Richard Lester has heard the knocks against "Help!," the second film he directed starring the Beatles, none more hard-hitting than a famous one from John Lennon.
"What John said, if I can remember the quote is, 'I was an extra in my own . . . film!' " Lester, 75, said last week from his home in West Sussex, England. "I understand that. They were never going to play the Four Musketeers. They had to play themselves. . . . We had to overlay a [comedic] plot on them, and when you do that with them playing themselves, you can see why he felt he was a minor part in his own film. But I disagree."
Lester's 1965 comedy has been sonically and visually upgraded for DVD and, since its reissue last week, the 42-year-old film has jumped into the top 20 of Amazon.com's DVD rankings along with such recent blockbusters as "Ratatouille," "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek the Third."
Lester, who went on to direct big-screen treatments of "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers" as well as "Superman II," has long heard "Help!" belittled next to its predecessor, "A Hard Day's Night," the Fab Four's widely acknowledged rock-movie classic, also directed by Lester.
"I thought ['Help!'] was the harder thing to pull off," he said, "and I think we pulled it off about as well as we could."
He hadn't seen "Help!" for some 35 years before seeing it recently at a film festival in Spain.
"I was there and I was a prisoner and I watched it," he said with a chuckle. "Watching one's own work is painful. . . . It doesn't matter what the film is. In a way, films are all little tombstones laid end to end with a bit of filler tape holding them together.
"Having said that, the audiences seemed very happy," said Lester, who retired from directing about 15 years ago. "I was delighted with it in many ways. It did capture their quality at that time. That's certainly what we set out to do. . . . For all their larking about as they were trying to let their characters come out, their professionalism at what they did best -- music -- was just extraordinary."
To Lester, the camaraderie among Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr exhibited on screen simply reflected real life.
"In the evenings, we'd be in one of the hotels and hanging about in Austria after doing the snow sequences. They'd take over the bandstand and play all night," Lester said. "If one of them was a little bit down, or just exhausted from the whole thing of having to be on and performing and being looked at for 24 hours a day, the others would instantly know that and form a cordon around that person who really wasn't up to it and protect them from the outside world.
"It really was an extraordinary marriage -- like a four-headed hydra," he said. "It was remarkable how well they protected one another."