Still Life: ‘Robin and Marian’

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Ripeness has gone to rot with a vengeance in Richard Lester’s latest film. In some wasteland out at the edge of the world (patently not a holy land) a one-eyed old man and some women and children hide out in a cracked, ungarrisoned castle and do not guard a golden statue coveted by King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Richard Harris), because it’s really only a stone, and besides, it was too heavy to carry away from the turnip field where it was dug up. Not even Robin Hood’s still-illusioned alchemy can shapechange the “pig” who peevishly orders the castle razed and its inhabitants butchered back into a lion-hearted monarch. Richard’s death is flung like accidentally accurate doom from above; but Justice in this diminished world is old and one-eyed, its bolt flung in fallibly human long shot rather than sent as sign of any god’s terminal exasperation with a hero long fallen from divine or mystic or even human grace. The heroic vision that Richard once embodied, and gave Robin a taste for, is apparently laid to rest where it went bad—in a stony land of too much sun and too many senseless massacres. But although Robin, Little John, and we watch the king’s funeral cortege in longshot, it soon becomes clear that Robin has managed to internalize some vestige of the former dream, and now means to take it home—home to the cool green fastnesses of Sherwood Forest where it first thrived.

Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as Robin and Marian

If Nicol Williamson’s practical Little John finds sustenance in plain bread, the sights he’s seen in the wide world, and his love for Robin, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood is hooked on more exotic fare. Grizzled, just this side of being old, he lacks the cleverness to buy cynicism as life insurance, but is just simple enough to be a hero. He’s hardly ever able to contain the gay, brave boy who, untouched by time and circumstance, struggles free to shout “I’ll save you!” to an uncooperatively grownup Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). Bergman’s knight in The Seventh Seal comes home from the Crusades to seek God among the ruins, but finds only ruins and, inevitably, death. Lester’s peasant-knight returns to quest for a present, if not a future, in the past, and ends by putting a period to a life that cannot, will not dwindle into obscurity and old age, but must burn out in a flash of meaning. There must be a beginning, a middle, and a proper end. Some richer, more resonant image must replace that of a spent king bleeding in the foreground of an empty stonescape, a uselessly burning castle thrust up in the dusk behind him, a monument to death without dignity or purpose.

Back home in England, Robin assures himself that he hasn’t thought of Marian in eighteen years; and she, ensconced like a willingly captive princess in her abbey tower, shouts down the same spurious defense against unsettling memories and belated reunions. Marian wears her abbess’ robe and crucifix in the service of a husband Whose absence allows for peace rather than sleepless nights and cut wrists, a lover for Whom she might die alone in the Sheriff of Nottingham’s dungeon, one Who does not require that she bear His death, too. Characteristically, Robin brings her back to life by knocking her out; and later, as he battles desperately on the Sheriff’s ramparts, she doubles over, that frail but constant body wracked by the vision and vicarious experience of his death (“I saw you dead”). Having parodied that death by collapsing comically into a stream, Robin sits by Marian on the bank while she examines the extent of two decades’ injuries. As she traces the many scars on that now well-weathered anatomy, she remembers the “sweet; hard body without a mark on it,” the season when they first loved. Even as her hand acknowledges and mourns that marred, aging flesh, it caresses Robin’s body in renewed passion—and, unavoidably, renewed pain. (Later, after she displays her own stigmata, Marian signals her surrender by asking Robin to hurt her. He understands, and embraces her back into feeling.) Audrey Hepburn is womanly as she has never been (for me) before, her very delicacy and fragility working to emphasize the potency of her sexuality, the terrible intensity of her reawakened love for a man “a little bit in love with death.” Marian offers Robin a possible ending: to live out what’s left of their story in the sweet domesticity of Sherwood.

