Young D'Artagnan (Michael York) has been taught all he knows by his swordsman father (Joss Ackland) and now the time has arrived where he must embark on his own journey into the wider world. Word has reached him that the King's Musketeers are holding interviews for new recruits, and so he heads to Paris to find his fortune there as one of them. However, perhaps he is not as well prepared as he thought he was, as once on the road he encounters the nobleman Rochefort (Christopher Lee) who lampoons him and when D'Artagnan attempts to even the odds, he ends up humiliated. They will meet again...
Often considered the best of all the big screen adaptations of The Three Musketeers, this one had the benefit of George MacDonald Fraser adapting the famed Alexandre Dumas novel and the capable hands of Richard Lester behind the camera. Briefly considered as a vehicle for the Beatles, here the casting was much better than simple gimmickry, with a star of some wattage or another in almost every speaking part; York never found a finer role than his eager swashbuckler and his enthusiasm is shot through the story in surely the best interpretation of the role.
Somewhere along the line someone in the production thought the best approach for this version was humour, and that ranges from tongue in cheek to outright slapstick. In fact, so preoccupied with making the tale funny are they that you may ask exactly how seriously we in the audience are supposed to take it and if this is actually a lavish pantomime that is sending up the whole notion of costume adventure. Fortunately, the cast were well advised to keep a straight face so the film could be enjoyed as pure adventure with comical asides, but with actors like Spike Milligan and Roy Kinnear appearing, not to mention the falling about of an unlikely Raquel Welch, you might be forgiven for accusing the buffoonery of going too far.
And in all this the plot, as venerable as it is, tends to be lost in the confusion; luckily it's fairly simple. D'Artagnan does meet up with the three Musketeers - Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain) and Porthos (Frank Finlay), all ideal if tending towards the underused - and is challenged to a duel with each of them, only to team up to fight the soldiers of the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), who they make swift work of in defiance of the ban on fighting in the streets. Not quite a fully fledged Musketeer yet, our hero certainly has his foot in the door, and when he meets Constance (Welch, fun in one of her better roles), the wife of his new landlord, he has a way into the main plotline of palace intrigue.
What has happened is that the Queen (a simpering Geraldine Chaplin) is indulging in an affair with the English Duke of Buckingham (a dashing Simon Ward) and if news of this reached the foolish King (Jean-Pierre Cassel, dubbed in the English language version by Richard Briers, oddly) then it would provide the damage to the throne that Richelieu is all too in favour of. The Cardinal teams up with the wicked Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway, strangely inscrutable) to steal diamond studs from the Queen as proof of the adultery, and D'Artagnan and the Musketeers are assigned to race to England, meet Buckingham and get replacements. All this is performed at commendable speed, lightly leaping from joke to swordfight with ease, and the stunning production and art design guarantees it looks excellent. Well done, then, but maybe not the total classic its fans might contest. Music by Michel Legrand.
Efforts like Royal Flash, Robin and Marian, gay bathhouse comedy The Ritz and Cuba made less impact, but in the eighties Lester was called in to salvage the Superman series after Richard Donner walked off Superman II; Lester also directed Superman III. Finders Keepers was a flop comedy, and Return of the Musketeers had a tragic development when one of his regular cast, Roy Kinnear, died while filming. Lester then decided to give up directing, with Paul McCartney concert Get Back his last film.