The Beginner’s Guide: Richard Lester, Director
With Batman v Superman getting ready to take over the world, the previous incarnations of The Caped Crusader and The Man of Steel are trending once again. Some of the finest actors and directors in Hollywood have had dealings with these two superheroes over the years, but one such luminary, it seems, has never been forgiven for the way he treated the Son
With Batman v Superman getting ready to take over the world, the previous incarnations of The Caped Crusader and The Man of Steel are trending once again. Some of the finest actors and directors in Hollywood have had dealings with these two superheroes over the years, but one such luminary, it seems, has never been forgiven for the way he treated the Son of Krypton 36 years ago.
However, it really does need pointing out to some ardent Superfans that far from a being a hack director-for-hire, Superman II director Richard Lester is actually one of the most important names from the New Hollywood era.
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Richard Donner has directed many of the greatest blockbusters of the past 40 years, including films that have played a vital role in my upbringing. Superman changed the landscape of comic book movies, then there was The Goonies (which sparked a pre-teen crush on Martha Plimpton), Lethal Weapon (my first 18 certificate video rental) and Scrooged (…um…I didn’t hate it as much as everyone else?). He is clearly an ebullient, warm and kind man. His DVD commentaries on Superman and The Omen (the first film I was explicitly ordered not to watch by my parents) reveal a witty, jocular and good-natured character; one at whose feet any cineaste would be desperate to sit and wallow in his many gravel-voiced anecdotes.
However, mention Superman II and a frost descends. Famously, Donner was fired from / left the sequel after falling out with the producers. In the introduction to his restored 2006 cut, Donner mentions the man who replaced him in the directors’ chair as ‘Someone whose name I forget – on purpose.’ At this point, I find myself at the centre of a great, yanking loyalty-tug, for this ‘someone’ is Richard Lester.
Lester became a personal hero of mine when he phoned me to gently turn down my request to direct my first screenplay. Like most 20-year-old scriptwriters in 1995, I had been dazzled by Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and in tribute had ingeniously restructured my own derivative crime thriller so that it now finished with the first act, started in the middle and broke from the narrative for seven pages so the two protagonists could sit in a café talking about 1970s TV shows. The very thought that Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day’s Night, one day forced himself to read this juvenile drivel makes the blood chill in my veins.
He chatted with me for half an hour, constructively suggesting improvements I could make to the script (he had the good grace not to recommend that I put a match to it), detailed the parts that he enjoyed, but more than anything, I remember the slight tremble in his voice when he said finally, ‘I retired…hurt.’
Lester in His Prime
What put Lester in mind in the first place was Juggernaut, an extraordinary though little-seen disaster movie (to my mind, the only British disaster movie), that he made in 1974. It is a deliberately British riposte to The Poseidon Adventure – a luxury liner is held to ransom by a maniac who has placed several bombs on board and will sink it unless he is paid £500,000. Ironically, The Poseidon Adventure’s upside-down soap opera was directed by an Englishman, Ronald Neame.
Lester, an American wearing his Britishness like sheep’s clothing, used his seafaring disasterpiece to tear, wolf-like into his adopted homeland. This luxury cruise is a miserable vacation in the worst kind of bingo-playing, holiday camp tradition: the good ship Britannic is stuck in storm conditions and most of the passengers are seasick. The weather makes any outdoor activity impossible, and the entertainment coordinator (Roy Kinnear) is becoming increasingly demented in his attempts to put on a happy face.
The backstage shenanigans ashore and the police search for the bomber, though, have the documentary veracity of The Day of The Jackal, and the many bomb-defusing scenes in Juggernaut are as tense as any in cinema. It is a thrilling ride, yet it is shot through with a wry detachment, and this more than anything – more than the zany cutting and jaunty camera angles in The Knack…and How To Get It (a Palm D’Or winner at Cannes), or the surreal tomfoolery of The Beatles in Help! – is Lester’s trademark. There is a sharp, skeptical intelligence behind all that occurs, yet when the film demands that irony be put to one side and that everything is played straight, Lester supplies an earnest sincerity.
Something like the blue wire / red wire denouement in Juggernaut simply wouldn’t work if the director treated it with a trademark knowing wink. In fact, it is a knuckle-gnawing, almost unbearably tense conclusion. As a side note, whenever I picture Richard Harris, it is not as Dumbledore or dangling from his skewered boobs in A Man Called Horse, but in this movie strutting away from a defused bomb, crowing ‘Fallon’s the champion!’
The Politics of Silly
The word ‘Zany’ is never too far away from the critical consensus of Richard Lester, and this could be the reason he is so often unfairly dismissed and forgotten. His apprenticeship in the company of Peter Sellers (directing his TV comedy A Show Called Fred) and with the other Goons, helming the Oscar-nominated short, The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film, tarred him with the zany-brush from the start. Lester’s love of surreal humour and his Goon connection was what pulled him into The Beatles’s clutches.
