It seems sacrilegious to write about swashbucklers on Martin Luther King’s birthday. I suppose I should put up a column about non-violent resistance or the African-American experience. On the other hand, Alexandre Dumas – the author of the original novel – is almost certainly the most commercially-successful European novelist of African descent. That should count for something.
The Internet Movie Database lists 55 movies titled The Three Musketeers. I haven’t seen a tenth of them, but I’d be very surprised (and delighted) if there’s one that’s better than Richard Lester’s exciting, funny, and very skeptical take on Dumas’ most famous work.
But the big question is: Is this one movie or two?
Producer Alexander Salkind originally intended to make one film long enough to stay close to the novel. It was to be a roadshow film – unusually long with an intermission. Perhaps Salkind realized that roadshow presentations were going out of style. I don’t know the actual reason, but Salkind chose to release the epic as two separate films. (Not surprisingly, he got sued by movie stars who had been paid for a single film.)
The first film, naturally enough, is called The Three Musketeers – Dumas’ title that refers to the three fighters who take the young hero, D’Artagnan, into their hearts. Since D’Artagnan becomes a musketeer at the end of that movie, it made sense to call the sequel The Four Musketeers. (The full titles were The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds and The Four Musketeers: M’Lady’s Revenge, but those explanatory additions are barely visible on screen.)
So technically these are two movies, and the first one stands very well on its own. But I’m discussing them here as one very long movie, which is really the way they should be seen. I watched both chapters on Filmstruck.
I give this very long movie an A.
So what makes this version the best?
First of all, the humor. Early on, screenwriter George MacDonald and director Richard Lester play the story for laughs, deflating the traditional swashbuckler derring-do. For instance, the film starts with D’Artagnan (Michael York) setting out, father’s sword in hand, to make a name for himself. In the very next scene, his dreams (and his sword) are smashed in a matter of seconds, and everything he does looks ridiculous.
Fraser and Lester weave the humor well into Dumas’ story, but they’re smart enough to weave the humor out of it, as well. As the plot thickens and dangers become very real, the humor slowly recedes. It doesn’t disappear completely until quite late.
Funny or serious, the swordfights are amongst the best and most original on film. The musketeers and their enemies don’t fight like Errol Flynn. They kick groins, throw things, and even hold the sword by the wrong end. In the deadly serious climatic fight, York and Christopher Lee (playing Rochefort) both seem scared and desperate. They stop and pant every so often.
The film falls entirely in love with its 17th-century, French setting. Lester takes the time (and budget) to show us the opulence and casual cruelty of the court, the torture chambers of the Bastille, and the squalor of the average Parisians. At one point, the camera rests on a little girl looking at something with fascination. A reverse shot shows some 17th-century dentistry. It’s pure atmosphere, and something special.
I tend to be suspicious of all-star casts, but this one works – largely because the big stars all play important roles. Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, and Frank Finlay play the musketeers. Faye Dunaway, Simon Ward, and Spike Milligan play major supporting roles (you know comedy’s afoot anytime you see Spike Milligan onscreen). But the real surprises are Charlton Heston and Raquel Welch.
Heston is wonderful as Richileu. He’s calm, intelligent, and ambitious. But he doesn’t believe in vengeance, and would rather turn his enemies into his friends than destroy them. It’s his main subordinates, played by Lee and Dunaway, who want revenge and become the main villains.
And Welch is a real surprise. She plays Constance as a good-hearted but hopelessly clumsy fool. Lester appears to be the only director who saw her talent for physical comedy. Most directors thought of her as a pair of breasts.
When you think about it, the story is oddly (or perhaps satirically) immoral. The musketeers aren’t stopping an invasion or bringing the rightful king to his throne. In the first movie, they’re protecting an adulterous queen, and one who treats her servants very badly. In the second one, our heroes are at war with a town whose only crime is renouncing the Catholic Church.
And yet, oddly, you cheer for these four courageous, chivalrous, witty, and deeply-flawed men. And all the while, you’re enjoying a rousing, funny, exciting, and visually lush motion picture.
It’s been more than 40 years since I last saw this double bill (nicknamed The Seven Musketeers) in a movie theater. I hope to see it that way again.