The Three Musketeers directed by Richard Lester at the Sack Cheri

AFTER FIVE MINUTES of The Three Musketeers my notebook was on the floor, by the popcorn boxes. What could I write? That Michael York and Faye Dunaway look nice? That the 17th century street scenes look like Hogarths or something? What can you do with a film which manages to make Raquel Welch goofy and charming? How can a movie where Charlton Heston glides around as a hunched Cardinal Richelieu keep anyone scrawling critical notations in the dark? Objecting to Richard Lester's Musketeers for being a little flabby and shallow would be like condemning another of Lester's pictures, A Hard Day's Night, for having the Beatles mouth the words to a dubbed "I Should Have Known Better"--who cares, when the spirit is so honest and breezy and fun?

The Three Musketeers takes the Dumas novel's action line, a star-studded cast, and an Errol Flynn swashbuckle approach, with slapstick sloshed in every few minutes to douse whatever drama or gravity or sentimentality might begin to smolder. Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser don't play with any matches here--no pretensions, no messages, no appearance of over-exertion. It's all plot and pretty faces. This approach becomes more than just a safety precaution because it brings out a wholesome sense of exhilaration in the actors. as if they all finally have a chance to show their skills without worrying about making their career by giving transcendent performances or surrendering to constricting roles. And the glamor of the story seems to inspire them--they act by reflex rather than by instinct, they practice what they know. No one strains because the humor--basically Three Stooges, banana peel, breach-of-dignity stuff--has the dashing characters play as if they'd seen too much Douglas Fairbanks themselves. When every swinging rope snaps and every fencing would heals almost instantly, they don't have to take themselves too seriously.

Raquel Welch's surprisingly pleasant performance is a good example. As a sex symbol Welch was never very sensual because there was something awkward and cold-blooded about her. But the movies she played in never acknowledged this, and she didn't either. She didn't transmit the intelligence of a Jane Fonda, who showed in her eyes that she half-knew she was exploiting and being exploited, and kept flashing a curious dignity above the demeaning roles. But Welch was in on the cheat. Predatory, she'd wriggle up out of the water, reptilian and sleek, looking like she'd just been stamped out by a plastiglob toy set to jiggle from the rearview mirror. She seemed almost threatening, as though her super-tapered body slimmed down to huge hidden webbed fins at the extremities. In Musketeers she gets to exude a natural clumsiness--she steps into buckets and falls down stairs. The slapstick here works as it does for the rest of the film--every time Welch starts to get sexy she wipes out. She turns her ingenuousness into a style.

THE OTHER aspects of the picture fit just as comfortably into this tension-releasing pattern. Michael York's D'Artagnan would be romantic and gallant in a normal film like this, but here he never gets a chance to set his chin and gaze into the horizon because the comedy keeps him too busy being wide-eyed and gulpy. The wonderful period sets, costumes and scenery (filmed in Spain, with horses and falconry and royal picnics galore) might have seemed heavy and historically meticulous except that there's always something faintly ridiculous going on, which never distracts because the plot keeps a driving pace.

The tone of the film is never satire, though, because there would be a self-seriousness in that. The jokes just keep the story human without cheapening it. No smug double entendres here; precious few anachronistic references. What makes The Three Musketeers so elusive is that the clumsiness is intentional and built-in, as one might infer from the casting. Yet the movie is deft. Clumsy and deft; uncorrupt and sophisticated; slaphappy and professional; gawky and disarming--the adjectives contradict each other, and one's reaction should be "yes ... but." Instead, it's just a simple unadulterated "yes," with little else to say but go some afternoon.

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