We'll always have Paris

Never a dull moment in Lester's film

Published: Jan 19 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, March 30, 1974
THE THREE MUSKETEERS (THE QUEEN'S DIAMONDS). Written by George MacDonald Fraser, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas (pere). Music by Michel Legrand. Directed by Richard Lester.  Gerneral entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: "a considerable amount of sword-fighting."
MOVE OVER, MAFIA. En garde, kung fu. Your age of ascendancy is over.
    The swashbuckler is back.
    Action lovers, adventure lovers,  comedy lovers and all around great movie lovers: bid welcome to The Three Musketeers, the best thing to happen in a movie house since Gunga Din, a movie to cheer with and about.
    Stylish and endlessly energetic, this latest screen version of the Dumas classic is the biggest entertainment bonanza to hit town in an age. It's one film that really does have everything — colour,  costumes,  intrigue, romance, an unerring eye for period, for natural comedy and for epic effects, an all-star cast, and a General rating.
    It manages to be the most elusive of modern screen properties — a family film. And it is this in the best sense of that term. The Three Musketeers is great fun for every age group from subteen to senior citizen.
    It was the sort of project that could only have been a disaster or a triumph. There really is no middle ground when a producer assembles an all-star cast and hands it over to a director with a record as erratic as Richard Lester's.
    Lester made his reputation with a pair of wildly unconventional Beatle films, 1964's A Hard Day's Night and then, a year later,  Help!. Since then, though, his career has been a series of misfires, among them one incredible disaster called How I Won The War (1967), and an indifferent soap opera, 1968's Petulia.
    Given his record, his bizarre off-casting of the musketeers story raised few hopes. It was hard to imagine Raquel Welch, a performer not known as a powerful actress, in the pivotal role of Constance Bonancieux. The archetypal hero, Charlton Heston, was announced for the role of Cardinal Richelieu, the film's arch villain.
     Lester makes it work. He has indeed produced a triumph. Despite its numerous screen incarnations — aside from the Douglas Fairbanks silent  production, there have been at least three Hollywood sound versions and several European variations — this is the one that is destined to become "official," the film that most closely captures the spirit and feeling of heroic fiction.
    The story, for those who don't already know it by heart, is centred on a romantic youth named D'Artagnan (played to perfection by Michael York) who sets out to join the king's elite guard, the musketeers.
    The year Is 1625. Although France pays homage to its king, the effete Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel), all but the meanest peasant knows that his real ruler is the sinister Cardinal Richelieu, a role in which Heston manages to convey genuine menace.
    As D'Artagnan enters Paris, the crafty cleric is plotting to strengthen his control over the king by discrediting Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin), a shallow woman who has capriciously fallen in love with England's prime minister, the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward),
    Despite his enthusiasm, D'Artagnan is refused entry into the musketeers. He does, however, manage to become fast friends with three of its members, the hearty-drinking Athos (Oliver Reed), the clothes-conscious Porthos (Frank Finlay) and the womanizing Aramis (Richard Chamberlain).
    Taking up lodgings in the city, he falls head over heels in love with the young wife of his elderly landlord (Spike Milligan). She is Constance (Raquel Welch), dressmaker and confidante to the queen. It is through his involvement with her that he becomes caught up in the queen's dilemma.
    Welch, who showed a fine comic flair in an otherwise awful film called Bluebeard (1972), scores a personal triumph here. Her well-intentioned, but incredibly clumsy, Constance is played with just the right amount of innocent intensity to make the character both funny and believable within the context of Lester's vision.
        On one hand, his Three Musketeers can be seen as a loving send-up of the world's number one swash-and-buckle story. Lester, like Tony Richardson in his Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), shows a keen eye for period. His film, shot on location in Spain, captures the everyday look of the 17th century, a look that counterpoints the opulence of Europe's richest court with the unexciting lot of a truly unwashed mass.
    Unllke Richardson, Lester is backgrounding rather than editorializing. It was a time, after all, when heroes believed in their heroics, when adventure was an end in itself and a musketeer could say with some honesty "let us go and be killed where we are told. Is life worth so many questions?"
    It's an attitude that's expressed time and again in George McDonald Fraser's marvellous script. The historical satirist responsible for the "editing" of the memoirs of Sir Harry Flashman, Fraser sees the humour implicit in a group of apolitical, hedonistic musketeers upsetting the international applecart just for the fun of it.
    Their attitude is seen in one scene that begins with Buckingham, escorted by Constance, paying a clandestine call on the queen in the palace laundry, where he is surprised by the palace guard.
    D'Artagnan, on hand because of Constance, comes to his rescue. Moments later, the musketeers. summoned by his servant Plancet (Roy Kinnear), burst in and join the general melee. When it's all over, the Englishman offers his thanks and slinks off into the night.
    "Who was that?" someone asks. "I don't know," shrugs the unconcerned Athos. "He sounded like a foreigner."
    The line is double edged. Unquestioningly, France's finest fighters have come to the aid of some foreigner skulking around the royal palace in the dead of night, and battled the royal guard on his behalf.
    On another level it is self-satire. After all, most of the actors in the film, the musketeers included, come equipped with natural English accents.
    By contrast, the political game is played in deadly ernest. Aiding Richelieu is a powerful henchman named Rochefort, another convincing portrait of villainy from Christopher Lee, an actor best known for his series of British-made Dracula films.
    The cardinal's agent in England is the lovely Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), who manages through nefarious means to acquire evidence of the international infidelity. This is a crew that will stop at nothing to get its way.
    If the film is a send-up, it is also a true example of its genre. It can only parody a swashbuckler by being one, one that is so good that it can laugh at itself without losing its impact.
    Last week, at a preview screening. The Three Musketeers proved that it is just that good. During the film's rousing climax, the audience was so caught up in the action that it cheered the climactic arrival of the tremendous trio.
    I cheered too. For the arrival of a tremendous film.

* * *
ENCORE! ENCORE! Film-goers who want more musketeers can rest assured that more are coming. With a cast like that available, director Lester decided to keep right on going.
    A sequel to the current film was shot at the same time. Called Milady's Revenge, it picks up the story at the point where The Queen's Diamonds leaves off.
    Interestingly enough, Alexandre Dumas was so caught up in D'Artagnan's tale that he wrote two more books about him: Twenty Years After and The Vicompte de Bragalenne.
    If Lester decides to turn his double feature into a series, not only the mafia and kung fu, but James Bond himself can move over.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Yes, Richard Lester has Canadian connections, some of them quite well known. Alberta's film commission enjoys reminding us that both his Superman II (1980), and Superman III (1983) featured Calgary locations. He returned to that province again to film a knockabout comedy, Finder Keepers (1984), this time setting up cameras in and around High River. More obscure is the fact that he fetched up in Toronto for four months in 1956, where he wrote jokes for CBC-TV's The Barris Beat, a late night chat show directed by Norman Jewison.  

See also: THE FOUR MUSKETEERS  (1974).