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What I Watched In… August 2013

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Pete’s Dragon (1977), B+
2. Ernest in the Army (1998), D
3. The Artist (2011), A-
4. The Wolverine (2013), B
5. 101 Dalmatians (1961), B+
6. Puppet Master (1989), C
7. Cloud Atlas (2012), B
8. The Revenge of Dr. X (1970), F; RiffTrax Riff, B-
9. A Goofy Movie (1995), B+
10. Chicken Run (2000), A
11. Starship Troopers (1997), C; RiffTrax Riff, B+
12. Enchanted (2007), A
13. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), C
14. Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film (2009), B-
15. Kick-Ass 2 (2013), B+
16. Shaun of the Dead (2004), A
17. Hot Fuzz (2007), A-
18. The World’s End (2013), A-
19. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), A
20. Robin Hood (1973), B
21. Robin and Marian (1976), B
22. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), B+
23. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), C+
24. Would You Rather (2012), B
25. Masters of the Universe (1987), C
26. Gamer (2009), C

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Robin Hood Week Day 5: Cary Elwes in Robin Hood-Men in Tights (1993)

Robin Hood-Men in TightsDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: J.D. Shapiro, Evan Chandler, Mel Brooks

Cast: Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Amy Yasbeck, Mark Blankfield, Dave Chappelle, Isaac Hayes, Megan Cavanagh, Eric Allan Kramer, Matthew Porretta, Tracey Ullman, Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten, Mel Brooks

Plot: With King Richard away in the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Richard Lewis) and the corrupt Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) have seized power in England. Really… if you guys have been reading these articles all week this should be no surprise by now. In Mel Brooks’s parody of earlier Robin Hood films (most notably the Costner and Flynn versions), we begin in Khalil Prison in Jerusalem, where Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes) has been taken captive. He meets a Moorish prisoner named Asneeze (Isaac Hayes), imprisoned for jaywalking. Together they free the captives and Asneeze asks Robin to look after his son Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle), an exchange student, when he returns home. Robin agrees and swims from Jerusalem back to England.

Robin finds Ahchoo and rescues him from a band of the Sheriff’s men. They return to Loxley Hall to find it repossessed by the Prince’s accountant, leaving behind only Robin’s old blind servant Blinkin (Mark Bankfield). The Sheriff of Rottingham pursues a boy who killed a deer on the King’s lands, but Robin humiliates him and drives him off. In the palace, Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck) confides to her servant Broomhilde (Megan Cavanagh) her wish that she could find her one true love: the man with the key to her “heart.” (Also her chastity belt.)

Worried about Robin’s return to England, Prince John turns to his gnarled, witchlike servant, Latrine (Tracey Ullman), who offers to brew a potion to disable Robin. In the forest, Robin meets Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and Will Scarlett O’Hara (Matthew Porretta), battling over the right to use the bridge over a ludicrously small creek. After besting John and saving his life… sort of… Robin invites the two of them to join his band of Merry Men. Robin barges into one of the Prince’s feasts, charming Marian and antagonizing the Prince and Sheriff before battling free.

Robin’s men stop the wandering Rabbi Tuckman (Mel Brooks), who agrees to join them – along with his stores of Sacramental Wine. As the men “bless” everything in the forest, the Sheriff turns to Don Giovanni (Dom DeLuise), a lord who suggests using an archery contest to trap Robin. Overhearing the plot, Marian and Broomhilde rush to the forest to warn him, arriving just after the show-stopping “Men in Tights” musical number. Robin professes his love to Marian and promises to avoid the contest, a promise he promptly breaks.