Just as The Fab Four’s wacky, bright, kid-friendly Magical Mystery Tour / Yellow Submarine dressing-up-as-wizards phase is the least critically adored of their career, there is broad agreement that there is something rather beneath contempt about ‘Silliness’ (much in the same way that horror movies rarely if ever find themselves at mainstream awards ceremonies). ‘Childish’ is an inaccurate but immutable reading of silly humour. The Beatles moved quickly on to the stark, angst-spattered darkness of The White Album, but Richard Lester never dropped silly sight-gags from his arsenal. Instead, he now used humour with a nefarious twist to, as ex-Goon Michael Bentine once put it, ‘prick the balloons of pomposity.’ Critics of silliness always fail to understand the anarchic and anti-establishment ethos at its heart. As Lester said in 1967, he believed in ‘using comedy to as serious a purpose as it can be used.’
With How I Won The War in 1967, Lester made one of the first deliberate Vietnam war allegories (though he himself described it as ‘An anti-anti-war film’) and later upped the stakes by tackling the spectre of nuclear war and its aftermath in his adaptation of Spike Milligan and John Antrobus’s play The Bed-Sitting Room; a key Lester work. Here, his blend of clownish humour and savage cynical commentary finds its most effective balance. For all the extraordinary visual humour and surreal goings on – Arthur Lowe turning into a parrot, Frank Thornton dressed in half a dinner-jacket reading the news behind the empty shell of a television set – the implicit horror of a world post-bomb courses through the whole film like arteries of barbed wire. The awkward combination of pre-Pythonesque humour and intolerable tragedy was possibly the reason for its dismal failure at the box office. It remains the most eerie and challenging of all the After-The-Bomb films of the ’60s and ’70s, and as a surrealist work, it’s a lot funnier than anything Luis Buñuel ever made.
The Bed-Sitting Room typifies Lester’s subversive skill: layering satire and criticism through his comedic work like razor blades in a sherry trifle, rather than chaining himself to the rails and barking at us through a loudspeaker. Juggernaut may be a 1970s disaster movie wearing the same clothes as The Towering Inferno, but underlying the hectic scenes of police pursuit, and explosives experts dropping out of helicopters into a storm-whipped ocean, there are cutting satirical implications. The ‘Britannic’ is a rusty, barely functioning wreck, peopled with lost souls and crewed by a hopeless company wearing meaningless uniforms. As a 1974 ‘State-of-the-Nation’ pasquinade, it’s far more effective than, say Britannia Hospital, made by the far more respected political agitator Lindsay Anderson.
All For One…For The Price of Two
The commercial failure of The Bed-Sitting Room and the cold response to the extraordinary Petulia – his first American movie, a resolutely cynical look at the hippie scene in 1967 San Francisco – sent Lester into hiding for a few years. His return in 1973 with The Three Musketeers, saw his twinned skills as circus-master and disapproving college professor perfectly entwine. Everything wonderful about Richard Lester is here in this picture; which is still the definitive film version of the Alexandre Dumas classic.
The knockabout buffonery is ingeniously choreographed in this film (as when the Musketeers, in a well-rehearsed combination performance, rob an unsuspecting innkeeper of a lunchtime feast), and the comedy is perfectly judged. Spike Milligan’s cuckolded idiot husband is a standout, but who else but Lester would cast the Athena-beautiful Raquel Welch as Milligan’s wife – D’Artagnan’s love interest Constance – and make her an adorably clumsy butterfingers?
What elevates the film above the Saturday morning escapade is the juxtaposition of broad comedy and immaculate period detail. Lester researched the 17th century and the oeuvre of Alexandre Dumas religiously, and combining laughs and action adventure with authentic period dirt and grime – as well as the pampered excess of the pre-Revolution French royalty – was something that had rarely been attempted before. Monty Python & The Holy Grail, released the following year, borrowed heavily from Lester’s Musketeers style.
There was a sequel, The Four Musketeers, that carried on the period tomfoolery, but stirred in extra darkness and cruelty. By the climax, the hero Buckingham has been assassinated, Athos’s former lover beheaded on his own orders, and the charmingly inept Constance murdered. It’s all true to Dumas’s source novel, but it’s still an extraordinarily brave way to conclude a jaunty adventure film; and how very Richard Lester too. Off screen, there was acrimony; both films were shot as one long epic and then later cut into two movies, but the actors were only paid for the one film until they took the producers to court. Said producers were Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and despite the litigation, were so keen on their little two-for-one scam that they tried it again four years later with Superman and its sequel.
Alongside the Musketeers films and a flawed if enjoyable crack at George MacDonald Fraser’s Royal Flash, Lester’s unheroic ‘Heroes of Yore’ deconstruction saga closed with his masterpiece, Robin & Marian. Here, the comic carousing and all-round silliness is tempered not by cynicism but by pure romance. ‘I’m not anti-romantic,’ Lester once stated. ‘What I am is desperately anti-sentimental, anti-nostalgic for the past.’ The central romance between Sean Connery’s Robin and Audrey Hepburn’s Marian is as pure and glorious a love as has ever been seen in cinema. Robin comes alive in her presence; puffed up with thoughts of deeds to woo and impress her, or sulking like a teenager when he has displeased her.
