joe-up: day three

it's day three and the joint is lousy with musketeers!

in another queue de grâce first, joe has paired a film and its sequel back to back for us today with richard lester's the three musketeers (1973) and his follow-up the four musketeers: milady's revenge (1974). i say follow-up but these films were actually shot all at the same time and when producer alexander salkind discovered they had enough material for two movies they split it up. funny how he forgot to pay the actors for working in two films, a move which directly led to the screen actors guild implementing a clause which would prohibit that sort of behavior in the future. these adaptations, or at least the first installment, are considered by a great many people to be the definitive cinematic version of alexandre dumas' signature work. i would tend to agree with them (i'll bet you thought i was going to say it was the 1939 version with don ameche and the ritz brothers, didn't you?). that isn't to say that i think it's altogether that great, just the best one so far. you probably know the story: country bumpkin d'artangan strikes out for the city of light to attain riches and fame and the status of musketeer. arriving at breakfast time, he is such a bumbling clod that he has secured no fewer than three duels for himself by lunch, one with each of the titular musketeers. after assisting them in a showdown with the henchmen of the scheming cardinal richelieu (portrayed here by charlton heston, who wasn't half the richelieu that michael palin was),

he is taken under their collective wing. they proceed to laugh, love and swashbuckle their way to england and back, foiling a nefarious plot by the cardinal and milady de winter to expose the queen's indiscretions and throw the court into turmoil. d'artagnan is made a musketeer as a reward for his faithful service and all is well throughout the land. the four musketeers picks up right there and concerns itself chiefly with milady de winter's fiendish plot to gain revenge upon d'artagnan and his love, constance. these movies are moderately faithful to the source material and the eye for historical detail is decent, but man, are they silly. three moreso than four, i guess. at least the second installment has much more of a grim, therefore satisfying to me, tone than the first. the first is shot through with knockabout comedy and bawdy humor not quite on par with benny hill, at times.


i think the fight choreography is supposed to evoke a much more realistic notion of what swordplay was actually like but the fight sequences are so awkward and uninteresting that they become a microcosm of the film as a whole - occasionally mildly entertaining, somewhat historically accurate and completely clumsy. much like nighthawks (1981), which jon assigned me, i think this is one that you remember as being a lot better than it is. if you're fond of it, maybe just leave it that way and don't go back and watch it. that weird john denver-itis that michael york has where your hair is the same color as your skin is just the first reason you will come away from it less pleased than when you went in. at least it got adequately dark by the final reel. one of these days someone is going to nail this one, though don't look to this year's reboot to do it. until then, you could do worse than this if you are in search of lightweight entertainment. i just wish alexander korda had taken a shot at it.

in what has now become a tradition, we end the day with a musical. at least i had not been previously assigned norman jewison's jesus christ superstar (1973).

you guys know most musicals have never done it for me. this one certainly didn't seem to have much going for it - hippies, the gospels, rock opera production numbers. add michael j. fox and you have a movie that i wouldn't hang with your cross. it's one of the oldest stories most of you know, though there were one or two minor deviations that subtly altered the events in question, so i don't need to rehash it. first and foremost, christ was a bust. this walleyed savior had little to nothing to offer in terms of charisma. i wouldn't follow him if he was dropping a trail of criterion dvds. it strikes me as a mighty big problem if your jesus seems like he is a shave and a suit away from playing a weasel defense attorney on csi: jerusalem. fortunately, the other characters in the film's holy trinity saved the day. carl anderson was a good judas iscariot and yvonne elliman as mary magdalene was, hands down, my favorite part of the film. her voice was fantastic, she had enough personality to make up for the lord's lack thereof and she was unconventionally beautiful in a way that suited the role perfectly. there were a handful of striking pieces of photography, especially of the desert landscape. a couple of the anachronistic touches worked well and i enjoyed king herod's song because it was straight up cuckoo.

so i was ready to call it even. didn't love it, didn't hate it. wasn't going to change my mind about musical theatre but there were some things i liked about it and then, inches from the finish line, it dropped this left hook on me.

i was already wondering to myself why judas was the only prominent black character in the film and then we are hit with an image of him hanging himself that cannot avoid stirring up connections in our brain to horrible photos of lynchings we have seen from the past. as he momentarily thrashes at the end of god's rope, i was struck by what a bitter, lonely scene it was and in the blink of an eye this became the pivotal scene in the film, not jesus' crucifixion. everything that followed was just denouement. casting him as the villain and the traitor made for an easy accusation of just one more example of hollywood's checkered history of racism, overt or otherwise. then this scene blew my lazy assessment to smithereens. deep in his grief and regret, he screams "you have murdered me!" and turns what seemed like the coward's way out into an accusation, his last defiant swing at an establishment and god that has left him with no other recourse. this one loaded image calls up centuries of fear, manipulation and man's inumanity to man in the name of god and you realize that judas had to be a black man in this case to drive this point home so deeply to an american audience. at the end of that rope swings an entire people abandoned by god. from an overblown, terminally hip adaptation of the gospels, this suddenly exploded into something i will probably think about an awfully long time. nice job, joe. caught me completely unawares.

so we're putting this savior on the waiver wire. tomorrow i expect to trade him for an x-rated cat, more music than one house can hold and a jesus to be named later.

diane lane, why have you forsaken me?


  1. man, nighthawks was a last minute cut from my list. Merrill is my love twin.

  2. Jesus Christ Superstar is quite a misnomer of a title as Christ is, to me, more of a Greek chorus type of character whereas Judas is the protagonist and tragic figure. I think they knew that calling it Judas Iscariot Superstar probably wouldn't sell many tickets. (I've always felt that JCS was the first attempt to adapt Last Temptation of Christ, the Judas character is pretty much identical. I really wanted to put Last Temptation of Christ on this list as it is the only Scorsese movie I continuesly revisit.

  3. judas iscariot superstar is a more pleasing title to look at. the shape of the letters works better.