Robin Hood(s)

Our friends at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment have taken advantage of the publicity build-up for Ridley Scott’s dreadful “Robin Hood” to revive four tales of Sherwood Forest from the Columbia Pictures library. From the auteurist perspective, the most rewarding is Gordon Douglas’s 1950 “Rogues of Sherwood Forest,” another fine example of Douglas’s consistently smooth, thoughtful mise-en-scene, with his inviting depth compositions, elegant use of darkness and shadow and lively blocking that can make even an actor as stiff as John Derek (this film’s Robin, Jr.) seem like a dynamic presence. Not the least of the film’s charms is the third and final appearance of Alan Hale as Little John — a role he first played in the Fairbanks-Dwan “Robin Hood” of 1922 and returned to, most famously, in the Flynn-Curtiz “Adventures of Robin Hood” of 1938. Douglas, nothing if not versatile, returned to the material (sort of) for the 1964 Rat Pack comedy “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” which transposed the story to prohibition-era Chicago, with Sinatra as Robin and Dean Martin as Little John — after Hale, the character’s most sympathetic interpreter. More details in my New York Times review, here.

Quite a few of the reviews I’ve read of the Ridley Scott film characterize it as a Tea Party-inspired jeremiad against high taxes and big government, though I suspect that is crediting Scott and company with a little too much prescience on a project that must necessarily have originated several years ago. In any case it was Fairbanks, who wrote the story for the 1922 film under his “Elton Thomas” pseudonym, who first “Americanized” Robin Hood, turning him from a proto-socialist with a dangerous redistribution of wealth program into a committed democrat (with a reassuringly aristocratic background) fighting the despotic Prince John for the rights of the people — a thread unselfconsciously continued by the current Anglo-Australian version, as if it had been part of the legend all along.

If you haven’t seen the Fairbanks version, I strongly recommend it; clearly, they screened it more than once at Warner Brothers when they were getting up the Flynn film, though it’s a terrific movie in its own right, with a scale and expansiveness no other interpretation has matched. Kino put it out in an excellent transfer from an original print some years ago, and it remains available on their website.

168 comments to Robin Hood(s)

  • Gregg Rickman

    Yann, objectively we can speak of a particular style that emerged in both France and the U.S./U.K. at roughly the same time (in the early 1980s) among a disparate group of filmmakers. This style has been defined and discussed upthread and is referred to in passing here as “cinema du look.” I and others have cited examples from films by Tony Scott among others to help define it (and it’s a term that wasn’t coined here). All of that is objective. Clearly you or someone else could challenge it, point out that Parker and Jeunet’s films look completely different, and so on.

    “Greatness” however as I use the term is completely a subjective evaluation on my part, and I’ve never pretended otherwise. In evaluating films, I (and not I alone) consider formal beauty as a criteria, and thus admire Minnelli, Sternberg, Lewis and others on that basis (among others), even though Minnelli, say, was not accepted as an auteur (even by Cahiers in 1960). I cited Sternberg as an example of a director dismissed in his own time as not a serious artist, despite the beauty of his images. Both of these men were relevent to Ridley Scott, and my interest in him at one time as a film artist (an interest that has diminished with time). Again, all of this is subjective. Again, you yourself are free to praise Parker, Besson et al for what you feel is their formal beauty, and advance cases for them as important artists. You (subjectively) like their style (and dislike, I gather, the term “cinema du look”). I (subjectively) don’t.

  • pat graham

    GREGG–re tony scott: i wouldn’t a priori dismiss a “cinema of shards”; after all, impressionist painting went through something like that, in the 1880s, with a more or less total dissolution of form (nb: NOT in the 70s, when the structural armature was still apparent) * that by the mid-90s there was a kind of structural regrouping, seeking to recapture lost figure-ground relations, doesn’t diminish the value (or necessity) of that 80s work * i’m not the greatest fan of tony scott’s films, but i do think he’s doing something fairly unique–maybe even aesthetically valuable–in modern commercial films; the connection with l’herbier isn’t coincidental, and somewhat analogous complaints (and/or accolades) might be applied to that director’s 20s features as well * aside from the explosions, of course …

  • Joseph McBride

    Someone said that eventually in modern film, someone will make a
    movie that is a two-hour-long explosion. Figure out how to do
    that, and you might make $500 million. Someone figured out
    how to do a whole movie moving at eighty miles per hour, after all.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Pat, I hadn’t seen a Tony Scott in a lot of years when I saw his TAKING OF PELHAM 123 when it came out a year or so ago. Stylistically it was nothing much, just another example of what Bordwell calls “accelerated continuity.” It didn’t gain coherence from that, that’s for sure, and while T. Scott can tell a story in this fashion better than M. Bay, the Joseph Sargent original was superior on every level: in story, characterization, dialogue, and the basic narrative goal of creating a compelling interest in a film, encouraging you to watch it to see what comes next. Did I miss anything?

