The Reel Less Traveled – April 2021

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Two For The Price Of One

    Reports claim when Peter Jackson started the monumental task of bringing J.R.R Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings to the big screen, he treated it as if making one very long film.
    His rationale intended to make it more consistent and cohesive overall as well as maintaining a better continuity, not only for the actors and crew but for the audience. It worked. To anyone who has the stamina and time, all three films can easily be viewed as a single whole, making for a better viewing experience.
    This is hardly a new practice. There are several other examples of directors who have chosen to make an epic and then break it into easier to digest pieces: Gore Verbinski did so for the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films as did the Wachowskis for the Matrix sequels.
    The subject of this month’s recommendation notably worked the same magic in 1973. Richard Lester, an American director most known for putting the Beatles on the big screen (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!) took it upon himself to try to bring Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeer’s to cinematic life.
    Along with Scrooge, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, Dumas’s heroic characters have seen numerous incarnations projected on the silver screen, but Lester’s version is, by far, the most entertaining as well as the most faithful.
    Much of this has to do with the screenwriter. George McDonald Fraser, no stranger to historical fiction (he wrote the Flashman novels, which Lester also used as a source for a movie), injects a reality and weight to the period and this, along with the Lester wit, makes for the most engaging version of this famous tale.
    And the cast! The term “all-star cast” gets too easily thrown around, but in this case, it could not be more accurate. Michael York, Oliver Reed, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston and Raquel Welch, in a brilliant comic turn, all commit to this adaptation 100%.
    Moreover, this version has some of the best fight choreography ever seen. As no stranger to sword-play, I admit when I first saw this I was dumbfounded. These are “real” down and dirty sword fights, complete with gut punches, kicks and more than a little cheating. These are not the moves Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks delivered.
    There’s another element to these films that makes them unique, something that happened behind the scenes. Richard Lester did shoot The Three/Four Musketeers as one film, but he cut it in half to release each segment a year apart (1973/1974). Though this proved fortuitous for the studio and audiences, the actors only got paid once! Needless to say, they weren’t pleased about this and a new law, called The Salkind Clause (Alexander, Ilya and Michael Salkind were the producers). went on the books.
    Despite this, both films were a massive success, even though the second of the two is a little darker in tone. Lester even filmed an epilogue of sorts.
    Managing, by some miracle to reassemble most of the original cast, he made The Return of the Musketeers nearly 15 years later (based on another Dumas novel, Twenty Years After).

   Unfortunately, that one was not so well received and was also marred by tragedy. The first two were a “lightning in a bottle” phenomenon, and too much time had passed. Worse, Roy Kinnear, who played Planchet, died in a riding accident during filming, casting a pall over the production. (It was almost never released and Lester all but quit directing).
    Still, the films should be sought and savored. In many ways, they mark the end of an era, at least from a swashbuckling standpoint. Indeed, there was no other film like them until Disney’s Pirates films. When some critics proclaim they don’t make films like this anymore, this is what they’re talking about.
    And, to close, I’d like to say a few words about local goings-on. Though there won’t be a California Independent Film Festival Association (CAIFF) program this year (at least, as far as I can tell), that does not mean that our local film buffs have been sitting idle.
The Lamorinda Arts Council is making sure of this with its “Super Shorts: Three-Minute Movie Challenge.” During April and May, you may notice young filmmakers skulking about town with film equipment in tow. The films are due May 14. Then, we lucky folks will be able to view winning entries at a live virtual award program May 19 at 7 p.m. For details, go to www.lamorindaarts.org/supershorts/.
    So that’s something to anticipate. As always, remember to go towards those wonderful images made of light for that’s where the reel magic lies.

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