Robin and Marian

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 29, 2015

I’ve shared this with you folks before. I’m afraid that I just find Audrey Hepburn to be overrated. Winsome and delicate and even exquisite—absolutely, obviously. And that’s just as true now, in her middle age, as when she went on that Roman Holiday. (She’s actually quite good in that one.) But beyond a certain range, or set of dramatic circumstances, you can really feel the strain. I can, anyway.  

Excuse me, then. In addition to Audrey Hepburn, who still makes some dear contributions, there are some tremendous things going on in this picture. The Crusade material is basically a straight, very effective parallel to the Pythons’ central Holy Grail argument. To make that argument they replace Errol Flynn and Ian Hunter (WB, 1938) with grit and grime, greed and villainy. Eventually, soon, the cinema will go unpleasantly too far with this—cf. Terry Gilliam’s entire directorial output—but here they’ve got it just right: the celebrated and idealized thing was not actually worthy of celebration or idealization, and we double the lie when we say otherwise. Richard Harris’s Lionheart is a pretty triumphant illustration of this idea. He’s charismatic, all right, but he is also, finally, poisonous. His shocking demise is all sorts of good. Look at him, look at Monarchy, yielding power, charismatically and unrighteously to the very end.  

That’s just the prologue; the main body of the film, in design, conception and execution, is just as meaningful. (Plus, Audrey Hepburn.) Doug Fairbanks larger-than-life is replaced by a small scale, melodrama with ambiguity and even humanity. The forest is small, and so are the nunnery, the town, the castle. Robert Shaw’s Sheriff is tremendous—knowing his place, knowing its limitations, doing his best to act decently within limits that really couldn’t have been surpassed, or even quite comprehended. That long fight between Robin and the Sheriff is really good. It’s both an attempt at period authenticity and a reproof of Hollywood punch-ups.

The main characters’ grudging, sort-of reconciliation is nicely paced and handled. So, I think, is the film’s frank, unforced and easy carnality. Olivia de Havilland or Melanie Wilkes are one thing, but life was short, you slept in the same room with your parents, and all the animals were just outside, being agricultural. (To confirm this, check out Mr. Chaucer.) Also, Sean Connery is some actor!  

The end of this film has real tragic heft, and a certain Tristan and Isolde-like grandeur. Borzagian even, according to Dave Kehr. That’s about right. The arrow!