Cuba (1979/2002)

Director: Richard Lester
Cast: Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw, Nicol Williamson, Richard Harris
(Columbia/Rastar, 1978/2002) Rated: PG

by David Sanjek
PopMatters Film & Book Critic

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Tarnished Knights

TThe American-born, British-located director Richard Lester remains best known for his two effervescent features with the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). In them, he captured the quintessence of Swinging London and the happy-go-lucky hedonism of an energetic era. The fast-cutting and mobile camerawork that made the activities of the Fab Four come across as a virtual human cartoon typify much of Lester’s work and was appropriated by many others at the time. (The visual style of the Monkees series as well as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In owe much to his material.)

But that hyperactive visual surface does not account for the whole of Lester’s career. Alongside it, he developed a wistful, elegiac tone that that made for a kind of postmodern melancholy. His narratives can tug at your heartstrings and, at the same time, interrogate the romanticism that infuses much popular cinema. At his best, as in 1968’s Petulia (underrated and criminally unavailable on DVD), Lester combines emotional rawness with extraordinary detail of place. The failed love affair between Julie Christie and George C. Scott is set against the desolate heart of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, through a complex montage of images and sounds shifting backward and forward through the characters’ tortured lives.

Much as Petulia calls into question the narrative dynamics of the prototypical cinematic romance, Lester’s Robin and Marian and Cubachallenge some popular cinematic genres: in the case of the former, the historical action film and, in the latter, the romantic melodrama. In each film, Lester illustrates how heroic characters can be simultaneously noble-minded and numbskulls, not the one-dimensional embodiments of strength and rectitude that occur in much of classical Hollywood cinema.

Lester’s heroes are never run-of-the-mill. Even his Superman features, II (1980) and III (1983), treated the Man of Steel with a wink and a smile. What most intrigues him is what he calls “the oblique look at a recognizable figure.” To this end, the director often focuses on what might appear to be peripheral perspectives. In Getting Away With It, a fascinating, if at times scattered, book-length interview with the filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh, Lester states, “I would much rather show the maid taking the soiled sheets out than to see the love scene that led to them being dirtied.” This approach situates the protagonists against a broad background, illuminating their complex, and sometimes incompatible, motivations.

Lester most eloquently applies this concept to his 1977 “anti-epic,” Robin and Marian. Here, the legendary leader of the outlaws of Sherwood Forest (Sean Connery, without his customary hairpiece) is no longer a young man, but an aged warrior, out of sorts following the conclusion of the Crusades and the death of Richard the Lion-Hearted (Richard Harris). The film’s elegiac as well as satirical tone is made immediately clear as Richard is fatally wounded by a one-eyed, elderly man who has been left to defend a castle that the noble King proceeds to pillage, slaying all its women and children. Left without a cause and sickened by the slaughter, Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) return to the pastoral setting of England. Robin reconnects with Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) who, during his many years of absence, attempted suicide and became a nun. Together, they endeavor to reestablish a home in Sherwood and rekindle the passions of their youth. Robin remains at odds with the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw), and the two men inevitably take up arms against one another in a climactic swordfight staged at the edge of Sherwood Forest.

For all the swordplay and derring-do, Robin and Marian is one of Lester’s most relaxed and evenly paced films. The usual swift succession of shots and rat-ta-tat editing give way to a frequently stationary camera that lingers over the sumptuous greenery and the actors’ aging yet still commanding features. Lester never makes his heroes into buffoons, but here, it’s obvious that the implacable power of kings has made Robin Hood’s guerilla tactics outmoded and untenable. The outlaws’ strength has been replaced by tired bones, and Robin’s unshakable conviction that one must make a stand against tyranny comes across as little more than egotism. Robin’s efforts to defeat the Sheriff and protect Marian from the religious persecution of King John (Ian Holm) lead to death and devastation.

