Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Four Musketeers


Things have been relatively quiet at Chateau Maine this past week. The demise of my truly brilliant political campaign has left me with more free time. I no longer have to spend my days ringing strange (and I mean strange) people's doorbells or posing for large color posters with stray dogs and cats. There are also no new performing gigs looming in the offing. I called my agent and berated him at length. Why, for instance, am I the only musical star of my generation not appearing in the new Broadway production of Follies that opens tonight on the Gay White Way? I'll have to call Betty Bacall and tell her to thrust Polly Bergen under the A Train on her way to the theater some night so I can take over the part.

Norman's health is somewhat better this week. The anti-convulsants seem to be working. He no longer seizes when the neighbors use their garage door opener, instead he launches into the score of Oklahoma! at the top of his lungs. I can tell the neighbors' comings and goings by the number of times I hear The Surrey with the Fringe on Top during the day. He is also dealing with his agent regarding a possible comeback. There's some talk of him appearing on the 'Where Are They Now' Celebrity Week Wheel of Fortune .

As I promised all of my faithful readers, I took some of my time and popped the DVD of The Four Musketeers into the home theater in order to finish up Richard Lester's epic swashbuckling version of the venerable Alexandre Dumas novel. I soon settled in again with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway, amongst others. The Four Musketeers continues the story of D'Artagnan and his companions, begun in the earlier The Three Musketeers as they deal with the plots and counterplots of Cardinal Richlieu (Charlton Heston) and his minions Rochefort (Christopher Lee) and the evil Milady de Winter (Dunaway). Richard Lester had, originally, planned only to make a single movie but when the film was coming in at between three and four hours, a decision was made to chop it in half and release it as two separate films. This was good for the producers as they could charge twice but created a nasty contretemps with the Screen Actors Guild as the talent had only been paid to appear in a single film, not two.

In this installment, D'Artagnan (Michael York) and his compatriots (Oliver Reed as Athos, Frank Finlay as Porthos and Richard Chamberlain as Aramis) are involved in the religious wars that engulfed France in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Fighting for the Catholic Crown against the Huguenots of La Rochelle, they are involved again in the Queen's (Geraldine Chaplin) love affair with the British Prime Minister (Simon Ward) and the private attempts of Milady de Winter to revenge herself on D'Artagnan for his foiling of her plots and his discovery of her secret past.

Like the first film, this one has its major fight set pieces including a sword battle on a frozen pond (an act never seen in the Ice Capades), our heroes breakfasting in a bastion under enemy bombardment, and a final confrontation in a convent when most of the cast races to the rescue of Constance (Raquel Welch), D'Artagnan's beloved. The tone of this piece, however, is a good deal darker than the sunny first half of the story, predominantly because of the plotting by Dumas that the script by George MacDonald Fraser follows fairly closely. There are tragedies, unexpected deaths and not altogether happy endings. This is a film of the 70s when filmmakers and audiences were happy to explore outside of the usual Hollywood conventions.

The DVD has no extras other than the film. For reasons that are unexplained, the credits are in French although the soundtrack is in English. At times the sound seems slightly out of synch so its possible that the best surviving visual print was a French one and this was married to an English soundtrack in the production process, with not always happy results. The sound is stereo but not surround and, like the previous film's DVD, some of the color has faded and certain interior scenes are a bit murky and detail cannot be appreciated.

It's best to watch The Three Musketeers and this in sequence and in close temporal relationship to gain a sense of Richard Lester's intentions. The gorgeous production design and costumes and stunning use of location make it a visual feast and the full sweep of the story covered by both films has epic Hollywood feel. The offbeat, loopy humor in the script, particularly in the asides of minor characters and servants at the ends of scenes is also great fun. Don't try to watch this film without having seen The Three Musketeers first. Neither plot nor characters will make sense without the information in the other film.

Goose fisting. Poisoned daggers. Sedan chairs. Burning convents. Raquel Welch in chains. Gratuitous anachronistic submarine. Nearly naked Michael York. Masked executioners. Gratuitous American Indians. Fallen puritans. Deadly rosaries. Baguette golf.

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