There's a moment in Richard Lester's The Four Musketeers (1975) in which Cardinal Richlieu orders his lackey, Rochefort to his knees. In that moment, I realized that Charlton Heston really should have played more villains. Damned, he's good at it. I mean, considering that Rochefort was played by the intimidating Christopher Lee, it's a testament to the star power of Heston that he so dominates the scene (and the film). The Four Musketeers is ruled by its villains. One of its alternate titles is "Milady's Revenge," referring of course to Faye Dunaway's lethal Lady de Winter. The movie is entirely about her machinations. She seeks revenge on D'Artangnan for spurning her attention and foiling her plans. She makes a bargain with Richlieu: she'll prevent the Duke of Buckingham from relieving the Huguenots at the besieged city of La Rochelle if he'll give her carte blanche to dispose of her enemies as she sees fit. Unfortunately for her, one of her past enemies is Athos, who once married Lady de Winter only to discover that she was disgraced. Athos doesn't exactly thirst for revenge, but when the time comes to foil Milady's plans, he takes it.
This is one of those all-star productions from the seventies in which the filmmakers actually know what to do with their assembled movie stars. The casting in this film is impeccable, and the actors all rise to the occasion. I've mentioned Heston, who is my favorite Richlieu in movies, but Faye Dunaway and Oliver Reed (as Athos) speak volumes at each other with mere glances. Dunaway gets the showiest role in the film as the most fatal of femme fatales. She gets an entire sequence to herself to corrupt the puritan gaoler provided her by Buckingham and, boy howdy, does she make the most of it. Reed's Athos is a slow burn melancholy, which suits the actor to a "T." The previous film's protagonists, Michael York and Raquel Welch take a back seat this time, but that's more because of the demands of the plot than for any other reason.
Lester's Musketeer films are the closest films to both the tone and the incident of Alexandre Dumas's novel that I've seen. Lester, ever the New Wave mocker, brings a touch of the absurd to the movie that suits the story. The screenplay is by George MacDonald Frasier, he of the hilarious Flashman novels (one of which was filmed by Lester), and it, too is an ideal match. These films are flat out fun. I find that I prefer the second film to the first, though, in part because the first film covers the affair of the queen's necklace, a story that forms the backbone of virutally all of the Musketeer films, while the second film plunges into the rarely filmed second half of the novel. It's new territory, relative to the cinema. (I should note, that, yes, I've seen the 1948 version, which also retains the second half of the novel). This is a much darker film than its predecessor, all told, Lester is given his head when it comes to deconstructing the swashbuckler, and provides an ending in which the hero ultimately fails to save his lady love. All the while, he provides all the antic daring-do anyone could want.
One of the first conversations I ever had on the internet about movies was a comparison of the cinema's great sword fights. The Four Musketeers came up quite a bit, because it has a couple of doozies. The first is D'artagnan's duel with Rochefort on a frozen river, in which both of them fall on their asses. The second is the climactic duel between D'artagnan and Rochefort (again!) in the cathedral, in which both men are so exhausted neither can raise their sword arms. There's an earthy quality to these scenes. They seem less like choreographed dances--as some of the great cinematic duels sometimes do--and more like the bloody business of killing. They also anticipate the Hong Kong action films of Jackie Chan in the way they improvise the action using whatever props happen to be at hand. Both of these duels are mainly shot in long master shots with an occasional two shot thrown in for rhythm. There are almost no close-ups. You see ALL of the action. I should note that my one disappointment with the film is that it doesn't resolve the enmity between D'artagnan and Rochefort in the way it's resolved in the book:
D'Artagnan fought three times with Rochefort, and wounded him three times.
"I shall probably kill you the fourth," said he to him, holding out his hand to assist him to rise.
"It is much better both for you and for me to stop where we are," answered the wounded man. "CORBLEU—I am more your friend than you think—for after our very first encounter, I could by saying a word to the cardinal have had your throat cut!"
They this time embraced heartily, and without retaining any malice.
The overarching plot of the movie is a duel of sorts, too, pitting the musketeers against the Cardinal in a battle of wits. Viewed as a chess game, the players are Athos and Richlieu, with everyone else as chess pieces. Milady is the black queen, D'artagnan is the white knight, Rochefort is the black bishop, Aramis the white bishop, etc. The imperiled kings on either side of the board are The Duke of Buckingham and the Queen of France. The scene at the end of the movie, in which D'artagnan presents the Cardinal with the warrant he gave to Milady pardoning her action might just as well have been accompanied with a polite "checkmate." It's a terrific movie moment, and it flies in the face of contemporary demands that the bad guy die a horrible death at the end of the movie. There used to be all kinds of other ways to lose the game.