“I need a bath. I reek of England and Calvinism.”
Two of my favorite films of the ’70s are Richard Lester’s films, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers starring … well, pretty much everybody. That’s part of the fun, but he imbues the films with the same lighthearted fun that the famous Beatles flicks had, despite not having the Fab Four starring as originally intended. That could have been fun too, but this is better.
Michael York plays the young hothead D’Artagnan, who wants nothing more than to join the ranks of the musketeers; Everyone’s favorite drunkard and man’s man Oliver Reed is Athos, Faye Dunaway plays the sexily sinister MiLady de Winter, Charlton Heston is the conniving Cardinal Richelieu, Christopher Lee is his eye-patched and wily henchman Rochefort, Porthos is played by Richard Chamberlain, and Frank Finlay digs into the role of Aramis with relish. Whew! And that’s not even including the secondary cast, such as the gorgeous Raquel Welch as D’Artagnan’s lover Constance, Roy Kinnear as the musketeer’s servant Planchet, and so many more. Even Spike Milligan as Constance’s father, who’d reprise his role in Mel Brooks’ spoof, History of the World, Part 1!
The battles are a perfect mix of serious and slapstick, and don’t shy away from the violence inherent in a swordfight. Hands are cut, arms are stabbed, necks slashed… and we take it all in stride, for this is the life of a musketeer. When they’re not mock-fighting in a pub to steal bread and wine because they’ve gambled their money away, or making bets that they can make breakfast on a battlement held by the enemy, they are battling with the treacherous swordsmen of Cardinal Richelieu, who wishes to further the religious war with the Protestants and gain power over the King. While there is plenty of time for character-based, bawdy humor, the plot isn’t given short shrift, and especially in the sequel we see the reasons for the intrigue as the unlikely heroes do their best to serve the king and queen without them ever knowing it.
I mentioned bawdy humor, but it is all solidly PG and certainly fine for children of proper mental age. Okay, my favorite gag is when Constance (remember, Raquel Welch in all her busty glory) hides from assassins by hopping on the side of a man’s coach and finds her bosom framed in his window. With classic Lester panache, we merely see the aristocrat arch an eyebrow and blow on his fingertips to warm them, and then we cut away to hear Constance squeak and run from her hiding place. Naughty for sure, but deftly crafted as a joke on parents watching as well.
There’s a lot to love in these movies. Christopher Lee as the towering villain and one of the greatest swordsmen; Charlton Heston enjoying his cameo as the power-hungry Cardinal; and of course, Faye Dunaway as the seductress spy and assassin MiLady, with her acid-filled glass daggers and feminine wiles- but the camaraderie between D’Artagnan and his musketeer friends is infectious. They quarrel and fight, but as the most infamous tagline of all time states, they are all for one and one for all. Brooding Athos is one of Reed’s best roles, and when we learn the source of his pain it’s a lovely twist. Porthos and Aramis tend to be more foppish but Chamberlain and Finlay have a lot of fun with the roles, and Michael York has never been better as the young firebrand who learns how to be a gentleman- of a sort- from these lovable rogues in the king’s service.
Sadly, the third entry- The Return of the Musketeers– also directed by Richard Lester and starring most of the gang, is not available on DVD. It came out shortly after Lester’s career fizzled, due to being terribly miscast as the director of the Superman franchise. The Saran-wrap “S” on Supe’s chest smothered any hopes of Lester continuing to make great films. But he made his bones by changing film history with A Hard Day’s Night and these films are just as much fun.