  • pat graham

    GREGG–no, PELHAM 1 2 3 is terrible, albeit typically frenzied and hyperkinetic … try DEJA VU for a full (if still not quite satisfactory) recent dose

    but TRUE ROMANCE remains his best overall, to my taste anyway …

  • Pat G., what is the connection you see between Tony Scott and L’Herbier? Scott and Gance I can almost understand, with their shared taste for centrifugal editing, but L’Herbier is almost completely a matter of precisely sliced-and-diced Cubist space, which is ultimately quite coherent. Very little to do with the Tony Scott who once hired a helicopter so he could get some extra-extraneous angles on a rooftop conversation in “Spy Game.”

    Not to get all un-auteurist about it, but surely “True Romance” is Scott’s best film because it has the best screenplay — and even Tony isn’t manic enough to run those Tarantino monologues through his Cuisinart.

  • jbryant

    Speaking of George Stevens (which we were, somewhere in this thread), his ex-wife Yvonne Howell, mother of George Jr., has passed away at the age of 104 or 107, depending on the source. She acted in a few films, too.

    Also, that fine cinematographer William A. Fraker just died at age 86. He was teaching at USC up until a couple of weeks ago. Probably best known for shooting BULLITT and ROSEMARY’S BABY, his top credit ’round these parts may be lensing EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC. He also directed the well-regarded Western MONTE WALSH and the ill-fated LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER.

    RIP

  • Joseph McBride

    Variety’s obit of Yvonne Stevens referred to her former husband
    as a “cinematographer.” Evidently Variety hasn’t yet caught
    up with the fact that George Stevens made the transition to directing.

  • pat graham

    DAVE–hmmm, l’herbier’s usually classed with the cinema impressionists, not the constructivists (though yes, you do have analytic and constructivist/synthetic cubists, so maybe he belongs with the second type), and even if i wouldn’t want to hang my hat on standard definitions, impressionism does familiarly connote a dissolution of pictorial space, not a montagelike building up * and i’m not sure how the helicopter story trashes what seems to me a very systematic–or maybe the word’s “obsessional,” an old auteurist favorite by the way–approach to the craft: excessive, gratuitous, unnecessary, like stroheim’s MERRY WIDOW buttons … but of course that’s “genius,” a priori i guess, and t. scott’s just a hack

    anent TRUE ROMANCE, i can only tell you this: one of my first associations, when i saw the film on initial release years back, was of the cascade of gemstones under the opening credits of sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE: a rain of coruscating effects, each one discrete, faceted, sparkling … not sure what this has to do with narrative coherence (though i’m sure we can think of something) but it does seem possible to appreciate this fairly intense level of conscious application, and the diffracted sensibility that produces it, for what it is

  • pat graham

    whoops, intended WEDDING MARCH and the machine spits out MERRY WIDOW … those austro-hungarians all look alike to me

  • This style has been defined and discussed upthread and is referred to in passing here as “cinema du look.” I and others have cited examples from films by Tony Scott among others to help define it (and it’s a term that wasn’t coined here). All of that is objective. (…) Stylistically it was nothing much, just another example of what Bordwell calls “accelerated continuity.”

    Sorry, but I think using Tony Scott as a prime example of the “cinema du look” and then throwing the concept together with Bordwell’s “intensified continuity” confuses matters more than it helps in establishing worthwhile critical distinctions. A look at the Wikipedia entry for “cinema du look”, David Bordwell’s “The Way Hollywood Tells It” and e.g. this article by Ginette Vincendeau: bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/15 should make that clear why it is important to be precise. Or you can just ask yourself: does “Betty Blue” really have enough in common with “Top Gun” that they both would merit being subsumed under the same category?

