Movie Reviews - 1970s postsMonday April 29, 2013
Movie Review: Superman: The Movie (1978)
I was 15 years old when I first saw “Superman: The Movie” and in some sense I still see it through the eyes of a 15-year-old. Most movies don’t do this to me. Most movies age poorly. I look at them 20 or 30 years later and blanch. But the pace of “Superman” is my pace. Its sense-of-wonder is my sense-of-wonder. Its balance of Biblical myth (Krypton), American myth (Smallville), comic relief (Lex Luthor) and heroic myth (Superman) seems exactly right to me. Give me the helicopter rescue backed by John Williams’ score and I turn to putty. I turn 15 again.
Yes, parts of the movie are dated. The Artctic icebergs look like styrofoam, the threatened California homes look like models, Jeff East’s wig looks like a wig. And so much is left unanswered. Why do Kryptonians, such an advanced civilization, cling to family crests and trial without counsel? Is Jor-El a prosecutor, a scientist, or both? Is there any furniture on Krypton? And when exactly does Clark fall for Lois? Immediately? By and by? The love is just assumed. Suddenly he’s sitting at his desk, staring.
There are chronological issues. We’re told Krypton exploded in 1948 when Kal-El was a baby, and at 18 Clark went north, where Jor-El taught him for 12 years. Which brings us to the present date: 1978. But that means Clark was in high school between 1964 and 1966. (In “Superman III,” we find out he was the Class of ’65.) So why are the kids listening to Bill Haley and the Comets, who last charted in 1956? Is Smallville really that backward?
Don’t even get me started on “Can you read my mind?”
Doesn’t matter. There’s something like pure joy in this movie. It’s the joy of doing what everyone thought couldn’t be done: make a superhero movie as an epic; make us believe, as the tagline said, that a man could fly.
It’s ballsy the way it begins. I’m not talking about the curtains opening, and the homage to June 1938 and Action Comics No. 1. That’s charming but a blip in screentime.
No, I’m talking Gen. Zod. For a movie that’s nearly two and a half hours long, and doesn’t show us a glimpse of its title character until nearly 50 minutes in, and doesn’t reveal this character to the world until nearly 70 minutes in, the filmmakers, including director Richard Donner, have the balls to begin with a sequence that has no real relevance until the sequel: the trial (such as it is), and judgment (“Guilty! Guil-tee! Guil-tay!”), and incarceration into the Phantom Zone, of the criminals Zod, Ursa and Non (Terrence Stamp, Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran). It’s a scene that affects nothing for the rest of our film. They could just as easily have begun with the Kryptonian Council not heeding Jor-El’s warnings about Krypton’s imminent destruction, then threatening him if he tells anyone his theories. To which Jor-El says, “Neither I, nor my wife, will leave the planet Krypton.” I always imagine Kryptonian Elder #2 countering with, “What about your son?” Jor-El: “Uhhh....”
The Christ metaphor is obvious and intended. The baby is delivered via a star-like spacecraft to a childless couple, Ma and Pa Kent (Phyllis Thaxter and Glenn Ford). His middle years are lost in the wilderness. “They only lack the light to show the way,” Jor-El says. “For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you: my only son.” Was the metaphor supposed to continue in “Superman II”? Is that what giving up his powers was supposed to be? Death and resurrection? If so, someone forgot to tell Richard Lester.
Back in the day, Brando got shit for playing Jor-El: too much money ($3 million for 11 days work), ridiculous hair, a role beneath his majesty. But he’s good. It’s a ludicrous role, wrapped in tin-foil suits and surrounded by special effects, and filmed in a rush to accommodate his schedule, but it still works. Besides, with both his signing and his performance he set the correct tone: Superman is serious business.
At the same time, Gene Hackman and Ned Beatty are impeccable comic relief. (“Are we going to Addis Ababa, Mr. Luthor?”) Valerie Perrine is funny, too, and so lucious she should be rated “R” just for standing there. She’s also Superman’s first kiss, isn’t she? Who before her? Lana Lang? Too busy being dragged to parties by that doofus Brad. Lois? Too busy, period. Superman doesn’t even kiss Lois in this movie. Well, when she’s alive anyway. Spoiler alert.
