Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Three Musketeers (1973) & The Four Musketeers (1974)


          Though previously known for the irreverence of, among other things, the invigorating movies he made with the Beatles, Richard Lester revealed great gifts as a director of adventure films with this epic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ deathless novel The Three Musketeers, which producer Ilya Salkind cleverly divided into two movies (more on that in a moment). Telling the enduring tale of how enthusiastic bumpkin D’Artagnan (Michael York) finds his place amid a group of elite 17th-century swordsmen, then inadvertently helps uncover a conspiracy within the French ruling class, Lester’s sprawling project mixes lowbrow comedy and sophisticated intrigue to great effect.
          The silly stuff includes lots of slapstick and Benny Hill-ish bedroom farce, and the derring-do features everything from preposterous stunts to genuinely frightening swordfights. The tonal variety is unusual, nimbly replicating the breadth of Dumas’ narrative by toggling between the ridiculous and the sublime. Lester’s effervescent approach to film editingwhich accentuates his loose, observational shooting styleis as consistently dazzling as the project’s sumptuous production design and costuming. The Musketeers movies are never shy of energy, and the pictures overflow with entertaining performances.
          York is appropriately eager and awkward, while Oliver Reed’s haunted gravitas lends macho meaning to the bond between the trio of older Musketeers whom D’Artagnan joins; few filmmakers captured Reed’s offscreen combination of poetry and savagery better than Lester does here. Raquel Welch gives her best-ever performance in a mostly comic role (her epic cleavage is a character unto itself); Faye Dunaway and Christopher Lee provide elegant villainy; and Charlton Heston’s presence adds to the international flavor of the piece, though his casting as Cardinal Richelieu is laughable. And while some viewers may have justifiable quibbles with Lester’s whiplash tonal shifts, the herky-jerky alternation between campy schtick and intense melodrama keeps things lively.
          Originally shot as one lengthy film, the Musketeers saga was bifurcated by Salkind, much to the chagrin of the actors, who had been paid for just one movie. Legal shenanigans followed, though most audiences were none the wiser when the Lester movies unspooled to general delight. Salkind refined his methodology by shooting 1978’s Superman and 1980’s Superman II simultaneously with director Richard Donner, this time revealing to everyone beforehand that two movies were being made, but that didn’t work out perfectly, either; production of the second picture was halted partway through and then restarted, at a later date, with a replacement helmer—none other than Musketeers survivor Richard Lester.
          FYI, although the 1977 flop The 5th Musketeer is completely unrelated to the Salkind/Lester pictures, much of the original Salkind/Lester cast regrouped for 1989’s misbegotten official sequel Return of the Musketeers. The death during production of series comic foil Roy Kinnear cast a pall over the piece, and, sadly, helped expedite the conclusion of Lester’s illustrious career.

The Three Musketeers: GROOVY
The Four Musketeers: GROOVY

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