Mock Heroics: Richard Lester in the ’70s

Richard Lester closed out the 1960s – the decade that brought him fame as director of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! and acclaim as recipient of the Palme d’Or for The Knack… and How to Get It – with one of his least-accessible films, 1969’s The Bed Sitting Room, based on the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus. This brought Lester (who turned 89 this month) full-circle, since he made the leap from television to cinema one decade earlier with the sprightly romp The Running Jumping Standing Still Film, to which Milligan contributed ideas alongside fellow Goon Show alumnus Peter Sellers. The Bed Sitting Room, on the other hand, felt like a dead end, set in the bleak, post-apocalyptic wasteland Great Britain has been reduced to three years after World War III. A fresh start seemed all but required – and it was presaged by a most unlikely screen hero.

“When a man is as old as I am, and knows himself thoroughly for what he was and is, he doesn’t care much.”

So writes Sir Harry Flashman, protagonist and “author” of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, published the same year The Bed Sitting Room was released, in which the long-retired soldier unashamedly describes himself as “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and, oh yes, a toady.” Lester saw the novel’s screen potential and optioned it, but was unable to interest a studio. In the meantime, he was approached about adapting Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and brought Fraser on board to pen the screenplay. Intended as a roadshow release complete with intermission, the ambitious project was ultimately split into two films, with The Three Musketeers released in 1973 and The Four Musketeers the following year. Both were successful enough to make Lester a bankable director again, so he returned to Flashman, getting Fraser to adapt the cad’s second adventure, Royal Flash, which was deemed more feasible.

Thus began a pattern that continued for the rest of the decade as Lester chased films centered on clear, unambiguous heroes with ones that called the very idea of heroism into question. Just as the Musketeers begat Royal Flash, with Malcolm McDowell’s Flashman the randy counterpart to Michael York’s earnest D’Artagnan, so Richard Harris’s no-nonsense bomb-squad leader in Juggernaut prefigured Sean Connery’s counterinsurgency expert (in the employ of the teetering Batista regime) who learns the hard way he’s on the wrong side of history in Cuba. Meanwhile, Robin and Marian led to Butch and the Sundance: The Early Days, covering how legends are born and die from opposite ends of the cycle. (The odd one out, in every sense of the word, is 1976’s The Ritz, based on the Terrence McNally farce.)

“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it, and then what would become of us?” –Lt. Commander Anthony Fallon, Juggernaut

One of the hallmarks of Lester’s directorial style is his attention to detail, along with his concern for the plight of ordinary people whose lives are disrupted by the heroes and villains going at each other while they’re just trying to get on with their work. Virtuous as they might be, D’Artagnan and his companions cause untold damage whenever and wherever they tangle with Cardinal Richelieu’s guards, and Lester frequently gives voice to the disgruntled servants who have to sweep up after them. Similarly, there’s a fight scene in Royal Flash that plays out while a floor cleaner goes about her duties, blithely unconcerned about the knock-down, drag-out brawl going on around her. That kind of controlled chaos is common to all three of Lester’s swashbucklers, which feature fight choreography that frequently gives way to straight-up slapstick.

The performance of Lester stalwart Roy Kinnear as D’Artagnan’s servant also raises the level of comic relief, which gets carried over to Juggernaut, shot by Lester during a break from post-production duties on The Four Musketeers. Set aboard the ocean liner Britannic, it’s a microcosm of British society as its passengers and crew are held hostage by a mad bomber seeking a hefty ransom. As the tension mounts, Lester keeps the focus on the professionals, from the naval bomb-disposal team dispatched to try to defuse the situation on down to Kinnear’s jovial social director, who desperately tries to keep the passengers’ spirits up, but is fighting a losing battle.

“I think you’ve come too late.”
“I was afraid of that.” –Captain Ramirez to Major Robert Dapes, Cuba

Professionalism is also the watchword of Sean Connery’s mercenary in Cuba, who laments the way soldiering has changed. “It’s not as clean as it was,” he says, but when he’s challenged by a Cuban revolutionary he makes plain his willingness to “fight for any elected government” if the price is right. In contrast, Connery’s  Robin Hood in Robin and Marian faithfully serves Richard Harris’s King Richard for two decades, following him to the Holy Land and back until the Lionheart gives out. When he and Little John return to Sherwood Forest, Robin finds they’ve been immortalized in song (“They’ve turned us into heroes, Johnny,” he marvels) and falls back into old habits, reigniting his romance with Maid Marian and antagonizing the Sheriff of Nottingham until they’re forced into a final, fatal confrontation.

The opposite is the case with Butch and Sundance, which finds the outlaws teaming up for the first time, with fast-talker Butch tutoring his junior partner on the finer points of bank robbing and choosing an outlaw moniker. There’s a point, however, where Butch tries staying on the right side of the law, even volunteering them for a dangerous mission to deliver a diphtheria serum to a snowed-in mining camp. “Haven’t you ever wanted to be a hero?” he asks. “Have little kids look up to you?” After Butch falls ill himself, though, he tells Sundance, “The next time I say ‘hero,’ shoot me.”
As it happened, this was not Lester’s last word on the subject.  He was recruited by his Musketeers producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, as their go-between with director Richard Donner, who was at loggerheads with them over their sprawling, two-part Superman film. (Sound familiar?) How Lester eventually wound up taking over the reins of Superman II and seeing it through to completion (and sticking around for Superman III) is a story for another decade, though.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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