Lois is funny. They searched everywhere for their Lois, went through some great possibilities—Deborah Raffin, Susan Blakely, Lesley Ann Warren—but Kidder has it all. Her Lois is silly, driven, in love. She’s a great career women. She’s also accident-prone. Superman saves her from death three times here: 1) he stops the mugger’s bullet; 2) he catches her in mid-air after she falls from the helicopter; 3) and he turns back time after she is buried alive in a California earthquake.One wonders how she managed before he came along.
Lois Lane: driven, silly, in love.
Superman from day one
But the movie flies or doesn’t on the title character’s back. Director Richard Donner’s catchword during production was “verisimilitude,” which begins and ends with Christopher Reeve. Signing Mario Puzo to write the first draft of the screenplay, then signing Marlon Brando to play Jor-El, were important points in getting the project off the ground; but it’s Reeve who matters. He’s the greatest superhero casting ever. He’s not only comic-book handsome, he’s an actor. He makes the worst secret identity ever—I’ll put on these glasses and no one will tell—believable. Imagine the disaster if one of the stars the project pushed for (Robert Redford, James Caan, Al Pacino), or one of the stars that pushed for the project (Sylvester Stallone), had gotten the role. Now, of course, everyone says they wanted an unknown. Producer Ilya Salkind blames DC Comics for pushing for a famous face, but casting director Lynn Stalmaster says Ilya and father Alexander kept putting Reeve’s portfolio on the bottom of the pile.
Here’s creative consultant Tom Mankiewicz on what happened when Reeve finally got his screen test:
He hopped off the balcony and said, “Good evening, Miss Lane.” And [cinematographer] Geoffrey Unsworth looked over at me and went [makes impressed face]. Because the tone was just right. He went through the test and we just knew we had him.
Donner: “He was Superman from day one.”
Reeve plays him straight. He plays him as the straight man in his own movie. He’s a boy scout in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way,” he says, to which Lois Lane laughs in his face. “You're gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country!” she says. He has a response to that, too. “I’m sure you don’t mean that, Lois.” Then he adds, “Lois, I never lie.” He is, as Miss Teschmacher says later in the film, too good to be true.
Superman: too good to be true.
Leaping over the ’60s in a single bound
His persona was actually viewed as one of the film’s biggest stumbling blocks. Here’s Christopher Reeve in the 1980 TV special, “The Making of Superman: The Movie”:
Making people believe that a man could fly wasn’t really the hardest part of making the film. I mean, we all know Superman can leap over tall buildings, but the question is: Could he leap over the generation gap into those early Siegel and Schuster days? We wanted to know if a man from the innocent ’30s could survive in the post-Watergate ’70s.
How do they do this? Follow the chronology. Clark was compelled north at 18 to create the Fortress of Solitude, where he spent 12 years listening to Jor-El drone on about the mysteries of the universe. What does this mean? It means he leapt over the ‘60s in a single bound. He missed LBJ and the Vietnam War, Nixon and Watergate. He missed the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the tragedies of My Lai and and Kent State, the mass murders of Richard Speck and Charles Manson. He missed the White Album. I’m sure Jor-El had a current-events class going (“My son … I believe ‘The walrus was Paul’ is misdirection on the part of Mr. Lennon”); but it’s one thing to study it and another thing to live through it. In the end, Superman is a product of both the planet Krypton and 1950s Smallville and he takes both with him to 1970s Metropolis, where crime is rampant, everyone moves fast, and no one says “Swell.” But rather than the city turning him cynical—he’s impervious in more ways than one—he helps the city turn innocent. He flies by and pulls the cynical masses in his wake. The tagline of the movie was, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but for both Metropolis citizens and moviegoers around the world you could remove the last four words. Superman made us believe.
