structure” experiment will be something I can do again and again, and science fiction most certainly deserves its own category (if not several). However, out of all the movies that straddle the fence between science fiction and horror, there are a few that keep to the horror side so firmly that to not include them in this project would be a disgrace. Hence, Ridley Scott’s Alien.

In essence, Alien is a haunted house movie in outer space. It meets the tropes of that genre very nicely – you’ve got a small cast in a confined area from which they cannot easily escape or summon outside help. (How many good Haunted House movies take place in a remote location, during a power outage, or in some sort of horrible weather? There’s always a reason the people trapped in the house can’t just leave, otherwise they look like idiots.) As they run around the “house” (or in this case, spaceship) they make their way through enormous labyrinthine hallways, find evidence of a creature that is beyond human that appears with greater, more violent, and more alarming frequency, and are picked off a few at a time until a single or small group of survivors finally manages to escape. You see parts of the monster, or shadows of its inhuman shape, long before you see the creature in all its glory, building the tension and the fear as you go along. This is why Alien had to go in this list – not only does it fit every Haunted House trope other than the ghost itself, but it does so brilliantly.

Aside from Ridley Scott getting great performances from his actors, much of the credit for this film’s success has to go to creature creator H.R. Giger. Giger’s artwork helped inspire screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and thus he really was the logical choice to design not only the alien creature itself, but also the environments found on the alien spacecraft. There are scenes, admittedly, where you can tell you’re looking at a matte painting, but it’s an H.R. Giger matte painting, and that automatically makes it 99 percent more awesome than any other matte painting you’ve ever seen, including the one you helped color on your 11th grade production of Oklahoma.

Even certain things that could have looked terrible under other circumstances really work in this film. When Dallas is attacked in the air vent, the beast thrusts its arms at him. If you do a freeze-frame on the image, it’s kind of goofy… the creature throws out jazz hands like it wants to give Tom Skeritt a big, motherly hug. When you only get a glimpse of it, though, it’s scary as hell. And like all good scary movies, you get caught up in it enough that you forget some of the logical holes, like why the ship’s self-destruct mechanism is so damn far away from the escape shuttle. (Seriously, The Corporation? Talk about a design flaw.) Or the fact that we can hear the big ol’ Nostromo explosion in the vacuum of outer space, which is impossible… and this from the film that uses that little nugget of science in its own tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

The English teacher in me also has to give O’Bannon credit for abandoning the film’s original title, Star Beast. This was 1979, both Star Wars and Star Trek were heavily on the public consciousness and going with the “Star” title probably would have made the film successful. But Alien is just flat-out a superior title. It works both as a noun – describing the creature that hunts the crew of the Nostromo – and as an adjective, describing the fact that the thing they’ve found is utterly unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that I think helps the movie just a tad.

When the time came, inevitably, to make a sequel to this film, the filmmakers realized it would be nearly impossible to replicate the terror of the original. After all, much of what makes Alien so scary is the fact that you don’t really see the adult creature in full until the near end of the film, allowing the deadly power of the human imagination to do its work. By the time Aliens went into production, the creature was already pretty much public knowledge, so James Cameron took the film in another direction: instead of making an awesome sci-fi/horror movie, Aliens was an awesome sci-fi/action movie. This, of course, was followed by Alien3, a film that was a hybrid of science fiction and “a movie so poorly conceived and directed I got disgusted with the whole franchise and, to this day, haven’t seen the fourth one.” There are also, of course, the two Alien Vs. Predator movies, of which there isn’t much to say. I am looking forward to Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus, though, which is apparently going to be connected to Alien, although how tightly or in what way is something he’s still playing very close to the vest.

Tomorrow we return to Earth, Stephen King, and the more traditional haunted house idea with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.