The disguised Robin nearly loses to one of Don Giovanni’s men before checking the script for the movie and confirming that he has another shot. With his “Patriot Arrow,” he annihilates the target. He’s captured and almost killed, but Marian promises to marry the Sheriff if he allows Robin to live. Ahchoo saves Robin just before she can say “I do,” and the Prince’s men go to battle with Robin’s. The Sheriff drags Marian away hoping to consummate the marriage, only to be stymied by Marian’s Chastity Belt. Robin and the Sheriff duel, breaking open a medallion from Robin’s father and revealing the key to Marian’s belt. The Sheriff impales himself on Robin’s sword while trying to stab him from behind, and Latrine offers to save him if he’ll marry her. He agrees, and immediately regrets it. Robin and Marian plan a wedding, but are interrupted by the return of King Richard (a cameo by Patrick Stewart), who has his brother arrested and makes Robin a knight. Tuchman finishes the marriage ceremony and Robin and Marian dance away… only to find Robin’s key doesn’t turn in the lock.

Thoughts: Just as the Kevin Costner Robin Hood hit when I was 13 and looking for adventure, this version hit when I was 15 and looking for things to be cynical about. A Mel Brooks comedy was just the thing. And like the Kevin Costner version, I still like this film despite its flaws. Unlike the Costner film, though, I find the flaws in this movie a bit harder to defend.

Brooks is credited with co-writing the screenplay with the two men credited for the story, one of whom never wrote anything else and the other of whom went on to write Battlefield Earth. When you realize just how drastically this film lacks the sharp verbal wit of Brooks’s superior films, the preceding sentence makes a lot more sense. The best Brooks movies (by which I mean Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) were so great because of how sharp and clever the writing and characters were. This movie doesn’t quite rise to that level, relying more on anachronistic dated references like Ahchoo’s pump sneakers and a kid parodying Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone. Anachronisms in Brooks comedies isn’t new, of course, but compare the impromptu musical numbers and wild finale of Blazing Saddles with Blinkin holding a braille Playboy magazine in this movie and tell me they belong in the same conversation. Other nuggets feel like lame Mad magazine gags (Will Scarlett O’Hara – “We’re from Georgia”), or the “Wide load” sign on the back of Loxley Hall as it’s carted away.

The best bits, in fact, are the ones that harken to Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a movie a good 75 percent of this audience never saw. Robin and Little John’s battle at the creek is great – the two of them duel over the right to cross a body of water approximately ten inches wide, their fighting staffs breaking in half over and over until they’re left swatting at each others’ fingers. The battle at the feast is set up much like the fights in Flynn’s movie, with added visual gags which work infinitely better than many of the verbal jokes in the film. The archery contest, similarly, is really funny. Brooks is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall, but having every character stop to check the script to make sure Robin was entitled to another shot… I don’t really know why, but I still chuckle at that.

A great Brooks comedy always has great performances, but this is the only one I can think of where the performances actually save the weak material. Cary Elwes is really great here, only a few years after The Princess Bride and playing a broader version of the swashbuckler from that film. While he does his share of mugging for the camera, he does it with charm and wit. His famous dig at Kevin Costner (“Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent”) is the one thing everybody remembers from this movie even 20 years later, and he sells it with real panache. Had he been born sixty years earlier, I think Elwes would have gone down as one of the all time great movie heroes. As it is, he has that one great movie, this lesser movie, and Saw. Wow, it’s depressing when you think of it that way.

Amy Yasbeck isn’t a bad Marian. While not a classic beauty, she has a sweetness to her that feels like it’s been amplified for the sake of the comedy, but remains sincere at heart. Richard Lewis and Roger Rees, similarly, work well in this film. While Lewis would never fit in to a straight version of Robin Hood, he’s perfect as this sort of weasely, incompetent Prince John. Roger Rees, probably best known for his recurring role in Cheers, is the perfect smarmy right-hand man. He’s the enforcer, with a little bit of muscle to back up the Prince’s gutless orders. At the same time, though, he’s a bumbler himself, constantly tripping over his words and never exuding any real menace.

This isn’t the best Robin Hood movie, I concede. And it’s certainly not Brooks’s best movie. But if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s this: at least it’s not Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

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!