Yet the question keeps nagging: how does he remain so innocent? Surely he knows what’s going on in the world. Surely he can detect pulse-rates lying and hear crimes—public and private—being committed. Yet he remains who he is. He maintains his belief in the goodness of humanity who only lack the light to show them the way. Of course he’s got Pa Kent and his wisdom, and Jor-El and his wisdom, and maybe he doesn’t push beyond that. Or maybe he knows how dangerous it is to push beyond that. “Lois, I never lie.” Because if he did, where would he stop? If he gave in to one temptation, how many might he succumb to?
By the way: I never lie? Isn’t that what Clark Kent is—a lie? There’s nothing true about the persona. Quentin Tarantino has famously suggested that Clark Kent is Superman’s comment upon humanity—that he sees us as weak, cowardly and equivocating—but Christopher Reeve beat him to that analysis by 30 years. Back in 1978, Reeve told The New York Times: “I see Clark as a deliberate put-on by Superman. Clark’s a tongue-in-cheek impression of who we are.” But shouldn’t a secret identity be about fitting in? About blending into the background? Clark does not. He’s all aw-shucks and gee-whiz. He’s a young man wearing a fedora without irony in the 1970s. (Alert George W.S. Trow.) In his own way, Clark is as isolated as Superman.
“I never lie, Lois.” Right.
Kryptonian in its advancement
Five names share screenplay credit: Mario Puzo (“The Godfather”), David Newman (“Bonnie and Clyde”), Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”), Leslie Newman (this) and Tom Mankiewicz (“Live and Let Die”). They give us so many good lines:
- “Why? You ask why? Why does the phone always ring when you’re in the bathtub?”
- “It’s amazing that brain can generate enough power to keep those legs moving.”
- “Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.”
Apparently William Goldman, one of the biggest screenwriters of the day, turned down the gig. He told the Salkinds he didn’t see how it could be done. I don’t blame him. What was the greatest superhero adaptation before “Superman: The Movie”? The “Captain Marvel” serial from 1941? Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons from the same year? The Adam West “Batman” of the 1960s?
“Superman” wiped them all away. It was years ahead of its time. It was Kryptonian in its advancement. It took another 11 years before we got Tim Burton’s “Batman” and another 11 years after that to get to Bryan Singer’s “X-Men.” Twenty-two years: an entire generation. Back in the mid-1970s, Hollywood, enamored of disaster and devil movies, didn’t think much of superhero movies. But it only lacked the light to show it the way.
Movie Review: Breaking Away (1979)
In June 1979, when I was 16, my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, picked me up from the DMV in south Minneapolis where I’d been filling out paperwork to get my first driver’s license, and asked if I wanted to go with him to a critics’ screening that night. I forget if he handed me a movie pass or a presskit but I remember the image on it: a diploma in a garbage can. I also remember the name of the movie: Breaking Away.
We saw it in one of the small critics’ screening rooms above the now-defunct Skyway Theater in downtown Minneapolis with about a half-dozen other critics in attendance. When you go to movies you generally go knowing first-act plot points (it’s about a down-on-his-luck boxer...), and, increasingly, second- and third-act plot points (...who fights for the heavyweight championship and goes the distance), but I went into this thing knowing nothing but the diploma in the garbage can. As a result, the movie unfolded for me in a way few movies have before or since.
Afterwards my father asked me what I thought and I responded warily. My father was not only a professional movie critic but my father—the man I’d been losing arguments to all of my life—but I told him I thought it was a pretty good movie. He tilted his head and sucked in a discontented breath. “Yeah,” he said. “But it begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies.” During the car ride home I turned this sentence over in my head. Why was this bad? Because it meant the film wasn’t consistent? Because Rocky itself was bad? Couldn’t you say that Rocky begins like a character study and ends like the Rocky of boxing movies?