Robert Shaw

But someone else has clearly waited for the consummation promised by Robin’s return. An axe chunks into a wooden head; the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is jarred out of what seems a lassitude of long standing. He watches his men at graceless, artless warplay, mutters “They’ll never learn,” and descends from his tower to hugely overmatch a couple of reluctant opponents. A large man in a country of pygmies, he lacks a worthy foe. Less instinctive, more cerebral, he nonetheless shares Robin’s afición for conflict on the grand scale, but has been reduced to ill-matched—but necessary—verbal jousts with the uneducated (in every sense) Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh). Like the long-memoried peasant in the marketplace (John Barrett), the Sheriff knows “that face,” because he needs to, because Robin’s larger-than-life immediacy will salvage him (and, if less heroically, the peasant too) from life-in-death, the terrible leaching-out of glory by the inexorable erosion of the mundane. The Sheriff and Robin are each other’s solution. In each other they think to find the man who can compose a suitable conclusion to the heroic drama in which both currently have become superannuated, like Tennyson’s Ulysses who, returned from a lifetime’s adventures, cries out against rest and peace: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! / As tho’ to breathe were life!” Robert Shaw’s Sheriff mostly just waits in Robin and Marian, waits for Robin to come to him for the gift he alone can give him now. After their first encounter, an enraged Sir Ranulf pronounces Robin “a dead man.” The Sheriff smiles: “Yes, but not just anyone’s. He’s mine.”

But Robin has two suitors for his life. Marian has never succeeded in making him stand still for love, has lost him first to Richard and the Crusades, and now finally to his lust for battle with the Sheriff on his own ground. Like Etta in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (written by James Goldman’s brother William), she will do anything for him except watch him die. But as Robin and Marian is the larger film, in conception and in performance, Marian is drawn inexorably to the clank of swords, the battle in which Robin risks only himself—as she once pledged to do as abbess. Lester cuts from involving medium shots of the long, weary fight to longshots of two small figures in a field engaged in some barely discernible activity. In one of the latter, a shepherd unconcernedly tends his flock in a peaceful foreground—like the plowman in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” who barely notices Icarus’ plunge into the sea, the myth getting deathed into birth. Sir Ranulf—who’ll never learn, not even from the exemplum he has witnessed on that field of honor—breaks the Sheriff’s oath and attacks; a moment later he is settling into misshapen death, the layered scales of his armor making him seem less human than reptilian, a meanly unimaginative harbinger of small times and men to come.

Marian’s rival is rival no longer, and she must woo the man she loves on his own ground, not hers: the green bower in the lost forest. Robin’s gloriously elated “I’ll never have another day like this!” is heroic euphoria, the kind of intoxication he cannot live without. It is hard truth, for he could never survive another such battle even if a worthy adversary who knew the rules and still played by them could be found. It is, finally, unconscious acknowledgment of Marian’s love-gift, the drink that already moves in his body stopping pain and bringing the sleep that will let him live cleanly in men’s minds, if not through other days like this one. In these last moments Lester frames hand reaching to hand, fingers not quite touching in deliberate evocation of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”—for if Marian has not gifted Robin with life, she has, in a sense, created him by finishing the story before it maundered off into meaninglessness. The camera closes on her goblet—as curved and whitely translucent as woman’s flesh, and more potent in love and death than any sword.

Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn

Lester’s Robin and Marian lacks the incisive cutting edge of The Three Musketeers, and though its retarded pace tries to evoke the running-down of a man and a time, it sometimes just seems to founder in meandering screentime (though never as embarrassingly as Royal Flash). There is less fooling around with heroic conventions as pratfalls than in previous Lester period pieces, and when he does partially deflate such conventions, it is with a softer touch, with less dark glee. Acerbic asides or comments on the principals or main action by harried servants or cynical bystanders are not permitted to seriously divert the melancholy flow of the film’s movement. It’s as though Lester were wise enough to let it alone this time, to allow the performances to stand by themselves, to carry the film without unnecessary sapping of their dramatic domain. Then too, there’s Lester’s ability to invoke, four or five shots into the proceedings, a sense of portentousness, of doom that is foreordained but must work itself out in the film to come. The still lives of fresh and rotting fruit, the shot of the blazing eye of the sun over the haft of a standing sword, the screeching head of a falcon, a one-eyed old man—these images are objective correlatives for the events and ambience of the film which follows: they suggest a fullness of time and fate which is relieved only when Robin empties Marian’s loving cup.