Robin Hood Week Day 4: Kevin Costner in Robin Hood-Prince of Thieves (1991)

Robin Hood-Prince of ThievesDirector: Kevin Reynolds

Writer: Pen Densham & John Watson

Cast: Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alan Rickman, Nick Brimble, Mike McShane, Michael Wincott, Geraldine McEwan, Harold Innocent, Brian Blessed, Soo Drouet

Plot: Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner), a nobleman who joined King Richard in the Crusades, has been captured in Jerusalem. He escapes, saving the life of a Moor named Azeem (Morgan Freeman) in the process. Azeem returns to England with Robin, having sworn a life-debt to the Christian. Robin and Azeem return to England to find Nottingham under the thumb of its cruel Sheriff (Alan Rickman). The Sheriff rules with the aid of Sir Guy of Ginsbourne (Michael Wincott), the corrupt Bishop (the ironically-named Harold Innocent), and a witch named Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan), who fears  prophecy of her death at the hands of a “painted man.” Robin meets with a childhood friend, Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), whose brother made Robin swear to protect her before dying in the Crusades. Robin’s father is dead and his home destroyed, and he and Azeem flee into Sherwood Forest to evade the Sheriff’s men.

They encounter a band of outlaws led by Little John (Nick Brimble) and Will Scarlet (Christian Slater), who takes an immediate dislike to Robin. Robin takes the lead of the outlaws and begins training them to fight. As time passes, they begin robbing the coaches of noblemen, including that of a hard-drinking but able Friar Tuck (Mike McShane), who joins their party. Marian, realizing that Robin is fighting for the England of her absent cousin, the King, begins to quietly provide him aid.

The Sheriff hires mercenaries to help him find Robin’s woodland hideout, capturing several of his men. He “proposes” marriage to Marian, the King’s cousin, saying he will space the captured outlaws if she accepts. One of the captives, Will Scarlet, deals with the Sheriff to track down Robin. When released into the forest, though, Will tells Robin of the Sheriff’s plans despite his anger with the man. Will reveals that he is Robin’s half-brother, the son of a woman Robin’s father took up with after his mother died. Robin embraces his brother, and together, they begin to plan.

On the day of Marian’s wedding – which will coincide with the execution of the captives – Robin leads a rescue, setting them free. Azeem rallies the peasants to join them in overthrowing the Sheriff, and Nottingham erupts into war. The Sheriff rushes his “wedding” to Marian and takes her away, planning to consummate the marriage. As the Bishop tries to flee, Tuck faces him and loads him with treasure, pushing him from a window to his death. Robin saves Marian and kills the Sheriff, but Mortianna attacks him with a spear. Before she can strike her blow she is killed by Azeem, who has fulfilled his debt to Robin.

Robin and Marian marry in the forest, a wedding only briefly interrupted by the return of King Richard (Sean Connery in an awesome cameo), who blesses them and gives Robin Hood his thanks.

Thoughts: I was 13 years old the summer this movie came out, and although I know it gets a lot of grief from the Costner-haters of the world, it’s still a movie I really like. This was the first live action Robin Hood movie I ever saw, and as such it has greatly influenced my feelings about the character. Still, looking back at it 20 years later, I can see some of the cracks in the hero’s armor.

Kevin Costner, to begin with, is slightly problematic. While I don’t hate the man, and in fact find his performance to be mostly effective, the fact that he doesn’t even attempt to sound English really does stick out like a Teletubby in a Goth Club. For all the good he brings to the role – a confident air, a dedication that feels genuine – the truth is I do have to force myself to ignore his lack of an accent. There’s an irony here – most linguistic scholars believe that the modern American dialect is actually much closer to 12th-century England than the speech patterns of the modern British. One could actually make the argument that Costner technically has the most accurate speech pattern in the film. Of course, I would then tell “one” to shut up, because that doesn’t change the fact that Costner still didn’t sound like anybody else in the movie.