A month later, Breaking Away became the “sleeper” hit of the summer. Six months later, it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture and director, and it won best original screenplay for Steve Tesich, but today the movie is mostly seen the way my father saw it. It’s a liked movie. It’s sweet. It’s always in the mix whenever anyone talks about great sports movies. When the American Film Institute counted down its 100 greatest movies in both 1998 and 2008, it didn’t make the cut, but when the organization counted down its most inspiring movies, there it was at no. 8—four behind Rocky.
I think it’s more than that; I think it’s one of the greatest American movies ever made.
The film unfolds almost lazily. We see a quarry, then the woods around a quarry, then we hear someone singing with a country twang about the local A&P. Finally the singer and his three buddies, aimless 19 year-olds, wander into camera frame.
We don’t know it yet but the film’s major themes have just been introduced. The quarry is where working-class jobs were. The A&P is where working-class jobs have gone. But it’s a shit job and that’s why these four guys are aimless.
A year out of high school and they’ve already lost their identities. The tallest of the four, Cyril (Daniel J. Stern), all adenoidal voice, big, clumsy feet and pop-cultural references, once played basketball, hoped for a scholarship, and had a girlfriend named Delores. He didn’t get the scholarship, gave up the basketball, lost the girlfriend. Cyril tends to deal with pain through humor, so, by the quarry, he takes up a mock detective stance. “It was somewhere right along here that I lost all interest in life,” he says. “Ah ha! It was right here.” That’s where he saw Delores making out with a guy named Fat Marvin. Then he shouts into the void, mocking his own heartbreak: “Why, Delores, WHY!?!” His words echo but it’s the shortest of the four, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley), who answers. “They’re married now,” he says quietly. Their peers are moving on. Life, for which Cyril has no professed interest, is already passing these guys by.
The unacknowledged leader of the group, Mike (Dennis Quaid), a star quarterback in high school, knows this and talks about getting out. He suggests road trips to Terre Haute and permanent trips to Wyoming. He knows life is bigger than their hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, but he’s too scared to go it alone. He’s like a Springsteen character without the guts. That’s why he told Cyril about his girlfriend Delores. And that’s why he gives Moocher shit about his girlfriend Nancy. Girls represent domesticity and Mike needs these guys free to help him get out. He knows the dead-end that awaits him if he stays. He articulates this as they watch the university football team practice:
You know what really gets me, though? I mean here I am, I gotta live in this stinkin’ town, and I gotta read in the newspapers about some hot-shot kid, new star of the college team. Every year it’s gonna be a new one. And every year it’s never gonna be me. I’m just gonna be Mike. Twenty-year-old Mike. Thirty-year-old Mike. Ol’ mean ol’ man Mike! These college kids out here are never gonna get old, or out of shape, cause new ones come along every year. They’re gonna keep calling us “cutters.” To them it’s just a dirty word. To me it’s just something else I never got a chance to be.
At this point we’ve heard the term “cutter” once, from one of the college kids, but it’s only later that we find out its meaning: townie. Specifically: the post-World War II generation that cut the stones that built, among other things, the university. Those jobs have dried up, but the term has become ubiquitous for anyone in town; anyone who’s not getting out.
What do you do if you’re a working-class kid in a university town that has no need for the working class? You wind up in the service sector. You work at the A&P, or—and this is the great fear—you directly service the university. You sell cars to the college kids, or you wash the cars of the college kids, or you police the squabbles between the townies and the college kids. Cutters are basically the niggers of Bloomington. These are the people who do our dirty work, and as a result we fear them, and reduce them to this epithet. Our guys know this. But it’s the fourth guy, Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who discovers an ingenious way out.
We watch movies, in part, to get away from ourselves, to hear about someone else for a change. And if the story is good enough, or wish-fulfillment enough, we want to be that person. That’s the exchange implicit in most movies. You give us your money and we’ll let you sit in the dark and pretend to be someone else for two hours.
