Review: The Three Musketeers

19 October, 2011 (12:03) | by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews | By: Richard T. Jameson

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

The Three Musketeers opens with an auspiciousness I haven’t experienced since the first image and chords of 2001: Against a dark, featureless background and in a light that seems to have seeped out of a pearl, a hand seizes the hilt of a heavy sword and slowly draws the blade from its scabbard. Metal rubs against metal with a sense of reawakening; the sound is bigger than it ought normally to be, reverberating in a vault of time. A man poises himself, then leaps to attack another. They play with their swords—not dancing or lunging as if spearing hors d’oeuvres, but swinging, hacking, beads of sweat flashing from them. Suddenly one man’s leap is traced in a dozen luminous outlines of himself. Richard Lester is making movies again.

Oliver Reed and Roy Kinnear

It’s not immediately apparent what sort of film he’s making—which is, of course, one of the things that make Lester Lester. From such a hip contemporary artist one scarcely expects a straight retelling of the Dumas classic. Not that romanticism hasn’t been violated before: the Ritz Brothers, no less (and certainly no more), played the Musketeers in a 1939 Fox version. Lester’s Goon Show pixilation is frequently in evidence: a servant registering mute pique at Aramis’s incurable penchant for cutting off the candles in idle swordplay; a group of court midgets, each trying to one-up his fellows by having the king select one of his canapés, and all commenting sotto voce on the various court intrigues (“It i’n’t her, I tell ya—she got bigger feet!”); a branding iron and a potato nestling side-by-side in a bed of hot coals. We get an indication of what must be in store when D’Artagnan (Michael York), humiliated by Cardinal Richelieu’s chief henchman Rochefort (Christopher Lee), sets off to avenge his disgrace. Rochefort is riding leisurely away on horseback. Lester moves his camera back to take in the whole arena of D’Artagnan’s revenge, a sort of rural plaza with peasants and workmen browsing about, an intricate superstructure topping a well at left, and Rochefort describing an assured diagonal down through the center of the scene and shot. D’Artagnan runs ahead of his enemy, seizes a handy rope that should swing him right into Rochefort’s lap and send the bully sprawling, and swoops toward his man—and past him. D’Artagnan falls in the mud; Rochefort, without a backward or even a sidelong glance, continues on his way. All right then, Lester’s going to guy the whole business of making a swashbuckler. Who believes in heroes anyway, or possesses the grace of a Fairbanks, or even gives a damn? Bring on the yoks, Dick! And they come—very good ones, too—until, not long afterward, we find D’Artagnan rather accidentally in the company of the Musketeers and in the midst of a duel with more of the Cardinal’s men. One of them charges D’Artagnan; lacking a sword at the moment, our hero leaps up, grabs a clothesline, and starts looping loops as his assailant draws nearer. What’s going to happen: D’Artagnan gets tangled in a sheet? The line breaks? Well, as a matter of fact, the whole thing works out just fine, with D’Artagnan’s heels catching the fellow at just the right instant and knocking him for a loop of his own. Say, what is this?! But the movie makes no comment. And that’s the way it tends to go from there on out, some of the swashes buckling under the weight of their ingenuity and some of them coming off as though the ghosts of Fairbanks and Flynn were giving D’Artagnan a leg up.

Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in addition to delivering a great many funny things, offhandedly made use of some standing Samuel Bronston sets to recreate ancient Rome more convincingly than most official spectaculars. Much the same thing occurs in The Three Musketeers. The set-pieces testify to the near-primitive discomfort of an unhygienic epoch, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes just because that’s the sort of world and time the story is taking place in. Even at court, the Queen and her handmaidens twirl and twitter on a petite merry-go-round while several men strain at the gears of the mechanism; a little later, royalty gets off on the blood sport of falconry while Ernie Kovacs–Dutch Masters music trips genteelly on the soundtrack—a cliché joke Lester shrewdly redeems by cutting, after a moment, to an on-the-spot chamber orchestra sawing away in the greenery. His treatment of the numerous fight scenes appears to have the same intentional basis. Oliver Reed’s Athos is a hairy footballer of a Musketeer with torn pantaloons and soiled linen; the frequently out-of-pocket heroes seem almost pre-fictional, as though Dandy Nicholls might step in from Help! at any moment to observe that they are “just loik they was before they was, if you know wot I mean.” The fights are an odd mix: slapstick, treachery, and cartoonish improvisation all slop together, and just about the time one gets used to a nonthreatening recreational frolic wherein wet laundry and bars of soap are the key weapons, Porthos (Frank Finlay) leans over and pokes his sword right into an opponent’s belly. Again one flashes on earlier Lester: How I Won the War, and rotund funnyman Roy Kinnear backing away with a wishful, chuckled “Nao (heh heh), nao” until a relentless German bayonets him against a wall.

Kinnear (who was also Algernon, Dr. Tiberius Foot’s assistant in Help! and a gladiator-trainer in Funny Thing) is on hand again as D’Artagnan’s servant, and he and Goon Show veteran Spike Milligan (as Raquel Welch’s haplessly licentious husband) outpoint an all-star cast not only in laugh-getting but also in conveying a sense of precise orientation to the director’s askew universe. (My favorite moment: Kinnear wheezing to a street beggar, “Not your day, is it?”) Michael York is bravely earnest as D’Artagnan and helps Lester keep the show from flying off into frivolous genre putdown. Raquel Welch, as Constance Bonacieux, is vehemently victimized throughout according to Lester’s gaily whimsical view of womankind (at one point gentlemen amuse themselves by chucking balls at the pubic region of some two-dimensional standees of women), but within that admittedly cruel context she becomes a more sympathetic absurdity than she ever did in her straight roles. The film’s unexpected delight proves to be Charlton Heston, whose imposing Richelieu is memorable for reasons besides its contrast to Moses and Ben-Hur; when Rochefort (Christopher Lee is also fine) tells him that he both hates and fears him, Richelieu replies, “I love you, my son”—extending his Cardinal’s ring toward the camera—“even when you fail me,” and it’s superb.

The Three Musketeers is Lester’s first film in five years—six, if we discount the barely released The Bed Sitting Room (which had its local première on late-night TV). It seems to be succeeding with both public and reviewers. I’m glad, but a trifle surprised. It’s an odd film in a beguiling, sometimes bewildering assortment of modes. Some of the humor is almost private (scarcely anyone seems to have noticed that Frank Finlay—Porthos—also contributes a wonderfully maundering bit as the Duke of Buckingham’s jeweler), and occasionally Lester’s technique is almost too deft (again, no one I’ve spoken with was able to add up two slightly separated shots during the fight in the laundry: a man falling into a vat of bluing and emerging a moment later all blue; the myriad bustle and multi-character action of the whole sequence apparently got in the way of picking up all the detail—and when was the last time a movie had that much going for it?!). Then too, the Three Musketeers aren’t all that dominant in the narrative that bears their name, which must frustrate some expectations. But Lester is back, thank God or the Salkinds, and in demand once more. Meanwhile, his present film was so splendiferous that there turned out to be two movies in it. The second, The Four Musketeers: The Revenge of Milady, should be out around Christmastime.

© 1974 Richard T. Jameson

THE THREE MUSKETEERS: The Queen’s Diamonds
Direction: Richard Lester. Screenplay: George Macdonald Fraser, after the novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Cinematography: David Watkin. Production design: Brian Eatwell. Costumes: Yvonne Blake. Fight direction: William Hobbs. Editing: John Victor Smith. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Executive Producer: llya Salkind.
The Players: Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward, Michael Gothard, Raquel Welch, Spike Milligan, Angel del Pozo, Nicole Calfan, Joss Ackland, Georges Wilson

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