The rest of the cast, however, is impeccable. Morgan Freeman, who is as convincing as a Moor as Costner is as an actor being paid an enormous amount of money but still refusing to attempt an accent, steals the show as Azeem. He takes over the role of Robin’s second that is usually occupied by Little John, standing with him in the hardest moments and driving together the action when he draws his sword. His dry wit even brings a good bit of comic relief to the film. I would gladly have watched a film chronicling the further adventures of Azeem.

But the prominence of this original character doesn’t really hurt Robin’s usual Merry Men. Mike McShane’s Friar Tuck is a riot and a lot of fun to watch, and to compensate for making Little John somewhat less of a central player than he usually is, the screenwriters introduced his wife (Soo Drouet) and family, giving him much more to do and much more at stake than he usually has. Drouet herself is a very strong addition to the cast – wry and boisterous, like a saucier version of Molly Weasley. Mastrantonio’s Marian… well, she’s not bad at all, but there’s nothing particularly memorable about he. She plays the part, she does what you want her to do.

Alan Rickman, however, absolutely shines. We’re only a few years removed from Die Hard here, and he brings the same sort of nasty menace to the Sheriff of Nottingham as he did to Hans Gruber. When he threatens to cut out Robin’s heart “with a spoon” (“Because it’s dull, you twit, it’ll hurt more,”) damned if you don’t believe it. This is, without exception, my favorite rendition of the Sheriff of Nottingham of all time, the fiercest, the most frightening, and the most fun to watch.

It may be because I was just at the right age when this movie hit, but it’ll always hold a soft spot for me. I can watch it over and over even today and always enjoy it, always get swept up in the excitement, and always feel ready to cheer for England’s legendary defender.

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!

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!

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!

Robin Hood Week Day 1: Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Adventures of Robin HoodDirectors: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley

Writers: Norman Reilly Raine & Seton I. Miller

Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Ian Hunter, Una O’Conner

Plot: In the year 1191, King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) left England to reclaim the Holy Land in the crusades, with his bitter brother Prince John (Claude Raines) in charge. When Richard is captured in Austria John – a Norman — seizes the opportunity to increase his power over the Saxons of England, raising taxes and seizing goods and services on the populace… even enslaving people who refuse to toil for his crony, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). The Saxon Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) begins to resist the Norman oppression of the Saxons. As John hosts a banquet, Robin himself arrives. Robin makes it clear his intention is to rouse the people of England into revolt against John, then fights his way to freedom in front of Norman noblewoman Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland).

Returning home, Robin and Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles) encounter a large man (Alan Hale) crossing a stream. Robin and the man battle, and Robin is knocked into the water. Laughing at the scuffle, they befriend the man – John Little – and together unite a band of free people of England who swear to fight John and defend all innocent – Norman and Saxon alike — until the return of King Richard.

As Guy leads a procession through Sherwood Forest, Robin’s men capture them all, humiliating Guy and the Sheriff of Nottinham (Melville Cooper). Robin attempts to impress Marian with their frivolity, but she remains cold. Her heart begins to change, though, when she realizes Robin and his men intend to return the goods they have stolen to King Richard and he introduces her to some of the Saxons suffering. For the first time, Robin exposes Marian to the misery John’s rule has wrought.

The Sheriff proposes a trap for Robin – an archery contest with a golden arrow presented by Marian as a prize. Robin enters in disguise and, after several rounds, wins. As Marian presents him with his prize, Sir Guy exposes him and he is captured. Robin is sentenced to death and imprisoned, and Marian rushes to his men to help plan a rescue. They disrupt his execution and flee. That night, as he comes to thank her, he overhears her professing her love for him, and he shares his own.

