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THE THREE MUSKETEERS opened in  Ann Arbor last Friday to enormous, appreciative crowds. There were so many people I got a stiff neck from my position in the last seat in the house- fifth row, far left. For a different angle on the movie I went back two nights later- Sunday, a normally quiet night in the movie business. From the last row, or any reasonable seat in the house, THE THREE MUSKETEERS is a fantastic, fun-filed movie, a major step towards good new comedy.

THE THREE MUSKETEERS is adapted from the Alexander Dumas French classic, which you might have read, or perhaps you read the Classics Illustrated comic book. The movie is far more than a classic adventure tale for director Richard Lester has filled it with comedy and vivid historical detail of the very bawdy seventeenth century France of Louis XIII. If you watch closely nearly every shot and scene is filled with the life details of the past-games, religion, politics, courtly and other love, views of both the upper and lower classes.

The kings of France led overwhelmingly decadent lives, and Lester, with the aid of scenarist George MacDonald Fraser and cameraman David Watkin brings it all out with just the right selection of material and framing of shots. The age of chivalry simply glows, not with sentimentalism or a nostalgic adoration, but with an ironic sense of its ridiculousness. The games and past times of the King and Queen are utterly frivolous, but quite true. The Queen, played so well by Geraldine Chaplin, giggles as she spins on a human-operated merry-go-round, with musical accompaniment provided by flutists suspended within. She titters as she watches the royal hawks kill the royal game birds.

Lester sets the regal scenes to a perfect selection of ironic music-violins, flutes and the like that may fool you for a moment into rhapsodic reflection on the idleness of the royal life, but then he tricks you visually into a realization of its absurdity. Can you really sympathize with the beautiful Queen, played so well by Geraldine Chaplin, after you have seen her regal titters at the hawking ceremonies?

The major commercial asset and dramatic resource of this highly successful film is its star-studded cast. Thankfully most of them are talented, rather than pure lookers, and they have been cast in incredibly appropriate roles. The real acting drawback is Rockwell Welch, who has proved once again that she cannot act, but is perfectly willing to follow directions and be cute and dumb. Director Richard Lester used her as a fall gal for the male actors, and her comic bits were no more than the butt of their jokes. Her abilities as a comedienne went no further than looks of surprise and gasps of "oooh" when she is punched in the stomach. It's regrettable that this enormous-breasted non-actress gets major roles which could be done so well, and so differently, by a true comedienne. I read the usual Rockwell scoop in The National Enquirer last week in line at Kroger's-she doesn't want to be thought of as just a sex symbol, and really likes and can do lots of things-just finished redecorating the living room and soon will start work on her own room in the Beverly Hills mansion. She's just a regular gal, wears an old T-shirt and levi's around the mansion.

The rest of THE THREE MUSKETEERS star roster, particularly the males, performed well, stepping beyond the stylistic or sex-idol limitations long assumed, or demanded of these performers. Lester's conception of THE THREE MUSKETEERS as historie comedy, interwoven with dramatic irony, is a liberating form for performers who have long been cast in ively serious roles. Musketeer No. I Richard Chamberlain has come a long way since his anemic Dr. Kildare days-my friend Leslie said he went to Europe and grew up. Musketeer No. 2 Oliver Reed carved out a fine niche in the gruff humor area, and Musketeer No. 3 Frank Finlay was terrific as the over-indulgent sportsman.

Director Richard Lester has aged and wised up since his days as the bright young star on the movie scene-director of A Hard Day's Night, Help, Petulia, and How I Won the War. He has developed a fine sense of the large scale film, and polished his formally rough-edged slapstick to a fine art. A number of gags in the film have been around for literally centuries, and were first developed in movies in the silent comedies of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Keaton and all the gang nearly sixty years ago. Lester is a sharp observer of the cinematic past, and has finally learned how to do it with irony, as well as pure physical humor. He does an excellent mix of the seriousness of courtly splendor, international politics and chivalric duty with the uproarious and essentially realistic details of bawdy seventeenth century France.

It might sound surprising in print but a real testimony to Lester and his co-workers is the humor of the fight scenes. You will find yourself simultaneously overwhelmed by the fencing artistry of the musketeers and by the absurdity of their inventiveness in a brawl. The fight locations are ripe for this sense of absurdity-a church courtyard, a palatial laundry room and beneath the Queen's bedroom.

Medieval and later adventure stories have been the basis of films for a long time, but rarely with this sense of humor and the realistic details of social history. THE THREE MUSKETEERS is a big step away from Douglas Fairbanks' acrobatics in Robin Hood, or the virile Errol Flynn's swashbuckling pirate. It is a real joy to see a movie make such terrific humorous hoopla out of romantic conventions of the literary and movie past. A sequel, The Revenge of Milady, will be released soon with the same cast and crew. The film was shot as a whole, but was too long to release all together. By the way, THE THREE MUSKETEERS is rated PG and kids love it.

..Ellen Frank

HOT MOVIE TIPS: Claudine, beginning Friday June 6 at the Michigan, is a great movie from all reports. A black comic-tragic romance about life on welfare, starring Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones and music by Curtis Mayfield performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Saturday, June 1 Cinema Guild is showing a fine recent Czech film about a band of women at the end of the world-The End of August at the Hotel Ozone.