After the box-office fiasco of The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), Richard Lester wasn’t the most bankable of directors, so he dusted off a project he’d once thought of for a Beatles movie, The Three Musketeers, and made a spectacular comeback in 1973. Even without the Beatles, it proved to be his most popular film since Help!—and with good reason. This isn’t to say that it—or its companion film The Four Musketeers—is in any way Lester’s best film, merely that it (they) had the perfect recipe for being popular entertainments in a way that such bolder works as How I Won the War (1967), Petulia (1968) and The Bed-Sitting Room did not.
The Three Musketeers most resembles A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)—minus the musical numbers. In fact, it’s not hard to see Michael Crawford’s Hero from Forum as the template for Michael York’s D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers—and to a lesser extent, Roy Kinnear’s Planchet isn’t all that removed from the Zero Mostel character in Forum. What’s interesting is how well this works. But then again, it’s not that surprising, since The Three Musketeers lends itself quite well to Lester’s comedic sensibility—especially since Lester was canny enough to make the swashbuckling aspects of the story central to the proceedings, even while edging them toward comedy.
It is also—taken with The Four Musketeers—Lester’s most visually sumptuous film, even if its general physical beauty is balanced with an eye for the poverty and filth of the era in which it takes place. (The distance between this and the decision that someone must be royalty because “he’s the only one not covered in sh*t” in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is not very great.) The look of the film very likely owes something to the fact that Lester’s cinematographer, David Watkin (who shot most of Lester’s films from 1965 through 1979), also served as photographer on Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), which is set in the same era and has crossover characters (Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu).
In terms of Lester’s oeuvre—quite apart from the film’s sheer entertainment value—The Three Musketeers serves as an amazing endorsement of his status as an auteur and, indeed, for the auteur theory in general. Lester never wrote the screenplays for any of his films (saying that anyone actually wrote the screenplay for the 1960 short The Running Jumping Standing Still Film is more than a stretch). Yet you would never mistake a Lester film (at least through 1975) as being the work of anyone else.
The concerns are the same. The sense of humor is the same. The look is the same. They are unquestionably Richard Lester films—no matter who wrote the screenplays. That’s just as true here—where he’s more or less tied to an existing story line—as anywhere. The visual playfulness is there, as is the penchant for silent-film comedy. Even Lester’s “damnable machines” are in evidence—contraptions or ideas that seem to exist merely to confound anyone who uses or even comes across them. Consider Spike Milligan asking Christopher Lee to wait to arrest him while he attempts to load and operate a gun that constantly defeats him. (This cross-references almost exactly to Victor Spinetti’s “useless ex-army rubbish” gun in Help!.) Watch the scene where Oliver Reed is hoisted from a well with a rope and pulleys. Pay attention to the ridiculous chess game involving monkeys on the backs of dogs being used as chess pieces. All these things—and more—are so essentially Lesterian that there’s never any real question of authorship.
All these concerns to one side, however, what Lester has crafted here is the most inventive and wildly enjoyable version of The Three Musketeers ever committed to film—especially when taken in conjunction with The Four Musketeers, which will be shown next week.