Dave is both our own and his own wish fulfillment. He’s ours because he’s really good at something we’d like to be good at: bike racing. He’s his own, and humorously so rather than tragically so (cf. Billy Liar), because he’s pretending to be something he’s not: Italian. One imagines, as he got good at bike racing, as he became a fan of Team Cinzano, he adopted the rudiments of the Italian language and culture. Bravo! Bellissima! One also imagines a weight being lifted off him as a result: the weight of being himself. He’s the happiest person for most of the movie because he’s not Dave Stoller; he’s not a cutter. For centuries, Europeans escaped to America and forged new identities, but Dave is part of that generation for whom the American dream contracted and dried up. So he escapes to Europe—in his mind anyway—an idealized Europe. The situation is played for laughs but serious issues lie beneath it.
Breaking Away doesn’t have much of a plot (“I'm not a plot writer,” Tesich told The New York Times in 1982); instead it has tensions between individuals and groups. The most obvious of these are the tensions between the cutters, represented by our four guys, particularly Mike, and the college kids.
But the cutters have their own internal tensions. They may quit the A&P in solidarity with Mike, and they may follow him onto campus and into fights, but they’re already breaking away from him. Moocher gets closer to Nancy: at first denying she’s his girlfriend, then standing up for her, then quietly marrying her at the Monroe County Court House. Dave, in his head, is already gone, while Cyril is never quite there. Mike constantly tries to rally the troops but he resents having troops that need rallying, while they resent being rallied.
Then there are generational tensions. Cyril’s dad “understands” his son’s failures, while Moocher’s parents flee Bloomington for the promise of jobs in Chicago, leaving their son to sell the house by himself. But we only hear about these parents. The only parents we actually see are Dave’s.
Dave’s dad, Raymond (Paul Dooley), is a former stone-cutter who owns a used-car lot that services the college kids—he gives the cars cheesy, collegiate names like “Magna Cum Laude”—and after work he brags about how he schnookered this one or that one; how these college kids ain’t that smart after all. Of course he can’t abide his son’s Italian’s fixation but that’s not the real source of tension between the two of them. Hell, the real source of tension isn’t even between the two of them; it’s within the one. Raymond has internalized Bloomington’s class issues—us vs. them—but he knows that for his son to succeed he needs to become them. The situation is, again, played for laughs, but serious issues lie beneath it. Here he argues with his wife, Evelyn (Barbara Barrie):
Raymond: He used to be a smart kid. I thought he was going to go to college.
Evelyn: I thought you didn’t want him to go to college.
Raymond: Well why should he go to college? When I was 19, I was working at the quarry 10 hours a day.
Evelyn: Most of the quarries are closed.
Raymond: Yeah, well, let him find another job.
Evelyn: Jobs are not that easy to find.
Almost everyone in the film has a monologue. Dialogues, like the above, may be comedic but monologues are serious. Mike’s “Mean ol’ man Mike” speech best represents the younger-generation dilemma—the epithet we’re called is the job we can’t even get—but it’s Raymond’s monologue, representing the original cutters, that is the speech of the movie. No one looks at countries and cultures with fresher eyes than foreigners: de Tocqueville on America, Hemingway and Baldwin on France, and, yes, I would argue, Steve Tesich, born in Yugoslavia and an immigrant to the U.S. at the age of 14, on the America of Bloomington, Indiana. Here, father and son go for a stroll through the university campus:
I cut the stone for this building. I was one fine stone cutter. Mike’s dad, Moocher’s, Cyril’s. All of us. Well, Cyril’s dad, never mind.
Thing of it was, I loved it. I was young and slim and strong. I was damn proud of my work. And the buildings went up! When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings was too good for us. Nobody told us that. Just felt uncomfortable that’s all. Even now I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone... I just feel out of place.
Yes, Breaking Away is sweet. Dave romances a pretty co-ed named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), whom he calls “Katerina,” and serenades her beneath her sorority window with “M’appari Tutt Amor,” from the Italian opera “Martha.” Yes, Breaking Away is inspirational. Dave’s heroes, Team Cinzano, come to Indiana, and he trains for the race on the freeway, memorably drafting behind a truck at 60 miles an hour. Yes, his dreams come crashing down when a member of Team Cinzano, unable to abide this American upstart with the bad Italian accent, sticks a bike pump between his spokes and he loses the race (“I guess you’re a cutter again,” Mike tells him afterwards); but the movie ends with the Little 500 bike race, where the underdogs, the cutters, take on the college boys, and, against all odds, win.