  • Johan Andreasson

    Haven’t seen WEDDING MARCH, but von Sternberg sort of makes sense to me in this context. Experiencing SCARLET EMPRESS for the first time in the 80s I remember thinking I had perhaps seen the world’s first rock video.

    I really liked DIVA in the early 80s, but even back then I felt something wasn’t quite right with BETTY BLUE. Could the connection between BETTY BLUE and TOP GUN be that both are pretty dumb?

  • Yes, PAT, L’Herbier is often classified with the French “Impressionists” of the 1920s just as Lang is often classified with the German “Expressionists” of the 1920s — erroneously in both cases. Lang and L’Herbier, both connoisseurs of cubism, constructivism and futurism (Leger and Mallet-Stevens collaborated on the set design of “l’Inhumaine,” and Leger designed the most famous of the film’s many posters) probably had more in common with each other than they did with the movements with which they have become associated. We have Lotte Eisner to blame for extending the very short-lived Expressionist movement in film to include Lang (against his frequent protests); the French “Impressionists” of the 20s were a diverse lot who drew on just about every avant-garde movement of the moment — except Impressionism, which had been dead for a generation (you can see some attempts at an Impressionist style in early work by Alice Guy and Louis Feuillade). Let me recommend Richard Abel’s excellent study “French Cinema,” which despite its broad title is actually a close look at the avant-garde style of the 20s and how it evolved in opposition to Hollywood realism. As usual, it’s better to look the work rather than just read the labels.

    I see we are having our semi-annual discussion of the same two or three “underrrated” late films of John Huston, which have by now become the object of far more veneration than his once-official classics. Let me just make my semi-annual observation that “The MacKintosh Man” has the benefit of an excellent early screenplay by Walter Hill, whose sensibility the film reflects far more than Huston’s, and who would soon go on to direct a long series of films with far more stylistic conviction and consistency than anything Huston mustered in his erratic, uncommitted career.

    Brian, just how is “Cold War espionage” supposed to be “discontinuous,” and how does Huston’s backhanded execution of “The Kremlin Letter” mirror this alleged state?

  • Brian Dauth

    Dave K: What I was trying to refer to was the paranoia and endpoint nihilism of the Cold War mentality finding perfect expression in what I previously called in a post Huston’s anti-mise-en-scene mise en scene. Individual shots/scenes do not cohere, but do so in a coherent way. I wish I could be more articulate about what I experience, but I am just lately starting to get a handle on the films I did not like when I first saw Huston’s work as a teenager. As you note, the movies I loved then are lesser to me now, while the ones I was not fond of are much more engaging. I have no idea why or how this happened.

  • pat graham

    DAVE–if impressionist cinema were required to be coterminus with the movement in painting (not that diverse manifestations of, e.g., “baroque” have been, or any other broadly based cultural aesthetic), then obviously there’d be no cinema impressionism at all … though maybe that’s what you’re driving at–and i do have to confess i’ve never found anything particularly “impressionist” about films made under that rubric * that said, i still think the label fits t. scott–not that it necessarily recommends anything he’s done (in fact the example may be cautionary: here’s where formalism without “content” ultimately brings you), but only that the work, taken as a whole, in its own narrowly committed, alienating way, merits consideration as “auteurist”: plenty of technical craft/intelligence to admire, especially in the editing … the problem comes in sitting through the stuff at all

  • Gregg Rickman

    Yann, Tony Scott came in during the 1980s, when some Brit/US filmmakers’ work paralleled those of the French “cinema du look” generation. Those of this disparate group still working have developed in different directions (and I did point out how a critic could point out how different some of them are from each other). Scott’s TAKING OF PELHAM 123 can be discussed in Bordwell’s terms, but I wouldn’t try to do this with AMELIE. As you say, BETTY BLUE was markedly different from TOP GUN even in the 1980s. The affinities (hyped up imagery) of the two groups are still relevant.

    Pat, I would never call Tony Scott a hack; with the helicopter shots in ENEMY OF THE STATE you mention (and some of the filagree in PELHAM) he’s clearly ambitious, and I would gladly read an all-out defense of him.

  • Barry Putterman

    Sounds like kind of a big problem Pat. Which may have something to do with why the issue of “auteurist” in this case fails to engage me.

  • pat graham

    BARRY–auteurism isn’t pretty …