Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Three Musketeers has been filmed many times. Almost every generation wants to add its spin to the classic tale of intrigue, romance, and swordplay. From the 1935 version with Walter Abel and Paul Lukas through the Ritz Brothers’ comic turn in 1939, to Gene Kelly’s dancing D’Artagnan, to last year’s “Crouching Cardinal, Hidden Necklace” version simply titled Musketeer and the recent Disney version with Oliver Platt and Kiefer Sutherland, everyone yearns for a chance to fight for the king against the evil Cardinal Richelieu.
Richard Lester was the director of the Beatles films A Hard Day’s Night & Help!. Working together with writer George MacDonald Fraser and a stunning cast, he filmed both of these motion pictures simultaneously and then released them a year apart. This model of multiple film-making enables the director to assemble a cast and maximize his use of them. It has been copied by the Salkind’s Superman 1 & 2, and more recently by Peter Jackson, in the making of The Lord of the Rings. It’s also helpful in the budget end, getting a future star for 2 films at a lower going rate. Lester reconvened some of the cast for a third film, not under consideration today, 1989’s Return of the Musketeers a lacklustre followup.
A few years ago this reviewer was involved in a stage presentation of Macbeth. I was just an extra, but we spent weeks on intensive sword-fight choreography. It changed the way I view dueling on screen forever. These films contain the most exciting and envigorating duels ever. The first scene in The Three Musketeers encapsulates this excitement. An unknown swordsman is fighting for his life, in slow motion, his strength, his stress, his sweat is there on the screen. It’s beautiful, and masculine, and graceful. And all this before the story starts. We discover that he is D’Artagnan (Michael York), son of a former King’s Musketeer, who is on his way to Paris to begin his own career in the King’s service. Fraser’s script follows the Dumas novel closely, but adds some 70’s irreverent wit which makes the story timeless. The young D’Artagnan is ridiculed at first but then proves his mettle and joins the three musketeers for the adventure of their lives. Athos, Porthos and Aramis are lovingly portrayed by Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain in roles which suit them to a tee.
The evil Cardinal Richelieu is played, against type, by Charlton Heston. He makes a remarkable villain. Christopher Lee chews up the scenery as the dastardly Comte de Rochefort, and the ever lovely Faye Dunaway completes the villainous triumvirate with a sparkling performance as Milady! They plot, together and separately, against our heroes. The musketeers and D’Artagnan find themselves embroiled in court scandal, political shenanigans, possible war with England, and affairs of the heart, but they always find a way out of their troubles – usually accompanied by clanging swords, and the thud of leather on flesh.
Michael York (better known to today’s audiences as Austin Powers Chief) was young, handsome and vital when he made these films, and gives a bravura performance as the naive country bumpkin who becomes a hero. He is equally convincing as the gormless farmboy and the skilled swordsman. Raquel Welch gives perhaps her finest performance as D’Artagnan’s love interest. Voluptuous but vapid, she is a thing of beauty, and York’s D’Artagnan is smitten.
In The Four Musketeers the story continues. D’Artagnan is now a full-fledged Musketeer, Aramis has sunk deeper into depression, Athos is morose, and Porthos…is still hungry. Milady wants revenge, Richelieu wants power, and the King, well we’re not sure what the King wants…
The two films stand on their own merits individually but also form a wonderful whole when viewed together. The characters develop from the first to the second film. The relationships grow convincingly, and the action never lets up. There is sex, romance, and true love. There is action, and wit, and slapstick comedy. The scripts are glorious models of the screenwriter’s art, and there is not a bad performance to be seen. The sets are rich and faithful to the time, and the score (by Lalo Schifrin) underpins it all.
The transfer to DVD is excellent. One might complain about the lack of extras (just production credits and filmographies) but you don’t miss extras when the films are of such high quality. The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers separately or together are highly recommended!
(Fox Lorber, Richard Lester, 1974)
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