Furthermore, the climax – poisoned and dying alongside Marian, Robin fires an arrow into the sky and asks they both be buried where it lands – add unbearably elegiac John Barry score – is one of the 1970’s most romantic cinematic moments. In his remoulding of the Robin Hood characters as ancient relics, living on past glories of dubious authenticity, Lester is steadfast in his refusal to treat these legends with the earnest reverence they would normally receive.
It Is Forbidden For You To Interfere With Superman History
It is this central Lesterian tenet; an icy, critical detachment which forbids craven deference to any subject, be they Cuban revolutionaries or even Beatles, which has landed him in the bad books of the Superman fan base. Richard Donner bought the myth wholesale, and with admirable sincerity created a new American fable. It was a remarkable achievement. Superman, with its note-perfect blend of iconic intergalactic mythology, innocent Rockwellian Americana and urbane New York sass, now seems to be an unrepeatable miracle. Bryan Singer couldn’t get the same soufflé to rise in Superman Returns and Watchmen’s Zack Snyder buried himself under the weight of trying to pretend that Donner’s film had never happened with Man of Steel (let’s see how he fares now that he’s back directing superheroes, plural, in Batman v Superman).
Lester, whose Superman II is a mishmash of both his own work and Donner’s, was simply unable to treat this children’s comic book character as anything other than that: he literally didn’t believe in Superman. Yet the Frankenstein cut of Donner and Lester’s resulted in the most purely enjoyable Superman movie of them all. Irreverent when it tipped towards the ponderous; mythic, when it started to become too absurd and genuinely, heartbreakingly romantic – a perfect mixture of excitement and comedy. Yet the online fraternity of Superman fans, with the blinkered intractability of an anti-tobacco lobby group, have been burning Lester in effigy since Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II was released in 2006 and Lester’s fingerprints were wiped clean.
When Lester had Kal-El all to himself in Superman III, the irreverence was too much. Here, the world had got used to the fact that Superman was amongst them and he was held to about as much esteem as an environmental health inspector. At one point when he arrives, a police officer even groans, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ There were inspired moments amid the dullness and cheap laughs – the brilliant slapstick titles sequence for one – but as a whole, the film is almost perversely unenjoyable. But then again, who cares? A comic-book movie for kids? Big whoop.
These days of course, all anybody cares about is comic book movies. Since the billion dollar successes of The Dark Knight and Avengers Assemble, Marvel and DC adaptations have become the only game in town, and alongside them have risen the splenetic denizens of the internet forum, incalculable in number. To them, sincerity is everything, and a loyal adherence to the origin story and mythology of whichever comic book character they cherish is paramount. In street-terms, Lester didn’t ‘respect’ Superman, and so his name has become as dirty as Joel ‘Batman & Robin’ Schumacher or Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson.
Lester himself seems unconcerned. In a recent interview, he admitted that he knew nothing about Donner’s version and didn’t seem to care. The Comic-Con crowd may spit on his name, but try telling that to Martin Scorsese, a long-time fan and Lester champion. Steven Soderbergh too would have plenty to say to any disgruntled Superman fan. His 1999 book, Getting Away With It: or The Further Adventures of The Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw is essentially a mammoth conversation between himself and Richard Lester, whose work he clearly adores.
Richard Lester retired in 1991, following the accidental death of his great friend Roy Kinnear in 1988 on the set of the wretched and accursed Return of The Musketeers. He has become a familiar face since, in countless documentaries about The Goons and The Beatles, and received a BFI fellowship in 2012. I suspect that his name is so often left off the gold roster of great directors because there was no easily identifiable focus to his satire. He didn’t have the mouth-frothing anti-establishment rage of Sam Peckinpah or Robert Altman (whose use of background dialogue as a soundtrack was awfully similar to Lester’s), nor the fiery socialist manifesto of Lindsay Anderson or Ken Loach.
Instead, Lester quietly and without fanfare, takes an apolitical back seat and sees madness everywhere, but not enough to smother his great capacity for delight. As Omar Sharif’s Captain says in Juggernaut, ‘Here’s to the insanity of governments, and the insanity of people who oppose them.’ Lester, as Richard Harris responds, is one of ‘the poor simple sods who have to pick up the pieces.’
I love the man, and I love Richard Donner too; rather like a child of divorce torn between two parents. However, as much as I love Richard Donner, he never called me at my house to tell me how much he liked the really terrible story I’d written for him. Didn’t even send me a birthday card.
Which other maligned comic book directors do you think need rescuing from the unfairly constructed Phantom Zones of fanboy opinion? Joel ‘Falling Down, Flatliners, Tigerland’ Scumacher maybe? Or what about poor old Superman IV director Sidney J. Furie (The Leather Boys, The Ipcress File, The Entity)?
Senses of Cinema (May 2003)
Superman II – The Richard Donner Cut DVD commentary (2006)
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