Director Richard Lester was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but he made some of the best British films of the 1960s. Inspired by Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, he developed an acute funny bone and an appreciation of the absurd that allowed him to work side-by-side with bastions of British comedy such as Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. Lester’s sense of humor also appealed to The Beatles who personally selected the expat director to record the band’s exploits in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). This music-fueled double feature introduced the Fab Four to audiences around the world and revealed how quirky, lively and charismatic the band could be on and off the stage. In both films, Lester aptly spotlighted the mop-tops playful camaraderie as they challenged authority, outwitted ostensible villains and used teamwork to right perceived wrongs.
By presenting The Beatles as a group of countercultural champions, the director laid the groundwork for many of his future films which included reinterpreting legends (Robin and Marian , Butch and Sundance: The Early Days ) and superheroes (Superman II , Superman III ). But outside of The Beatles movies, the best example of Lester’s appreciation for comical heroes can be found in The Three Musketeers (1974) and its impromptu sequel, The Four Musketeers (1974) currently streaming on FilmStruck.
According to author Robert Sellers (What Fresh Lunacy Is This? – The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed) the Musketeer movies were the brainchild of Alexander and Ilya Salkind, a father-and-son producing team who also worked closely with Lester on the Superman films. The Salkind’s originally wanted The Beatles to star in their tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel so they approached the director of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in the hopes that he would support their vision. Lester had developed a close working relationship with the band, particularly John Lennon who had also appeared in the director’s 1967 film How I Won the War, but he had no interest in casting them as the Musketeers explaining, “The Beatles have such huge personalities, they are so well known that they will take away from the characters . . . If I’m going to do this I want to find great actors.” Instead of enlisting the Fab Four, Lester reportedly compiled a list of actors he wanted to work with and after some contentious back-and-forth bargaining between the producers and distributors, he acquired a stellar cast made-up of some of the decade’s most recognizable talents.
In both of the Musketeer films Michael York stars as the spirited and simple-minded d’Artagnan, a graceless young swordsman who hopes to join the Musketeers of the Guard comprised of Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain) and Porthos (Frank Finley). When d’Artagnan arrives in Paris he’s unprepared for life in the city and has several clumsy encounters with the dastardly Comte de Rochefort (Christopher Lee) and his sinister co-conspirator, Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) as well as the Musketeers themselves. But after helping the Musketeers thwart an attack by the power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), d’Artagnan teams up with the swashbuckling threesome in a series of adventures that earn him a place in their boisterous brotherhood, while winning the heart of the Queen’s dressmaker (Raquel Welch).
The actors are superb and there’s an incredible chemistry between all the players. York is extremely likable as the young hero of both films while Oliver Reed is in top form as the rough and rowdy Athos. Frank Finley’s droll Porthos is consistently funny and Richard Chamberlain charms as the foppish Aramis. We sympathize with the Musketeers and believe in their friendship, which allows us to cheer on their exploits and suffer their losses.
Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee and Faye Dunaway are also faultless as the film’s formidable villains, with Dunaway nearly stealing the show as the cunning femme fatale spinning a wide web of treachery and deceit. In stunning contrast, Raquel Welch is perfectly delightful as the lovely, ditzy and oh-so-likable Constance. Jean-Pierre Cassel and Geraldine Chaplin play the King and Queen of France and Simon Ward holds his own as the dashing Duke of Buckingham. Lester’s comedy cohort Spike Milligan also has a small but memorable role as Welch’s much older husband and Roy Kinnear is hilarious as Planchet, the Musketeers’ faithful servant. I also want to single-out the underrated Michael Gothard who makes a brief appearance as the pious, lusty and treacherous Felton. Much to Lester’s credit, he made a wise decision when he bypassed The Beatles and brought together this go for broke ensemble cast.
The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers were originally supposed to be one all-encompassing 3-4 hour epic but when the producers got ahold of Lester’s footage they decided to creatively split the material into two separate movies to make a bigger profit. Surprisingly it worked and both films were critically-acclaimed box office hits thanks to editor John Victor-Smith, who managed to give each film a distinct ambiance despite the fact that they were shot simultaneously.
The first Musketeers film is a lighthearted romp with a lot of laugh-out-loud moments while The Four Musketeers has a more solemn mood. There’s still plenty of laughs to be had but there’s a nostalgic element in the second film that’s atypical of Lester and our hero’s adventures take a sobering turn.
Both films demonstrate how skilled Lester was at directing large troops of headstrong actors with robust personalities. Despite the star power he was working with, nameless extras frequently interrupt scenes with their constant jabbering and slapstick-style antics. The pace is unrelenting so if you blink you might miss all the clowning around occurring in the background. To the director’s credit, the parade of visual gags and verbal puns are never forced or strained. They arise organically from the controlled chaos, which was one of Lester’s trademarks. As a result, the Musketeer films still feel dynamic and fresh even 45-years after their release.
The swashbuckling sequences are especially spectacular thanks to fight choreographer William Hobbs. Before he began working in film, Hobbs spent nine years honing his skills as a fight director with Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company. During that time, he developed a reputation as a skilled instructor who staged gritty and energetic combat scenes. Hobbs replaced the ballet-like movements and smooth moves typical of earlier buccaneer films starring Errol Flynn, Gene Kelly and Stewart Granger with a ferocity and bawdiness that allowed viewers to feel the weight and sting of the blades as they lashed out at adversaries. Together with Lester and cinematographer David Watkin, Hobbs instilled the Musketeers with a coarser sensibility that grounded the action in its period setting. The cast and crew’s commitment to the battles and brawls meant that some actors ended up with serious injuries.
In a 1976 interview with James Monaco for Movietone magazine, Lester explained, “The film had more than its share of casualties. Naturally, when you’re using live swords you expect trouble. Actors get tired and then they get cut up, sometimes rather nastily. Michael York, who has … I think the kindest way to put it would be ‘an extraordinary nose’ . . . often seemed to be leading with it, and the results were two or three rather bad cuts. Oliver Reed took a sword through the wrist—in one side, out the other—and was in hospital for several days. And then there were problems with the horses. We needed a very large horse for d’Artagnan and couldn’t find one in Spain, only in the North of England. After a long journey the horse arrived and had, shall we say, excuse the expression, his first taste of Spanish flies. He was wild, and every time Michael got on him he was thrown, and this was from a great height. This all builds tension. You feel the actors getting tired, you don’t know whether or not you’ve shot enough material and you wonder whether to try again, whether you’re taking an undue risk or whether to say it’s only a bloody film and call it off, not take the gamble.”
Unfortunately, when Lester reunited with some of the cast and crew for a third Musketeer‘s film in 1989 events took a terrible turn. Actor Roy Kinnear was fatally injured during a riding sequence after being thrown from his horse during filming. Kinnear (father of actor Rory Kinnear) was also Lester’s friend and he had appeared in eight of the director’s previous films so his loss was keenly felt by the cast and crew. In court proceedings following the accident, Lester was forced to defend himself against charges that he’d encouraged Kinnear to perform a riding stunt that he wasn’t prepared for. This tragic incident caused Lester to reassess his profession and after completing the Paul McCartney concert film Get Back (1991), the director decided to abandon filmmaking citing Kinnear’s unfortunate death as the chief reason for his retirement.
Despite the sad conclusion of Lester’s directing career, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers remain two of the most entertaining swashbuckling adventures ever put on film and one of the reasons they work so well is the comic relief supplied by the late Roy Kinnear as well as the rest of the cast. Both movies are full of fantastic action sequences and plenty of laughs that continue to resonate with audiences of all ages.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Note: Originally published on FilmStruck.com