A bishop brings John the news that King Richard has escaped his captivity and returned to England. John sends an assassin to kill him, but Marian overhears his plan. Before she can send word to Robin, she is discovered by Sir Guy and arrested. Robin and his men capture Richard, not realizing who he is at first, and impress the King with their loyalty. They are together when they learn of Marian’s execution, which is scheduled to coincide with John’s coronation. Robin and Richard lead their men into battle. Robin kills Sir Guy and frees Marian, and the forces loyal to Richard overwhelm those of Prince John. Robin is made Baron of Locksley and given Marian’s hand in marriage. Richard banishes John and his men from England and calls for Normans and Saxons alike to share the freedoms of true Englishmen.

Thoughts: For generations this was not only the benchmark of Robin Hood movies, but the archetype against which all swashbucklers would be measured. Errol Flynn is truly magnificent in the title role, cutting a dashing figure of such strength and earnestness that one couldn’t help but want to follow him into battle.

This is, I confess, the first time I’ve ever seen this version of Robin Hood, but it’s one of those movies that’s known so well through parody and inspiration that I may as well have. Dozens of cartoons, TV shows and other films have liberally borrowed chunks of this movie wholesale. Flynn’s performance hasn’t informed too many of the modern Robin Hoods, each of whom seems to want to offer a different take on the character, but any other time a film tries to give a taste of Golden Age glory in an adventure tale, Flynn is the inspiration. You can feel pieces of his performance in Cary Elwes’s Westley from The Princess Bride, spoofed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and as the hero Timothy Dalton’s villain pretends to be in The Rocketeer.

Although Robin is the hero here, and a great one at that, Flynn isn’t afraid to let him feel a little humiliation. His defeat against Little John at the stream is an iconic moment, and one that’s easy for him to laugh off. His first encounter with Eugene Pallette’s Friar Tuck follows a similar pattern, but Tuck fights a bit more ferociously, and Robin comes across as a bit of a bully before he extends his hand in friendship.

Olivia de Havilland is radiant as Marian, and does a good job of selling her change of heart. In the early scenes it’s easy to feel discomfort – even disgust – during her dealings with Robin. As she starts to realize the truth about John’s rule, her emotional metamorphosis is slow, but convincing. By the time we reach the scene where Robin is sentenced to death, you can tell she’s in love with the man and trying desperately not to show it in the face of his enemies.

The villains are an odd collection. Rains’s Prince John comes across as a bit of a lightweight, but he’s at least sharp enough to have Rathbone’s Guy of Gisbourne as his enforcer. He’s not a physical threat on his own, but you can believe he would command a man of Gisbourne’s menace. The Sheriff, on the other hand, is a real goof. He’s cowardly and ineffective, with only the inspiration for the archery contest keeping him from being entirely useless. A comic relief villain isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but considering how elevated the Sheriff often is in Robin Hood lore, I was a bit surprised to see him as the clown in this early, iconic cinema version of the story.

The fight scenes are particularly impressive for the time period. Intricately choreographed, Flynn and his men put up an impressive front against the worst Prince John can send against them. Although there is a good dose of Hollywood magic to it (the swords, for instance, are not particularly convincing as weapons, although they’re handled very well), it’s the sort of thing that you forgive as a staple of the time, even as the presentation is wonderfully entertaining. The archery scene is another one of those moments that has been endlessly parodied and referenced, and it’s done fairly well. In these long-ago days, before CGI and the effort to give us an arrow’s-eye view of the winning shot, it’s presented in a very straightforward, simple style that nonetheless pleases the eye and brings a smile to a real lover of old cinema.

The final, climactic battle feels like a template for all great swordfights. Watching dozens of men fight and dozens of swords flash at once is a blast, the sort of thing every kid who’s ever picked up a branch and pretended it’s a blade dreams of. While Robin and Guy are having their own final confrontation, the directors start getting fancy: they walk off-camera and we watch as their shadows carry on the fight. Close-ups of the two of them as they grapple ratchet up the tension until Robin deals the final blow, and Guy’s plunge down the stairwell looks painful enough to be real.