Inspiring. At the same time, I can’t recall a more profound admission about the American class system in a Hollywood movie than the one Dave’s dad makes above. This country was built by people who aren’t welcome here.
Each time I watch Breaking Away I fear I’ll see the movie through my father’s eyes, but each time it only gets better. Each time, too, I fall in love with a new scene. This summer it was the scene after Dave meets Katherine. He’s biking through the woods, and light is shining through the trees, and we hear the instrumental strains of the song, “M’appari Tutt Amor,” with which he’ll serenade her later in the movie. It’s an aimless scene but you get the sense of things beginning. Dave is young and slim and strong, and he’s good at what he does, and he’s in love. And he spreads his arms wide to take in the world.
In the most basic sense my father was right. Breaking Away begins like a character study, and it ends like the Rocky of bike-racing movies, because Steve Tesich’s script was originally two scripts: one about cutters, the other about the Little 500 race. He couldn’t sell either script. So he combined them. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Strawberry Fields Forever” began as two songs and that turned out pretty well.
The movie never really answers its fundamental question. What does the working class in a post-industrial society do? In the aftermath of their Little 500 victory, the cutters simply do what the downtrodden have always done. They lay claim to their epithet. Dave’s dad changes the name of his used-car lot from “Campus Cars” to “Cutter Cars,” while Dave, who embraced one false identity (Italian) to overcome another (cutter), winds up where he was meant to be: at college. But we never see Mike or Moocher or Cyril again. We can only guess what happens to them.
When Tesich arrived in this country in the late 1950s, he learned English through television, through sitcoms, and you can argue the film has a sitcom quality to it—particularly its ending. On campus Dave meets a pretty French girl and soon they’re biking, talking the Tour de France, and he’s using Frenchisms as he once used Italianisms. When he sees his father, he shouts out, happily, “Bon jour, papa!” and the father looks back, startled, horrified, and the camera freezes. Cue rimshot. At that point, though, we begin to hear the Indiana University fight song, and the freeze-frame fades into a shot of the Monroe County Court House, and a graphic informs us: FILMED ENTIRELY IN BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA. No shit. The film is steeped in the place. It also uses obvious locals for bit parts—the postman, the stone cutters hanging at the plant, the old woman on her porch—but nothing says “Indiana” like this ending, which refuses to take itself too seriously. There’s something very Midwestern, very American, about that.
Breaking Away was released more than 30 years ago but it’s never felt more relevant. Moocher can’t sell his parent’s house, jobs aren’t easy to find, there’s trouble in the Middle East. One can argue that jobs are never easy to find and there’s always trouble in the Middle East. But it’s more. I spent the summer of 2010 looking for a car, and many of the car salesmen I met hadn’t been salesmen long. This one had been an event planner but jobs dried up. That one had been a professional photographer but in the digital age he was rendered irrelevant. Then there’s me.
I first saw Breaking Away with my father, the movie critic for The Minneapolis Tribune, in the summer of 1979, a time when journalism and movie criticism seemed like stable occupations. No longer. Newspapers everywhere are folding. Movie critics are being let go. We thought Breaking Away was about them but it’s really about us. We’re all cutters now.
Review: “Robin and Marian” (1976)
WARNING: REVISIONIST SPOILERS
As “Robin and Marian” opens we see two medieval knights digging in the French sand. “For treasure?” we wonder. “Oh, to get a large stone. Oh, for a catapult. Oh, to shoot at yon castle.” Which they do—to little effect. The stone crashes impotently halfway up the wall and Robin (Sean Connery), on horseback beside Little John (Nicol Williamson), sighs deeply. A minute in, and everything already feels purposeless and dissipated.
