The Four Musketeers
Though long out-of-print on video, Richard Lester's (A Hard Day's Night, Superman II) newly reissued two-part take on Dumas' musketeers was a huge hit in the mid-'70s. It's not hard to see why. Highly entertaining films, both The Three Musketeers and its sequel have a light touch that, with the exception of some bleak moments in The Four Musketeers, makes both adventures work equally well as comedies. Michael York plays D'Artagnan, a young man who aspires to join the elite royal guard. Once in Paris, he unwittingly challenges to duels three close friends (Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay) who adopt him and draw him into their fight against the devious Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston). Lester clearly loves his elaborate comedic set-pieces and his close-to-decadent 17th-century setting, throwing in as much slapstick and as many historical curiositiessuch as a game of chess played with trained dogs and monkeysas he can. His nearly disrespectful approach to the material also generally serves him well: The musketeers perform their jobs motivated more by a love for each other and for adventure than an adherence to any loftier principles. They recall, at times, the anti-heroes of Robert Altman's MASH, but without the unconventional sense of morality. The queen they serve is portrayed by Geraldine Chaplin as shallow and unworthy, and while the musketeers may point to the absurdity of the conflict with the Hugenot rebels, they still proceed to kill as many of them as they can. Most of these issues only become apparent in The Four Musketeers, the more serious of the two films. Though filmed at the same timeunbeknownst to the cast, which was paid for only one movie and later sued Lesterthe two movies are quite different. The Three Musketeers, which came out in 1974, is superficially little more than a high-spirited adventure in the form of a string of beautifully executed moments of physical comedy. Its 1975 sequel isn't quite as successful, in part because it comes close to abandoning the levity in trying to point out the more serious undertones that have run through both. This might have worked better had the characters been more fully fleshed out, but, aside from York's D'Artagnan and Reed's Athosand then only in a handful of scenesthey're basically cartoons. (Dialogue-driven moments are futher hampered by some atrocious overdubbing that makes both films resemble kung-fu movies at times.) Still, you can't really go wrong with either. In his best work, such as The Knack... And How To Get It, Lester is able to pair deftly executed comedy with more provocative content. While not quite up to that level, these films both show the director working near the top of his form.