The Three Musketeers (1973)

When it’s on: Sunday, 14 February (8.05 am)
Channel: ITV3
IMDb Link

I’ve tried to be better at reading the classics than I am, but one title I had no trouble with was Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Fast paced, witty and fun, the novel never runs out of steam and its spirit was never better captured than in Richard Lester’s 1973 adaptation. It remains easily my favourite attempt at bringing the text to the screen, and does raise the question – given the material how can any film maker really go wrong?

It’s a film I have watched many times – in the early days of VCR, when I was a kid I saw it over and over – and in preparation for this piece catching it again was largely unnecessary. I still did it though, more out of pure pleasure than necessity, indeed a few happy hours were spent indulging in a double bill of this one and its immediate sequel, The Four Musketeers, which essentially gives us more of the same. It’s a well-known fact that Lester shot both movies at the same time, ostensibly deciding late in the process to split the story into two and in the process pissing off his entire cast, who would of course have earned more for appearing in separate works. Lester’s argument, that he learned part way through he had enough material to justify the split and thought the two films would work better than a more heavily edited single, held little water with his performers, who duly sued and increased their salaries. And yet, years later with all the legal wrangling long in the past and the two films remaining, it clearly stands as the right thing to do. There’s simply no bloat in either entry. Just like in Dumas’s novel, the action moves quickly and the characters are given time to become more than plot devices. George MacDonald Fraser scripted both, following the text closely and inserting moments of great comedy to augment the swashbuckling antics. Whilst two of the musketeers are less well developed than their fellows, it takes some screen writing genius to take so many persons and add flesh to their bones, where even a minor character like Spike Milligan’s cowardly husband gets to show off his chops and become a memorable presence.

One of The Three Musketeers’ more remarkable elements is its massive ensemble cast, a seventies trend in line with the star-filled disaster movies of the time. Originally, Lester conceived his adaptation as a vehicle for the Beatles, with whom he’d famously collaborated during the previous decade, but this was obviously not an option now. The first choice for d’Artagnan was Malcolm McDowell, who would go on to demonstrate he was a match for this sort of material in Lester’s later Royal Flash, but instead the role went to Michael York, who was already a star and a perfect match for the part. York was perhaps ten years older than d’Artagnan, yet brought a great athletic dimension to bear and conveyed beautifully the character’s youthful and sometimes too hasty sense of bravado. The other Musketeers called for older heads, and they were played by Oliver Reed as Athos, Rhichard Chamberlain (Aramis) and the late Frank Finlay (Porthos). They’re introduced to the story when d’Artagnan contrives to arrange duels with all three of them, though they become friends when they find themselves engaging in swordplay with the Cardinal’s guards instead. Again, great casting. Of the trio, Chamberlain’s Aramis is left a little in the background, though he brings suitable levels of dash to his performance. Finlay is mainly on hand to play the comic and pompous relief, and he’s very, very funny (he also turns up briefly as the Duke of Buckingham’s jeweller; there’s no mistaking that voice). The real revelation comes from Reed, derided too often for his heavy drinking lifestyle but beyond that was a superb, towering and gifted performer with whom the camera was clearly in love. The pathos of Athos’s previous with Faye Dunaway’s Milady comes in the second film, but here Reed plays beautifully the tangled mess of honour, drunkenness and his fatherly relationship with d’Artagnan that defines Athos. He also brings great physicality to his fighting. Whereas York duels with an almost balletic grace, Reed plays Athos as a bullish whirlwind, using his bulk and sheer power to overcome opponents. A story from the set has Christopher Lee (having great fun as the eye-patch wearing villain, Rochefort) begging Reed to calm down during a fight sequence – it’s only a movie, after all!

Eager to extend his range after being so typecast during his Hammer era, Lee is fine as Rochefort, deadly whilst being an effete snob. He’s an unlikely partner for Milady (Dunaway), whose character becomes higher profile in the follow-up but here still gets to tease out her villain’s combination of beauty and rotten core. They both provide unsavoury service to Cardinal Richelieu, who in a rare instance of miscasting is played by Charlton Heston. He does nothing wrong in playing France’s arch-manipulator and schemer, but there’s the sense of a performer of Heston’s stature being a little subdued and underplayed. The plot works on the Cardinal’s plan to provoke war between France and England by exposing Queen Anne’s (Geraldine Chaplin) love affair with the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward). Once the foppish King Louis (Jean-Pierre Cassel, dubbed by Richard Briers) discovers that his wife has been unfaithful with a leading light of England’s aristocracy then conflict will surely follow. Milady travels to England to steal a couple of diamond studs from the necklace given to Buckingham by Anne, and d’Artagnan, who’s involved via assocation thanks to his burgeoning romance with the Queen’s dressmaker (Raquel Welch, showing good comic timing and adorability as a haplessly clumsy heroine), follows to resolve the situation.

That’s the story, and it’s one deftly told, but what remains in the mind are the fun performances, moments of good natured humour (the likes of Milligan, Roy Kinnear and Bob Todd are on hand to raise the film’s comedy levels) and sword fights. The latter are nicely done, deftly edited, Lester filming simultaneously from long shots and in close-ups and handing real swords to his actors to add to the authenticity. This led naturally to a variety of injuries suffered by the cast; few escaped from the shoot unscathed, and Reed took a rapier point in his wrist at one stage. With all this going on, it’s easy to ignore the attention to detail that’s going on all the time. The characters in The Three Musketeers might come with modern sensibilities and dialogue, but they’re dressed very well, and the locations – it was filmed in a variety of places across Spain – look suitably ravishing. Michael Legrand’s sumptuous score is a further bonus. This wasn’t among the many Oscar nominated pieces of work he submitted over the course of a highly successful career, but it’s a lovely musical accompaniment and does well to keep pace with the tenor of the action.

The Three Musketeers put in regular appearances across the TV schedules, and I’m surprised if there’s anyone who hasn’t seen it at least once. All the same it’s ever a welcome presence, and it effortlessly bounds over the films released in 1993 and 2014 that both squandered the richness of the source material they were working from.

The Three Musketeers: *****

The Four Musketeers (1974)

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.