If “Robin and Marian” is the least traditional of the Robin Hood feature films, it has less to do with being set 20 years after the famed Sherwood-Forest events than with being written and directed in the 1970s. That was a dispiriting time for all of us: post-1968, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate. Heroes weren’t believe in and authority was openly mocked. In both the 1938 “Adventures of Robin Hood” and the 1991 “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Richard the Lionheart makes an appearance at the end and is venerated. He stands tall, acts noble, everyone bows. (In the ’91 version, he’s even played by Connery.) Here he shows up at the beginning—played with glorious panache by Richard Harris—and he’s as mad as a hatter. The absent lord of the semi-besieged castle has a three-foot gold statue hidden somewhere, but the one-eyed man minding the store, and protecting the women and children within, yells out that there is no gold statue. It’s stone. That’s enough for Robin. He’s about to leave when Richard comes charging up on his horse and demands the castle be taken. They argue:
Robin: Your statue is a rock.
Richard: I want it done.
Robin: There is no treasure.
Richard: Do it.
Robin: There are no soldiers in there, just children and a mad old man.
Richard: And what is that to me?
So the castle is taken and burned. Afterwards Richard's foot pokes a three-foot statue. “So it was stone,” he says with mild interest, as one hears, in the background, the cries of dying women and children. But the one-eyed man lives. “I liked his eye,” Richard says, as if recalling a striking painting he saw at a gallery. A scene later, after some drunkenness, Richard’s dead, and Robin and John, with no one to follow, not even a crazy king to follow, head back to England.
The things he carries.
What becomes a legend most? At this point, Robin doesn’t even know he is a legend. He and John return to Sherwood the way one might return to a high school haunt. Isn’t that the place where...? Hey, remember this? They run into Tuck (Ronnie Barker) and Will (Denholm Elliott) and it’s the latter who tells him he’s revered, that there are ballads sung about him:
Follow him, follow him, bloody and brave
I’ll follow Sir Robin into the grave
“They’ve turned us into heroes, Johnny,” Robin says to Little John, amused. Then this key bit of dialogue:
Will: Everywhere we go, they want to hear the things that you did.
Robin: We didn’t do them!
Will: (laughs) I know that.
The heroes aren’t heroes. At the same time, we’re never really told what they never did. Rob from the rich and give to the poor? Split an arrow at an archery contest? Rescue Maid Marian from Sir Guy of Gisbourne?
It’s apparent, though, that they did live in Sherwood Forest and fight, in guerilla fashion, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw), who’s still in power. Marian (Audrey Hepburn), meanwhile, has become a nun (“Not my Marian,” Robin says, shocked), and the day they visit her at Kirkley Abbey is, nice coincidence, the day the Sheriff and his men come riding by to arrest her for maintaining allegiance to the Pope rather than King John.
The Sheriff of Nottingham has been portrayed a thousand different ways. In the Fairbanks silent version, he’s an afterthought; in the Flynn Technicolor version a buffoon. Alan Rickman played him with over-the-top malevolence in the ’91 Costner version, where he’s the chief villain with an eye on the throne. He’s none of the above here. He’s not even a villain, really. He’s had 20 years to figure out what he did wrong and it’s made him patient and crafty. One could even call him wise. He’s not only the smartest man onscreen but possibly its most interesting. When Robin and John try to sneak into Nottingham he sees through their disguise from the castle above. “Ah Robin,” he says. “Three horses but two to push? I almost feel sorry.” When his headstrong lieutenant demands the right to pursue Robin, and then insults the Sheriff—claiming he’ll succeed where the Sheriff failed—there’s no anger in his response. “Raise the gates,” he says wearily. He knows the lieutenant will fail. He also knows enough not to pursue Robin into Sherwood. Even after King John gives the headstrong lieutenant 100 soldiers to take Robin, the Sheriff merely camps them outside Sherwood. And waits. And waits. He knows he’s the bird hopping around before the cat. Sooner or later the cat will pounce.
