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When it’s on: Friday, 25 May (2.55 am, Saturday)
Channel: ITV1
IMDb Link

It’s not very often that I feel like walking out of a film before it’s finished. Normally, there’s something – and it doesn’t have to be much – that keeps me interested, but the last time I could happily have hit the ‘Off’ switch halfway through was when Lovefilm delivered Paul WS Anderson’s 2011 version of The Three Musketeers. For me, Dumas’s yarn provides the kind of source material you shouldn’t be able to mess up (it’s a rollicking good read also), but Anderson’s decision to excise much of the plot for his ham-fisted alternative was deplorable. The 1993 release, directed by Stephen Herek as a vehicle for the ageing Brat Pack, is also eminently missable.

Trying to pinpoint exactly where both films failed is the subject for an article in itself, but as a starter I submit the performers in the pivotal role of D’Artagnan. In the 1990s, Chris O’Donnell carved out a niche as the bland, boyishly good looking actor who always seemed to orbit these kinds of parts. At best, he was hopelessly forgettable, yet the role is a pivotal one, being the glue that holds the entire narrative together. It requires a combination of callow youth and charisma, which isn’t easy to find* and a brilliant example of how to get it right is Michael York, who played the Gascon swordsman in Richard Lester’s The Four Musketeers. York was in his early 30s and already a star, which made him ideal for the ensemble cast being assembled for Lester’s multi-national production. Handsome, athletic, able to convey his character’s eternal sense of irritating enthusiasm and possessing a knack for comic acting, York’s one of the best things about a film that never takes itself entirely seriously and delivers on the premise of adventure romps.

The Four Musketeers was filmed at the same time as its prequel and both films straddle the plot of Dumas’s novel. Originally, the idea was to make one picture, but it was realised there was enough material to split it, which meant two releases in as many years (there was a further year’s delay in releasing the film in the USA and UK), and indeed Lester’s The Three Musketeers was screened yesterday. York’s name was just one on a staggering roll call of big names. His fellow Musketeers were all respected character actors – Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain and, most impressively, Oliver Reed. ‘Mr England’ is just brilliant here, playing a booze-soaked Athos (no doubt acted via ‘the method’) who has a lifetime of regrets behind him, many of which are linked to Milady De Winter, played by Faye Dunaway. There’s also Raquel Welch as D’Artagnan’s love interest, Roy Kinnear (the comic relief Planchet), Charlton Heston (a shadowy Cardinal Richlieu), Christopher Lee (Rochefort, with Lee making a noble attempt to once again escape his Dracula image), Geraldine Chaplin (Queen Anne) and Simon Ward (a foppish Duke of Buckingham). Phew! Sybil Danning makes an appearance, whilst the voice of Jean-Pierre Cassel’s King Louis is that of Richard Briers. Double-phew!

The film turns out to be no less fun than The Three Musketeers, but whereas the earlier release was played as much for laughs as adventure, Four takes a much darker twist. This is thanks to Dunaway’s femme fatale, De Winter, a consummate survivor who turns out to have been the former wife of Athos. Now in the employ of  the Cardinal and having nearly exposed Queen Anne’s affair with Buckingham in the first film, she’s imprisoned by the Duke and put in the care of his Puritan gaoler, Felton (Michael Gothard). Supposedly incorruptible, he’s eventually won over by Milady’s charms and helps her to escape, from where she vows to wreak her vengeance on D’Artagnan. The film builds to a surprisingly sad climax, which gives Dunaway (as one of D’Artagnan’s lovers; the other being Welch) much to chew on within one of the story’s most interesting roles. She’s roundly more watchable than the rather vapid Welch and, I think, far more ravishing, especially in the scenes where she’s led to her ultimate fate.

As in The Three Musketeers, the costumes and attention to period detail are absolutely marvellous. The script, by historian and Flashman author, George MacDonald Fraser, is fast paced and witty, and correctly shoehorns in the narrative flashpoints concerning the authorities’ battles with Hugenots. There’s also room for the good-natured thrills of The Three Musketeers. This is evidenced best in the heroes’ efforts to have breakfast in a castle that’s under attack, but there’s much room also for Lester’s trademark use of extras making comments about the main characters, adding to the entertainment value.

It’s an altogether cracking film, possibly best viewed in tandem with its prequel (both were released last year on a Blu Ray double-set) and on an afternoon to capture the matinee thrills it was made to provide. The only real downside is ITV’s decision to schedule it in the early hours, which seems utterly bizarre.

The Four Musketeers: ****

*The perfect embodiment for me is, naturally, Mark Hammill as Luke Skywalker. Think of some of the awful, dumb things he’s called on to say and do (he certainly doesn’t have the rogueish gift of a part offered to Harrison Ford) in Star Wars, and yet somehow he carries it off.

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