Directed by Richard Lester
Written by George Macdonald Fraser from the novel by Alexander Dumas, père.
Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Charton Heston, Christopher Lee, Geraldine Chaplin, Spike Mulligan
When you think great directors, Richard Lester rarely comes to mind. Yet his influence on modern film is probably greater than any other (for better or for worse).
Lester was born in Philadelphia, but moved to the UK, where he started directing and producing TV shows in the 1950s. He broke into films with a short, The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film, starring Peter Sellers and other from The Goon Show, which ended up with an Oscar nomination. He then moved to features and was entrusted with The Mouse on the Moon. But his career really took off when he was hired to do a quickie film to cash in on the popularity of a group of musicians before they were forgotten. A Hard Day's Night was a smash, and Lester was on the top of the heap.* Critics noted one idiosyncrasy to his style: he favored quick cuts within a scene instead of following the actors. Nowadays, of course, you can't find a popular film that doesn't use this technique, but back in the early 60s, it was groundbreaking.**
Lester continued with kinetic comedies like Help and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. But he tried creating films that didn't fit into commercial expectation. How I Won the War had mixed success, while Petulia was a critical hit. But Lester's next film, The Bed-Sitting Room -- a post-apocalypse absurdist comedy -- was a critical and commercial flop and Lester went several years looking for work until he finally hooked up with Alexander Salkind to to an all-star remake of a beloved classic, The Three Musketeers.
You know the basic story: D'Artagnan (Michael York) meets up with three of the King's musketeers -- Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). They get involved in thwarting a plot by Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), aided by Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) to discredit the queen (Geraldine Page).
Of course, Lester's background was in comedy, not adventure. But he manages to combine the two. George Macdonald Fraser (author of the Flashman novels) knew a thing about putting together humor and derring-do, and the result is consistently entertaining. Fraser was smart enough to stick closely to Dumas's story and just fill it in with humor.
Special credit is due to William Hobbs, who staged the swordfights. They were a major departure from older fight scenes, with their genteel and closely choreographed fighting of two people trying to hit the other guy's sword and not his opponent. Hobbs made these into fights. There were no rules, and you got the impression that the people involved were really working to defeat the other guy. One fight was set in a courtyard full of drying laundry and the hanging clothes were as much a part of the fight as the characters.
The sets and costumes were also wonderful. One little touch I remember fondly is that it showed the Musketeers with muskets, something that makes you say "of course," but never seems to come up in other films of the story.
All the actors were fine in their roles, but an especial note goes to Raquel Welch as Constance, D'Artagnan's lover. Raquel was (and still is) pretty much a joke as an actress, but the role is one of her best and she is quite good. Spike Mulligan also has a small role as her husband.***
Lester realized that the film of the entire book would run too long, so he cut it into two pieces and released The Four Musketeers the next year. The actors weren't happy to have made two movies and only getting paid for one, so they sued. Luckily, they were able to settle. The Four Musketeers kept the style, but was less successful, probably because it picked up in the middle -- and the big setpieces of the story were in the first half.
But it revitalized Lester's career. He went on to direct films like Robin and Marian and The Ritz, along with blockbusters like Superman II and Superman III. After a few flops, though, he managed to get together most of the cast of his Musketeers film for The Return of the Musketeers. After this, he retired (though he did direct a concert film for Paul McCartney).
Lester's career was long, but with a relatively low number of films, and he has been suffering from critical neglect. Few people give him credit for A Hard Day's Night (and it's clear that the Beatles were the ones running the movie), and many of his films are fairly obscure. I was actually surprised to have three of his films on my list. But I think he was a first-class talent who just never gets his due.
*The popular music act did pretty well, too.
**It had been done previously, of course; I've come to believe that nearly all breakthroughs in film have antecedents that just didn't catch on. Years later, MTV honored Lester as the founder of the music video (for A Hard Day's Night) and the entire music video style. Lester, ironically, didn't really like to be remembered for that particular style.
***This was France, after all, where at one point the king's mistress had to marry a nobleman so the king could present her at court.