And yet, the film’s melancholic tone is mitigated by the passion shared by the title characters, despite the passage of time. Connery and Hepburn glow, she particularly, returning to the screen after many years. Equally impressive is Williamson, ordinarily a compelling if overly theatrical performer. He brings to the loyal Little John a steadfast strength of character and understanding that their glory days have passed. When he and Marian observe Robin and the Sheriff hacking away at one another, their troubled faces remind us that, however much we idealize the way of the warrior, all that remains at the end of a battle is blood, sweat, and pain.

The eventual demise of the titular characters Robin and Marian by means of a poisoned drink administered by Marian to herself and her wounded lover brings to an end not only their resurrected affair, but also the very notion of heroic chivalry that the defender of Sherwood Forest embodied. As the two lovers succumb to the drink’s effects, the remnants of Robin’s band, save Little John, are rounded up by the forces attached to King John. The idea that an individual, like Robin, could stand up for the rights of the oppressed comes across as a pleasant fantasy, worthy of song and legend but devoid of the means to stand against state power.

A different kind of critique of heroic individualism occurs in Lester’s Cuba, a fast-paced and deliberately satirical narrative set in the volatile year of 1959. Here, Lester operates in more customary fashion, as in the opening sequence, when we are introduced to an array of characters and their environment through a swift succession of hard-edged, expertly framed compositions. (It should be said that, in the cinematographer David Watkin, who shot both films, Lester has a most able collaborator.) One notices immediately the use of images connected with liquids: well-tended swimming pools, glass brimming with cocktails, streets covered in mud. Such shots convey an unstable universe, an effective visual correlative for the imminent political overthrow of Baptista’s regime by Castro.

Middle-aged soldier of fortune Robert Dates (Sean Connery) has been hired by General Bello (Martin Balsam) to defeat Castro’s guerillas. He encounters Alexandra Pulido (Brooke Adams), now married to the good-looking wastrel Juan Polido (Chris Sarandon), who is in charge of his father’s cigar factory. Dates and Alexandra had an affair in South Africa when she was a teenager, a relationship he endeavors to resume. Over the course of two, event-packed days, the government falls apart, as Castro’s forces take over Havana and Baptista flees to the United States. A variety of peripheral characters act either to augment the forces of revolution or look out for their own interests rather than those of the country. Curiously, whatever the character might choose to do, Cuba suggests that historical change occurs as a result of forces outside the control of any one individual or group of persons. The final shots of the film shift into historical footage of Casto’s entry into Havana following the revolution. One leaves the film with the impression that nothing or no one can hope to alter the onslaught of history.

Even more overtly “anti-epic” than Robin and Marian, Cuba refuses to indulge any of our habitual assumptions about men of valor or women in need of rescue. Ironically, considering the associations Connery brings to the role, Dates is irrefutably out of his league, in the end capable of saving his own hide but not demonstrating the macho savoir faire one associates with the figures Connery has played in the past, most notably James Bond. Dates has arrived too late to remedy the excesses of a corrupt regime and even his attempt to reclaim Alexandra fails. She rejects the view that her security requires the efforts of a man, either Dates or her randy husband. As Dates flies off to security abroad, Alexandra stays behind, eager to pursue whatever opportunities the revolution will offer her rather than succumb to the well-intentioned but empty romantic entreaties of a man twice her age.

Lester’s provocative dismantling of the assumptions built into this narrative will exhilarate some, infuriate others. Connery was one of the latter, for he found Lester’s direction at odds with his screen persona. As Lester states to Soderbergh:

Why Connery has not spoken to me since is because, for the first time in his career, he’s playing someone who is weak, ineffective, incompetent, helpless with women, and with a terrible toupee. And I can’t imagine that he didn’t know this from the beginning. In the end he wanted to have a go at recutting it himself to make it into a love story. He tried and it didn’t work.

For me, Cuba succeeds precisely because of its intelligent, but never smug, dismantling of the conventions of romantic melodrama. Today, when too many films credit a hero with all the virtues he requires and no liabilities, while refusing women any option other than to serve as objects of men’s attentions, the tough-minded satire of Cuba is as refreshing as a tropical breeze.