Blu-ray Review: Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers & The Four Musketeers

Rather shamelessly packaged to fool you into thinking these are in some way tied-in to the new Paul W.S. Anderson version, this duo of 70s classics have been released onto pin-sharp Blu-ray for the very first time.

Rather shamelessly packaged to fool you into thinking these are in some way tied-in to the new Paul W.S. Anderson version, this duo of 70s classics have been released onto pin-sharp Blu-ray for the very first time. Enjoy some of the richest production values and costume design that 70s cinema had to offer €“ all as you€™ve never seen it before (even on the big screen, I€™d wager) as Blu-rays, here and here. These are a truly odd and unique pair of films. They were produced by the father-and-son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind who decided (very much as they did with their later Superman franchise) to produce both films back-to-back. This doesn€™t seem especially unusual these days, but it was revolutionary back in the early seventies! The Three Musketeers finishes with a teaser trailer for the following year€™s The Four Musketeers and the only other time I think I€™ve seen that was with this summer€™s Captain America! So, it€™s fair to say that the Salkinds weren€™t scared of doing things differently. Then there€™s their choice of director €“ Richard Lester €“ returning to the director€™s chair for the first time since the much under-valued post-apocalyptic satire The Bed-Sitting Room. Lester€™s work always mixes bizarre comedy, often with drama and historical detail with a contemporary perspective €“ see his A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum and How I Won The War for other examples of the same. Add to that the casting, which draws together the unlikeliest call-sheet imaginable € So you have the truly bizarre spectacle of Charlton Heston ordering the torture of Spike Milligan (a Lester regular) who is married to Raquel Welch. Indeed, the first film opens with a fight scene between Michael York (playing D€™Artagnan) and Joss Ackland (playing his dad) € Yes, you read that right: Basil Exposition crossing swords with Chuck De Nomolos! These films were a starring vehicle for Oliver Reed (Athos), who was a formidable force of nature at the time, and is rarely to be seen having more fun on screen. He is supported variously by Richard Chamberlain (as Aramis), Frank Finlay (as Porthos) and a delightful Roy Kinnear in the almost silent role of the put-upon squire, Planchet. Allied against our heroes are Christopher Lee as the one-eyed Rochefort (who made this film in-between his turns in The Wicker Man and The Man With The Golden Gun) and the scheming, ice-cold Milady DeWinter (played by the then white-hot Faye Dunaway). But, of course, in truth, these are all supporting roles - for The Three Musketeers is, as always, D€™Artagnan€™s story. York uses his square-chinned movie-star looks and piercing blue eyes to good effect here as the naïve would-be Musketeer. Reed and Dunaway only have one real scene together, but there is a real spark of electricity in their showdown € Neither intimidated by the reputation (neither in character nor out) of the other. The audacity of the casting is matched by the ambition of the production as a whole: Shot against spectacular Spanish landscapes, both films have a visual splendour which had all-but died-out by the mid-seventies €“ and we get the full effect of that for the first time on these remastered Blu-rays. The colours shine out of the screen €“ The red of the villainous Rochefort, the purple of the supremely evil Cardinal Richelieu and the yellows and golds of the gorgeous DeWinter. The work that went into finding spectacular locations then dressing them to look like convincing 17th Century France is quite remarkable, as is the costume design €“ particularly noticeable in the second film with Dunaway€™s array of extraordinary and often plain lewd gowns. Some of the sets €“ especially in Spike Milligan€™s lodging house in the first film €“ are dressed and lit like oil paintings, so rich is the use of colour and so careful the lighting design. Script-writer, George Macdonald Fraser€™s expert knowledge of the period fills the scenes with props and gadgets and turns of phrase that effortlessly create a totally convincing world, and he has also managed to shoe-horn in a little social commentary, by constantly contrasting the squalid, miserable lives of the poor with the cruel, thoughtless decadence of the wealthy. The story is all-too familiar, of course, and the treatment €“ of cheerful, reckless derring-do €“ is very-much in-keeping with every other version of the story you may have seen € But the difference, for me, is in the tone. This film swings from broad slapstick humour to brutal violence and back again with nary a moment€™s hesitation. The contrast of TV comedians acting alongside big Hollywood movie stars is sometimes uncomfortable and not always successful, but that is part of the film€™s unique signature and, besides, the pace is so break-neck that no scene lasts more than a minute or two, so any mistakes are swiftly forgotten, driven from our minds by the next tangle of plot convolutions or barrage of sight-gags. The sword-fights are numerous and endlessly inventive: We get a fight in a laundry, with food, by torch-light, on ice and in a burning building. No two are the same and all make the maximum use of the actors rather than stunt-men, fighting a desperately and as dirtily as they can. We get Lalo Schifrin delivering a score that couldn€™t be further from Bullitt and Dirty Harry if it tried €“ because pre-revolutionary France couldn€™t be further from seventies America. We get a few touches of steam-punk (a submarine and a sword-fighting machine) as well as one or two ideas that would re-surface a decade later in Raiders of the Lost Ark (kidnapping a girl by bundling her into a basket in a market, anyone?) These are remarkably clear transfers, given that the source material is now thirty-eight years old and shot almost entirely on location, and only betrays slight digital €˜grain€™ in one of two of the shadowier scenes. But it is literally one or two! Would that I could be remastered to look forty years younger!

Extras:

None at all €“ which is a damn shame. So many of the cast are still around these days, as is Lester, it would have been a great opportunity to get some recollections of the making of such an epic, oddball pair of movies at least in an audio commentary if not a full documentary. Alas, it seems that these films are never to receive the respect they deserve as a unique, eccentric and energetic missing link between the great Hollywood epics of the 50s and 60s and the huge Hollywood blockbusters we have today. The Three Musketeers & The Four Musketeers are both available on Blu-ray now.
Contributor

John Ashbrook has been publishing half-assed opinions about films, TV shows et al for twenty years now. He's hosted radio shows, taught Film Studies, written books and magazine articles by the cartload and now composes his own film review blog The Cellulord is Watching ... (www.cellulord.co.uk). Of course, what he *really* wants to do is direct.

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