One thing that rather surprised me about the film was just how much of it had the overtones of racism. Granted, the Saxons and the Normans are pretty indistinguishable to a viewer, but the oppression of the Saxons cuts a deep swath through the American heart. It’s impossible to hear the disgust John espouses without it evoking the nastier aspects of our own past. In truth, considering that this film takes place in the 12th century, it works well as a reminder that ignorance isn’t exactly a new invention. At the same time, fortunately, it does give us some hope that even 900 years ago, there were men willing to stand against it.

This movie is justifiably hailed as one of the all-time great adventure films, and it’s as fine an example of golden age cinema as I can imagine. For many, for decades, Errol Flynn was Robin Hood. And in truth, when you watch this movie, he always will be.

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!

Next week is ROBIN HOOD WEEK

Robin Hood“Icons” had to take a break in July due to another project of mine, but it’s coming back to close out the month of August as I look at one of the great folk heroes of all time and how he’s been portrayed on the silver screen.

Robin Hood is one of the world’s most indelible heroic archetypes: the dashing rogue that fights against an unjust system by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But is it always quite that simple? Next week we’re going to find out through five very different takes on our title character…

  • Errol Flynn: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  • Brian Bedford: (Disney’s) Robin Hood (1973)
  • Sean Connery: Robin and Marian (1976)
  • Kevin Costner: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
  • Cary Elwes: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Yes, there are other Robin Hoods… many, many, many other Robin Hoods. Some of them even speak with an English accent. I created this list based on the versions that are the most memorable to me. If you disagree, you Russell Crowe fans, you’re welcome to do your own write-ups.

Of course, before we can start, we need to know who our hero is, don’t we?

The Character

When good King Richard left England to go on the Third Crusade, rule of his country was left in the hands of his corrupt brother, Prince John. As John proceeded to crush the populace with unjust rule and unfair taxes, a former nobleman escaped into the eaves of Sherwood Forest. There, the outlaw who would become known as Robin Hood gathered a band of Merry Men to join him in his own Crusade — one against the Prince and his enforcer, the Sheriff of Nottingham, to preserve the England King Richard left behind.

This, of course, is a bit of an aggregate of the character. There have been stories of Robin Hood told throughout Europe for over 600 years, and as with many truly legendary characters, several of the versions have a tendency to contradict one another. But this baseline is how most people think of the hero today, and that seems as good a way as any to start. Come back Monday, friends, and we’ll start with one of the first truly great cinematic adventure films.

Reel to Reel: Icons

People who follow me on Twitter or Facebook have probably already noticed I’ve started watching more horror/comedies in order to beef up Lunatics and Laughter for the eBook edition of that project, which I hope to make available by Halloween. However, I’ve also started casting an eye towards what the next Reel to Reel project should be… and in so doing, I ran into a sort of wall. You see, the first two projects were both horror-based, which made it pretty easy to compile a list. Christmas specials was even easier. But when I turn to other genres, I quickly found a problem figuring out exactly how to arrange my selections. If I did science fiction next, for example, it’s much more difficult to draw a line between the great films of that genre than horror. Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and Plan 9 From Outer Space are all science fiction, after all, but they all deal with wildly different ideas, themes, and tropes. How could I lump them together? When I tired to subdivide — time travel movies, for example — I had a hard time finding enough influential films to last the entire length of a Reel to Reel project.

Then, about a week ago, I realized something you clever people probably figured out some time ago… there’s no rule that says every Reel to Reel has to account for 30 or so movies at once. If a topic works better in smaller groups, why not make smaller groups?

So for the next Reel to Reel, I’m going to mix it up a little. Although I don’t have an exact “start” date yet, sometime soon (probably in March) you’re going to be greeted by the first week of Reel to Reel: Icons. In this project, I’m choosing iconic characters that have been played by five or more different performers and giving them each a week of their own. I’m also going to stretch this out, probably for the rest of the year, giving one week each month (with the exception of December, where I’m going to try to squeeze in two). Doing five movies in a month is a lot easier on me than doing 30, after all, especially when I’m working on a dozen other projects. I’m going to take the five different portrayals of each character and compare them to each other… how does Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood compare to Kevin Costner? How heavily did Brandon Routh draw on Christopher Reeve as Superman? And who’s really the best King Arthur — Sean Connery or Graham Chapman?

