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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 19: Jaws (1975)

jawsDirector: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Peter Benchly & Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Benchly

Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton

Plot: On Amity Island, tourists come to spend relaxing summer months. There’s nothing relaxing this year, though. A young woman is drawn underwater and killed by some unseen creature, and police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) finds her mutilated remains a few days later. The coroner labels her death as the result of a shark attack, prompting Brody to order the beaches closed. The town Mayor (Murray Hamilton) overrules him, worried that shutting down the beaches will ruin the summer tourist season, the town’s main source of income for the year. Predictably, there’s another attack – this time a child, and in the middle of a busy afternoon on the water. The child’s parents offer a $3000 reward for the shark, and the town goes wild. As a debate rages about closing the beaches, a professional shark hunter named Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to kill the beast, but will only do so for $10,000.

Brody calls in a marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help, even as would-be hunters from all around converge on the island to try to find the shark. Hooper can tell from examining the first victim that not only was it most definitely a shark, but the one that’s much bigger than any ordinary shark. The mayor still refuses to close the beaches on the Fourth of July, and on the big day the beaches are more crowded than ever. Brody and Hooper assemble a small army to patrol the waters, but the beast  strikes again. The Mayor finally agrees to hire Quint to kill it, and Brody and Hooper join the old salt on the water. As the men share a drink, the creature strikes the boat, cracking the hull. The shark starts to pull the boat out to sea, flooding it in the process. Quint heads for the shallow water, hoping to suffocate the beast, but he burns out the boat’s flooded engine and it dies. Hooper enters a shark cage and gets into the water, hoping to shoot the shark in the mouth with a poisoned harpoon, but fails. The shark breaks the cage apart, coming after Hooper before surfacing and going for the boat. As the ship begins to sink under its weight, Quint is eaten. Brody manages to cram Hooper’s space scuba tank into the monster’s mouth, then shoots the tank, causing an explosion that kills the beast. With the shark dead, Hooper surfaces and the survivors begin to piece together a crude raft to paddle back to shore.

Thoughts: Some people will argue that this isn’t a horror film. I say they should tell that to anyone who was afraid to go to the beach in 1975. Although the film is only rated PG, this in the years before there was a PG-13, Spielberg managed to get in some pretty gruesome imagery, such as when the shark’s first victim is found. You don’t really see how mutilated her body actually is, because what’s left of it is swarming with crabs. Other films would use flies or maggots, but somehow this is just as disturbing, if not more. Spielberg also gives us a nice chill using the “less is more” philosophy. The truth is, we see very little of the shark because the mechanical beast built for the movie really wasn’t all that convincing. But because Spielberg had a crappy shark-bot, he avoids actually letting you see it for as long as possible, scaring you way more than he could have if he’d actually shown you a convincing shark. Like Hitchcock in Psycho, Spielberg avoids showing you the evil and allows your brain to fill in the blanks.

Atmosphere, of course, is all-important in these movies, and Spielberg achieves that perfectly with the help of his frequent collaborator, John Williams. Williams has scored (I believe) all but one of Spielberg’s directorial efforts, and he’s turned out some of the most memorable movie music of all time, starting here. The Jaws theme is still emblematic of fear, and the rest of the score lets you feel the danger all around you.

The film works on the level of the “townies versus the outsider” mindset as well. Brody is the outsider – he’s been sheriff and lived on the island for less than a year. When he wants to shut down the beach, not only does the mayor strongarm him out of it, but he gets the coroner to change his diagnosis from “shark attack” to “boating accident.” I’m no doctor, but I can’t imagine that any competent one couldn’t tell the difference between a body that’s been hacked up by a propeller and one that’s been chewed, if for no other reason than the pattern of damage to the bone would be different.

In some ways, you almost watch two different movies when you watch Jaws. For the first 70 minutes or so, you’re in the town, experiencing the fear of the townies as the truth about the shark becomes evident. The last 50 minutes is all about the three men at sea, hunting the creature, and taking on a somewhat different tone. There’s still fear, but it’s more immediate. In the first half of the movie, as long as you’re on the land you know you’re safe. Once they set out to sea, the danger is most definitely all around. It gets even worse in the climactic scene, when the engine kills and our heroes are stranded with no means of escape. There’s something terrifying about that, and that’s what makes this movie work so damn well. I don’t even care if the Mythbusters proved that the exploding scuba tank wouldn’t really work, that doesn’t make the finale of this movie any less exciting.

And let’s be fair here – this is one of the most eminently quotable scary movies of all time. Little quips like Brody’s “That’s some bad hat, Harry” or Hooper’s “They’re all gonna die” have pervaded the common lexicon. Quint’s speech about killing the beast or the injury-comparing scene have been quoted, copied, and parodied so often that younger people familiar with the tropes may not even be aware of where they originated. And who can forget, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”?

Jaws changed not only horror movies, but the movie business itself. It was the first film to use “wide release” as part of its campaign, opening everywhere instead of rolling out in a few cities at a time, which is now the common practice. It was also a gargantuan success financially, inventing the blockbuster motion picture and starting the practice of films distributing their major releases during the summer months. It was the first film to advertise heavily on television as well. Pretty much everything standard about the film industry today is true because of Jaws.

More specifically in terms of horror, the film spawned the inevitable rash of imitators: Piranha to Deep Blue Sea to this summer’s Shark Night. On land, we’ve had animal horror films like Anaconda and Lake Placid, and more and more of these imitators are drifting away from any real attempt to scare the audience  in favor of going for shock and laughter. Cinematically, Jaws has two thriving descendants today: the way you see any movie, regardless of genre, and the made-for-TV monster goofs SyFy shows on Saturday nights.

In the mid-70s, a name that would become synonymous with fear first made its mark, and tomorrow we’ll look at the first movie made from his first published novel: Stephen King’s Carrie.