Title(s): The Three Musketeers & The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge
Year(s): 1973, 1974
Director: Richard Lester
Cast: Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Richard Chamberlain, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlton Heston, Racquel Welch
Synopsis: A young D’artagnan sets out for Paris in the hopes of joining the King’s Musketeers. On his way, he fumbles through a series of misadventures, falling into duels with and eventually befriending the Athos, Pothos and Aramis. From there, this mismatched gang of swordsmen get into a series of imperial intrigue involving the dastardly Cardinal Richelieu and a network of secret agents and crooked officials.
Critique: The Musketeers have a screen legacy on par with famous swashbucklers like Robin Hood, or The Count of Monte Cristo; I can’t tell you which iteration is the definitive film but I can speak with the most assurance that Lester’s first two Musketeer movies are without a doubt the most excellent pair of swashbucklers committed to screen. Lester’s direction and an international cast of stalwart talents yield a lively and vibrant air of tonal tenacity that is rarely seen in genre films, let alone ones that double as period dramas.
While some maintain that Lester’s post-60s work is vacant of the creative embellishments that defined classics such as A Hard Day’s Night or The Knack, and How to Get It, others (such as yours truly) see that Lester’s wearing the deceptive cloak of a journeyman but is still the crackling visual stylist who doles out humor and enthralling action setpieces in equal doses. Considering Lester’s earlier features relied so heavily on physical comedy (the very mention of his name conjures up images of the fab four running around with childish glee), it’s not a surprise that swashbuckling sword fights are doled out with engaging regularity and are framed with relative simplicity, ergo showcasing the brilliant choreography without stylistic embellishment. There is fluency to the performances, the sword fighting and the film’s overall action. In the forefront, you’ve got Lee, who, no surprise, is an accomplished swordfighter. York is a trained fencer but Reed decides to simply treat his sword like a club and clobber everyone who crosses his path. It’s very emblematic of each performer, of course. Lee, an embodiment of debonair badassery, would be a gifted swordsman and it’s only fitting that York would be a proficient fencer and Reed… The man is a blunt instrument. Does he seem capable of finesse and form?
Perhaps but it’s much more fun to see his interpretation of Athos as a hard-drinking and reckless ruffian. Lester and a cast of heavy hitters contemporize the material but keep it moored in a recognizable genre climate. The sensibilities suit action and comedy, pairing well with an eye for regal decor and costumes. The unexpected but wholly useful flourishes of stylized violence escalate the first two Musketeer movies from fun to masterful.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For the longest time, Lester’s Musketeer movies were nothing but a mere wish for me in their joining The Criterion Collection. Aside from the “I want it “rationale, there was no way to justify a column entry. Now that they’re playing on The Criterion Channel, there’s a genuine argument for their inclusion. Also, the current Blu-ray release from Optimum Classic (and Studio Canal) is decent but pretty bare bones and the image quality, though 1080p, would benefit from some color tweaking. Plus, Lester is a presence in the Collection with A Hard Day’s Night. Hopefully, this could free up the opportunity for more titles from the director like The Knack, and How to Get It, or How I Won the War.