James Goldman’s script harps overmuch on the it’s-too-late theme and indulges in a few too many sallies for easy laughs by having people of past time talk like people of the present (in the manner of his A Lion in Winter)—e.g. Robin, surveying Marian’s wagon spilled over in a stream: “She never could drive!”; or Marian: “You never wrote.” Robin: “But I can’t write!” But the performances are almost always proof against Goldman’s occasional shallowness, and they ultimately make Robin and Marian not a masterpiece but a film it’s a great joy to watch, be moved by.

Sean Connery has played similar roles—the heroic man for whom the world is grown too small—in The Wind and the Lion and The Man Who Would Be King. But he manages to delineate each character as a unique individual, never taking refuge in typage, personalizing the Raisuli, Danny Dravot, and now Robin Hood so that they become very much their own men, impossible to confuse. Connery gets better and better, as though he were enlarging his talent to fairly meet each new character. His Robin is massively vital, a gaily driven death-seeker who nonetheless savors friendship and love, life’s good seasoning. He charms us, and those who love him in the film, into allegiance to a fine and wholesome manliness that more than holds its own against the frozen antiheroes who more commonly dominate current cinema.

Audrey Hepburn, as I’ve noted, brings dimensions to her role as Marian that I didn’t know she had. Marian, like Robin, has a younger self, a lovely gamine of a girl who fairly shines out of Hepburn’s face—a face that is finally lived in, no longer just finely chiseled chic but composed of bone structure that denotes elegance of character, experience contained and held in style.

The Sheriff of Nottingham by Lester out of Shaw possesses the same reticence and restraint that informed Charlton Heston’s Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers. Lester’s direction of such actors eschews overplaying, broad or obvious gestures of power and intelligence, in favor of a kind of impressive stillness, a self-imposed constraint that wills space, men and events to yield to their striking presence.

Nicol Williamson and Sean Connery

Nicol Williamson’s Little John is not a character who immediately dominates center stage as one watches Robin and Marian. At first, he might be mistaken as a rather stolid foil to Robin’s impractical energy. Less by word and more by behavioral presence, Little John gradually and quietly reveals himself as ethical anchor, a man of understated humor and complex and valuable loyalties. In a poignant eve-of-battle interlude, Marian tries to enlist his aid in dissuading Robin from his latest, and probably last, crusade. As he lounges against a tree, munching on an apple, with the lights of the Sheriff’s encampment glowing in the darkness beyond him, she cries out passionately against that still, reliable point of calm: “You’ve had him for years,” and then, reading that calm as indifference: “You’ve never liked me, have you?” “You’re Rob’s lady,” he answers with the simplicity of the true liegeman. How true emerges in his quiet afterthought: “If you’d been mine, I would never have left you.” The apple core is tossed out into the night and the gesture contains all there is to say about a potential life, a possible love, gallantly and unobtrusively given away.

Robin and Marian can be measured by such gestures, throwaways that complete and define a life, bringing to fruition that which is only temporally too late.

ROBIN AND MARIAN
Direction: Richard Lester. Screenplay: James Goldman. Cinematography: David Watkin. Production design: Michael Stringer; art direction: Gil Parrando. Costumes: Yvonne Blake. Editing: John Victor Smith. Music: John Barry.
The players: Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Nicol Williamson, Robert Shaw, Denholm Elliott, Ronnie Barker, Kenneth Haigh, Richard Harris, Ian Holm, Esmond Knight, John Barrett, Victoria Abril.

© 1976 Kathleen Murphy

A pdf of the original issue can be found here


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