But it’s called “Robin and Marian,” that’s the key relationship, and it’s in their conversations that screenwriter James Goldman, brother of William and author of “The Lion in Winter,” has fun. “What are you doing in that costume?” he says when he first sees her in nun’s habit. “Living in it,” she responds. Seeing the austerity of her quarters, he says, “I thought I knew you. What’s happened to you?” “Good things,” she responds. She’s haughty. She’d given up on Robin, and was ready to give herself up to the Sheriff, too. In fact Robin has to knock her out to take her away, and the shock is less seeing Robin slug Marian than seeing Sean Connery slug Audrey Hepburn. That’s like coldcocking a fawn. Other crimes seem minor in comparison.
Marian’s haughtiness, of course, is poor cover for 20 years of lost love and pain, which she eventually confesses. There are scars on her wrists from when she tried to kill herself. “You never wrote,” she says accusingly. “I don’t know how,” he answers honestly.
The things she carries.
He has scars, too, from his countless battles, which she sees when she takes off his shirt. “You had the sweetest body when you left,” she says sadly. “And you were mine.” But these scars are nothing compared to his spiritual scars. The Crusades were celebrated in the Fairbanks version, and glossed over—in an isolationist fashion—in the Flynn version. Here they’re horrific. When she asks if he’s sick of fighting and death, he tells her a story:
On the 12th of July, 1191, the mighty fortress of Acre fell to Richard. His one great victory in the whole campaign. He was sick in bed and never struck a blow. On the 20th of August, John and I were standing on a plain outside the city, watching, while every Muslim left alive was marched out in chains. King Richard spared the richest for ransoming, took the strong for slaves, and he took the children, all the children, and had them chopped apart. When that was done he had the mothers killed. When they were all dead, 3,000 bodies on the plain, he had them all opened up, so their guts could be explored for gold and precious stones. Our churchmen on the scene—and there were many—took it for a triumph. One bishop put on his mitre and led us all in prayer. (Pause) And you ask me if I’m sick of it.
But he’s not sick of it. That’s what Marian suspects and that’s what the Sheriff knows. There’s a great scene where Robin and John rescue several nuns from Nottingham Castle. It’s great because it’s not. Robin Hood is now an old man, and, rather than bouncing and leaping, he grimaces and pants. He moves in slow-motion. Part of the point of “Robin and Marian” is to explore the story after the story. What happens after the happily-ever-after? History doesn’t have to be a tragedy to be repeated as farce.
At times, the film, directed by Richard Lester of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” fame, is almost too farcical, as if it were dipping its toe into absurdist “Monty Python” territory. This absurd tone clashes with the bittersweetness of the overall tale. Robin keeps doing what he’s doing because he can’t do anything else. When the Sheriff succeeds in drawing him out, and they duel clumsily with broadswords, they’re like two old dinosaurs. Several of the men even have to turn away—as sportswriters had to turn away from watching the great Willie Mays, in his twilight, fall down in center field trying to catch a fly ball.
The Sheriff doesn’t get Robin here. Despite the Sheriff’s craftiness, Robin still wins. But he’s wounded and Marian takes him back to the Abbey, mixes a concoction and has him drink it. It’s poison. She wants a life with him, she deserves a life with him, but she knows she won’t get it because he won’t change. “I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat,” she confesses. “I love you more than God.” This is what her feistiness was hiding. Initially incensed, he comes to accept it. “I’d never have a day like this again, would I?” he says. with that Connery half-smile.
“Robin and Marian” comes close to being very, very good—the acting and dialogue in particular—but its tone is slightly off. Plus it has the worst riding music I’ve ever heard (imagine instrumental Christopher Cross, but somehow schmaltzier), and it’s a little precious with its withering-fruit symbolism. I’m also not sure if I don’t buy or merely don’t want this end, which ignores why this particular tale is bittersweet. Think of the withering fruit. We all age and wither and die, even legends. In his day Robin Hood was a great thief—robbing from the rich and giving to the poor—and he deserved to be taken by the greatest thief of all: Time.
The final shot.
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