I’m also going to accept suggestions from you guys, because I haven’t quite decided all of the characters that will make up the project yet. I will most certainly consider animated versions, different interpretations (that’s kind of the point), and even characters from old movie serials if I can find them on DVD. But I’m going to stay away from characters like Jason Voorhees, who may have been played by multiple actors, but who all wore the same mask and gave essentially the same portrayal. (I know I just pissed off a bunch of Kane Hodder fans, but I stand by that.)

Oh, and one last thing: no James Bond for this project. I know, it’s the most obvious choice, but I think he deserves an entire R2R all to himself someday.

At the moment, these are the weeks I’m planning out:

Superman Week:

  1. George Reeves: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951 Movie Serial)
  2. Christopher Reeve: Superman (1978)
  3. Brandon Routh: Superman Returns (2006)
  4. James Denton: All-Star Superman (2011)
  5. Henry Cavill: Man of Steel (2013)

Batman Week:

  1. Lewis Wilson: Batman (1943 Movie Serial)
  2. Adam West: Batman: The Movie (1966)
  3. Michael Keaton: Batman (1989)
  4. Kevin Conroy: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1992)
  5. Christian Bale: The Dark Knight (2008)

Robin Hood Week:

  1. Errol Flynn: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
  2. Brian Bedford: (Disney’s) Robin Hood (1973)
  3. Kevin Costner: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
  4. Cary Elwes: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)
  5. Russell Crowe: Robin Hood (2010)

King Arthur Week:

  1. Rickie Sorensen: The Sword in the Stone (1963)
  2. Richard Harris: Camelot (1967)
  3. Graham Chapman: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  4. Sean Connery: First Knight (1995)
  5. Clive Owen: King Arthur (2004)

Hercules Week:

  1. Steve Reeves: Hercules Unchained (1959)
  2. Nigel Green: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
  3. Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hercules in New York (1969)
  4. Kevin Sorbo: Hercules and the Amazon Women (1994)
  5. Tate Donovan: (Disney’s) Hercules (1997)

Sherlock Holmes Week:

  1. Basil Rathbone: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
  2. Christopher Lee: Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)
  3. Robert Stephens: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  4. Matt Frewer: The Sign of Four (2001)
  5. Robert Downey Jr.: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Dracula Week:
(Note: I am by no means ignoring Bela Lugosi’s classic 1931 turn as Dracula, but as I already wrote about him in the first Reel to Reel project, this week I would rather link to the original article and look at five other performances.)

  1. John Carradine: House of Dracula (1945)
  2. Christopher Lee: Horror of Dracula (1958)
  3. Charles Macaulay: Blacula (1971)
  4. Gary Oldman: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  5. Gerard Butler: Dracula 2000 (2000)

And two weeks in December…

Ebenezer Scrooge Week:

  1. Reginald Owen: A Christmas Carol (1938)
  2. Albert Finney: Scrooge (1970)
  3. Alastair Sim: A Christmas Carol (1971)
  4. Michael Caine: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1994)
  5. Jim Carrey: Disney’s A Christmas Carol (2009)

Santa Claus Week:

  1. Edmund Gwynn: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
  2. John Call: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
  3. David Huddleston: Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
  4. Tim Allen: The Santa Clause (1994)
  5. Jim Broadbent: Arthur Christmas (2011)

There’s still a little room in here to add a few more characters, so I’m open to suggestions… especially if you can think of any women that belong on this list. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, I’m struggling to come up with any truly iconic characters that have been played by more than five women in the movies. If you can help me out, please do so.