I guess there's no law that says a Robin Hood movie has to be a light-hearted action romp, and Ridley Scott apparently wants his take on the legend to be a historically accurate and very serious war film. But I suspect that's not what audiences want. Russell Crowe seems to have wandered in from Gladiator and the up-close battles feature the same furious, near incomprensible quick cuts that I remember from that film. Distant shots work better. Obviously, Scott remains a sometimes-impressive visual stylist, and the oceanic arrival of the French army in the climactic battle scene has some cool visuals (a striking shot of arrows entering the water, striking bodies beneath the waves, blood rising up). Yet the sequence itself calls to mind the famous opening D-Day invasion of Saving Private Ryan. And the film itself, throughout, never shakes the been there/done that feel of other, better epics (notably Braveheart, or even Gladiator). If you're going to turn in something this familiar anyway, why not just follow the classic Robin Hood model and give audiences a little fun. Instead, we get yet another origin story and perhaps a particularly pointless one since this Robin Hood feels so foreign to our conception of the character. "And So the Legend Begins," the final title card reads, just before an utterly bizarre graphic novel approach to the story rolls during the credits. But surely there's no way this is going to spawn a deadly serious sequel, right?
As Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life begins, James Mason's Ed Avery is sacrificing himself (working a second job that he keeps hidden from his family) to support a suburban lifestyle that he's already beginning to see through. After a dinner party early in the film, he calmly explains to his wife that they and everyone else at the party are dull, none of them capable of saying a witty thing all night. A life-threatening illness soon leads Mason to the (then new) "miracle" drug Cortisone, and his subsequent addiction spirals into a "psychosis" that leaves him railing against every institution we are meant to hold dear (education, the family, religion). For my money, the film is at its best before he reaches sheer bonkers status. It seems, for awhile, that Mason has become a kind of truth-teller, a figure whose "insanity" allows him to say things that otherwise can't be addressed in polite suburban society (very much akin to the neighbor/mental patient John Givings in Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road). Ray cleverly fuses the standard "addiction film" with these moments of penetrating social insight. Sure, the final moments lapse back into the kind of ending likely dictated by the studio system, but that's easy to forgive in a film full of brave moments and a great performance by Mason.
Thanks to Matthew for first passing along a TCM version of this then-hard-to-find gem and thanks to Criterion for now restoring it to its full glory. Please put it in your Netflix queue, posthaste!