Weekend Film Recommendation: The Three Musketeers

Be prepared to buckle your swash and save the day in this week’s big-budget movie recommendation, as we’re going back to the 17th century in Richard Lester’s take on The Three Musketeers (1973).

The plot is well-trodden ground: the feisty and ambitious D’Artagnan (played by Michael York), son of a dispossessed nobleman, dreams of joining the ranks of the famed musketeers, the King’s personal guard. He travels to Paris, oafishly making enemies along the way with the powerful Cardinal Richelieu’s henchman de Rochefort (played by Christopher Lee), and three dissolutes named Porthos, Aramis, and Athos (played by Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, and Oliver Reed, respectively). Resolving himself to the restoration of his honor, D’Artagnan challenges the last three to a duel and bides his time with de Rochefort.

Screen shot 2014-08-01 at 09.10.11

It turns out that Athos, Aramis, and Porthos are themselves musketeers, and could use D’Artagnan’s help repelling the Cardinal’s men. Meanwhile, the Cardinal (played by Charlton Heston) is busy hatching a dastardly plot to expose the Queen of France’s infidelity to the King with the Duke of Buckingham. D’Artagnan endeavors to foil the power-hungry Cardinal’s plan, although we suspect he does so more to impress his fellow musketeers and his new paramour Constance, the Queen’s maid played by Raquel Welch, than as a matter of fealty to the King.

The premise of the plot takes some time to set up, and for good reason. As far as adaptations of books go, this one is pretty faithful to the original. Dumas’ book, it should be noted, is not spare on plot details; as was common for serialized novels at the time, galloping plotlines held readers’ attention more effectively than did profound character development, which resulted in a sizeable book with an excess of intricate details of exposition. That meant that Lester was left with an abundance of material far beyond what could be fit into a single feature length film – so the producers from the Salkind family split the reel into two, and released the sequel (The Four Musketeers) a few months later. When Welch expressed consternation that her work was creating un-remunerated profit, other actors joined her in a legal suit, the product of which is the ‘Salkind Clause’ requiring up-front declarations of how many movies are to be made from filmed footage.*

Screen shot 2014-08-01 at 09.12.32

The production is a little difficult to place: at times, it feels like a fanciful and carefree family film; at other times, it is pretty desperate, raw stuff. For example, Lester has an eye for slapstick, as is evident in the many thigh-slaps, coquettish Benny Hill female caricatures, and maladroit stumbles and trips over the furniture. But there’s also a real sense of toil and struggle in Musketeers, given that it’s an early work of gangbanger fiction. Nothing quite shows how empty the lifestyle really is of people living in squalor as the effortless transition from the most detached luxuries of King Louis’ palace to the slop of Constance’s home; nothing quite captures the meaninglessness of honor violence as the sweaty, tortured, and quite frankly sad duels between the musketeers and the Cardinal’s guards; and nothing is quite so pathetic as the pretense to nobility among over-dressed henchmen stealing meals from the starving owners of a local inn.

Fear not, though. Musketeers won’t leave you worried about your conscience. It succeeds at what it was intended to do, which is to provide a fun conspiracy romp across France (even though the landscape is actually Spanish), some dazzling swordplay, and 17th century costumes replete with lace, pearls, and feathers. What’s not to like, really? The big name ensemble is certainly up to the task, although highlight performances include those by Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed, both of whom (correctly) bring a touch of psychopathy to their roles. Thank goodness Lester didn’t pursue his original idea to cast the Beatles as the musketeers, following from his earlier films (e.g., see Keith’s review of A Hard Days’ Night).

En garde!

* As it happens, the Salkinds were hardly put out by the legal imbroglio; the huge profits garnered from Musketeers would go on to fund Brando’s colossal paycheck in their next film Superman (see review here), but that’s a story for another day.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Chiefs

The 1983 TV mini-series “Chiefs” holds up very well 30 years on.

dlctwqqaqqocbigA few weeks back, I recommended a sterling British television mini-series (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). This week, I call your attention to a solid US example of the same format: Chiefs. It was broadcast on CBS 30 years ago and like millions of other Americans I was glued to the set each night as its sprawling, multi-generational tale of law enforcement, small town life, racism and the hunt for a clever serial killer unfolded.

The film centers on three police chiefs in the town of Delano, Georgia and a fourth man who is denied the chance to be the chief and is forever embittered. The story is narrated by the town’s leading citizen: Banker, investor and politician Hugh Holmes (Charlton Heston). In 1924, Holmes persuades the town council that Delano has grown big enough to have a police station. They hire gentle farmer Will Henry Lee (Wayne Rogers) as their first chief, enraging a WWI veteran who wanted the job (Keith Carradine). The choice of Lee is also disdained by good ol’ boy county sheriff Skeeter Willis (Paul Sorvino), who sees the responsibility of police mainly as keeping poor people and Blacks in line. Meanwhile, runaway boys begin disappearing around Delano, and Chief Lee comes to suspect that he is dealing with a sexually motivated serial killer. But events intrude before Lee can apprehend the murderer.

The story then moves forward to the end of WWII, when a thuggish war veteran named Sonny Butts becomes Chief (Brad Davis). He uses the power of his office to terrorize Blacks, women and anyone else he can get his hands on, to the point that Holmes is able to begin making moves to have him fired. Butts concludes that if he can solve the decades-long murder spree, which is still underway, he can save his job. He comes close but also fails, leaving the mystery to be attacked again by a different chief in 1962, Tyler Watts (Billy Dee Williams). But Watts has more than murder to contend with: He is under great scrutiny and indeed threat as the town’s first Black chief, and he also must be careful not to endanger the political career of William Henry Lee’s son (Stephan Collins), who is running for governor as a racial moderate. There are many other clever ties between the stories of the three episodes, but revealing them would be a crime of its own.

twckwcutaagbbigThe narrative structure of Chiefs, based on Stuart Woods’ novel, is inspired. With each generation we get to see the changes in Delano and in the South more generally, particularly with regards to race. Yet there is also continuity in the horrible murderer and the indirect partnership of three different men who do not know each other yet collaborate across the years to track down the killer.

The series features no bad performances and many strong ones, including by Heston who is agreeably restrained here. Paul Sorvino is also tremendous as Skeeter. Some actors think the way to play a racist realistically is to stamp around yelling epithets and dripping hatred. But Sorvino has it right: Most racists don’t repeatedly proclaim their racism any more than air breathers make repeated attestations to their love of oxygen. For Sorvino’s Skeeter, racism is just who he is and how life as he sees it is, and that makes him much scarier than the usual ranting bigot stereotype. Brad Davis, as the second chief, also tears up the screen. The actor had a brutal, short life but maybe that’s what gave him the remarkable ability he shows here to channel darkness. His Chief Sonny Butts is the pluperfect lustful, hateful bully. Keith Carradine is also creepily effective as Foxy Funderburk, the man who was denied the job of Chief and has been nursing a grudge ever since.

Chiefs does suffer a bit from scattered flaws. At least one scene in each episode rings false, and some other dramatic moments that are ultimately effective nonetheless have contrived set-ups. Ageing a cast almost 40 years when of course not every actor is the correct chronological age when you start is a formidable challenge, and at times the makeup technicians don’t quite meet it. None of these peccadilloes are fatal to enjoyment, but collectively they keep Chiefs in the realm of excellent TV mini-series rather than letting it soar to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy-level heights.

I am blessed because my family videotaped Chiefs end-to-end when it was first aired. If you want to enjoy this high-quality production beware the many chopped up versions that are floating around (e.g., the 200 minute VHS release). The full-length version of course requires a bigger investment of time, but the compensation is handsome indeed.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.