“Keep going, Reggie, it’s filling up.”
“I’m going as fast as I can.”
“Not good enough.”
With Paul W.S. Anderson’s MUSKETEERS atrocity
coming out already forgotten, a few newspaper critics have muttered about the good old 1973 THE THREE MUSKETEERS directed by Richard Lester. This is gratifying attention for a film (and its sequels) too rarely mentioned, but doesn’t go into what makes it special. The implication seems to be that Lester’s movies delivered the required action, romance and spectacle in a sensible manner, without all the steampunk tomfoolery of the newfangled & crapfangled version befouling our 21st century megaplexes.
This is true, but doesn’t go far enough. Lester’s films work as a satire of the assumptions of swashbuckling cinema, while still delivering the pleasures associated with it. In this, they’re perfectly in keeping with Dumas’ original novel, although they arguably exaggerate its skeptical attitude. A clue to this comes in Charlton Heston’s memoir: he asked Lester, before starting the role of Cardinal Richelieu, how much comedy to put into it, since this was an area he had little experience in. “None, damn it,” was Lester’s reply, as reported by Chuck (the phraseology sounds more Hestonian than Lesteroid). Lester then made the point that Richelieu was the only competent character in Dumas’ book — he’s only defeated because his stooges are even less cunning than bumpkin D’Artagnan and his enthusiastic, apolitical cohorts.
Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, authors of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, are great admirers of Lester’s films — using them as a model rather than the usual Spielberg influences gives them an edge, but they’re not really competing in the same arena: their films combine slapstick and swashbuckling — to make something we could call either swashstick or slapbuckle — but they have no satirical viewpoint, partly because their films are set in a vague never-neverland rather than a precise historical moment.
Everything in Lester’s films is historically researched, even the cowhide submarine, which at least existed in blueprint form at the time. By having his characters fall in the mud or miss their targets when swinging from ropes, he’s not just being amusing (though the best gags have a Keatonesque flair), he’s taking the piss out of the characters and their aspirations. He manages to do this without eliminating the pleasure of seeing elaborately costumed people doing dangerous things, having learned in the sixties that “Brechtian alienation is a synonym for audience’s backs seen disappearing down a street”), but it should be hard to miss the genial contempt these movies have for the royalty, the military, religion and politicians.
Part of the films’ armoury of narrative contraptions for achieving this is the artful use of extras. Rather than just being scene-fillers, these are very much self-directed characters in their own right, generally cast as victims of the royal, military, religious and political plotters moving across the foreground. Lester loves to create bits of business for them in pantomime, then dub on lines in post-production, adding another draft to the script. His use of sound seems influenced by Tati, and it’s pretty bold at times. The comedian Ronnie Barker quit the dub of ROBIN AND MARIAN because Lester wanted him to add a line where his lips weren’t moving. “Nobody’ll notice,” promised Lester. Barker walked out and was re-voiced by David Jason. So, not everybody likes this approach.*
Which brings us to THE THREE MUSKETEERS, which has several great moments illustrating the value of the extra + overdub. Having broken into the palace, D’Artagnan is faced with a roomful of querulous aristocrats — he grabs the rug they’re standing on and attempts to yank it from under them. A thin strip of it tears off in his hands. He drops it and runs. The aristocrats just stand there. “He’s torn our carpet,” remarks one, sniffily (they all have their backs to camera: the line is an overdub).
Then there’s the dedicated drinkers who go on getting sloshed during a tavern brawl, rapiers flashing within inches of their reddening noses. These guys communicate solely in grunts. A cleaning woman keeps scrubbing the steps as D’Artagnan repeatedly bumps into her while he’s apologizing to Oliver Reed for bumping into him.
Our first real look at Paris — a little girl watches in fascination as a “dentist” extracts teeth in the street, a woman pour a bucket of shit from a window — onto an unlucky greengrocer, a tree is wheeled past (testimony to the passion for landscape gardening at the time) and the rat-catcher’s latest acquisitions, swinging from a pole over his shoulder, slap into D’Artagnan.
And then there’s the liveried manservants at the King’s part, seen at the top of this post — the fountain of wine has been installed without adequate drainage, so these poor guys are on hand to keep drinking to prevent the ballroom overflowing with burgundy. Well, it’s a living.
Interestingly, the other filmmaker with a gift for using bit-players and extras to undercut historical romance is the rather different… Max Ophuls. Consider the freezing old man on the bicycle whose job is to make the scenery go past as Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine enjoy their imaginary train ride in the Volksprater, or the musicians who are dying to finish work but have to keep playing as long as the lovers dance… Of course, in Ophuls the romantic still wins out over the cynical, which is partly why he moves the camera so much and Lester moves it so little.
*Lester doubts Barker’s recollection here.