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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

For swashbuckling adventures, what’s old is new again

The success this year of Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World have made period adventures fashionable again. This should breathe new life into some classics from the past.

• Alexander Nevsky (1938). The great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein is so lauded as a silent film artist his work in the sound era is often overlooked. Alexander Nevsky, which tells the tale of a 13th-century confrontation between the Russians and an invading army of German Teutonic knights, is both a grand war epic and a propagandist message film. Some may be put off by the dramatic operatic style, but the battle on the ice that climaxes the film will win over the most jaded viewers. Alexander Nevsky was released in the U.S. in 1939, the year that is often cited as Hollywood's best, but not one American film from that year can compare with the brilliance of this classic.

• The Three Musketeers (1973); The Four Musketeers (1974). If you are looking for great swashbuckling adventures laced with humor, you won't find any more exciting and funnier than these two films. Richard Lester took the oft-filmed Alexander Dumas adventure story and fused it with his own acerbic and misanthropic viewpoint. The results are grand epics that brilliantly mix farce with social satire. Lester debunks the myth of the heroic four, Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), Porthos (Frank Finlay), and their young apprentice D'Artagnan (Michael York), by injecting the elements of cheating and thievery into their personalities, which makes them more believable as characters.

• The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine) are two 19th-century British soldiers with a crazy dream. They plan to become the rulers of Kafiristan, a region somewhere in Afghanistan, and because of their arrogance they feel victory will be easy. Connery and Caine are the perfect pair of idealistic, but entertainingly obnoxious, adventurers. The Man Who Would Be King is one of John Huston's best films, and it compares favorably with his other tale of greed gone awry, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This story of western intervention into the Central Asia with questionable motivation might have more resonance today than it did in the 1970s.

• The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). If you want a little fantasy in your adventure you won't find a more extravagant example than Terry Gilliam's tribute to one of history's greatest liars. Baron Munchausen really existed, and he was known to wildly embellish his stories, but not even he could have imagined the level of Gilliam's outlandishness. Gilliam's great cinematic folly is a never-ending visual feast for the eyes. Who could forget the sight of Robin Williams's head floating over the moon? Look for Uma Thurman and Sarah Polley in early roles.



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