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: *****

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Fantastic Voyage (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 7 March (12.55 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

The premise of Fantastic Voyage is this – the Cold War simmers on, and scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain have developed the technology to miniaturise objects and even human beings. The possibilities this represents are perceived to be decisive potentially, but there’s a catch. The miniaturisation process lasts for only sixty minutes, after which the subject will irrevocably expand back to the original size. One Russian boffin has discovered a solution and, even better, he wants to defect to the west. Getting off the plane on US soil, he’s gunned down by enemy agents, and is left fighting for his life, comatose and with a blood clot on his brain. Not removing the clot will kill him, and the only way to do so is to use the new process, inject a microscopic team of surgeons into the man’s bloodstream and get them to use a laser to clear it. All in the space of an hour.

Enter Stephen Boyd as Grant, a CIA agent who helped the scientist to defect. He joins the small crew taking a submarine, the Proteus, into the scientist’s body. His fellows include mission leader, Dr Michaels (Donald Pleasance), surgeon Dr Duval (Arthur Kennedy) and his assistant Cora (Raquel Welch). As the team is miniaturised, the procedure is overseen by military staff who work through innumerable cups of coffee and cigars whilst the ‘operation’ takes place.

Fantastic Voyage was one of those films that constantly seemed to be on television when I was a child. A major success and rather a thrilling premise, the fun was had from the moment the team enters the scientist’s bloodstream and experience the human body from a unique perspective. Thrillingly, the plot moves as quickly as possible to get them to this juncture, and the hour they spend in miniature form is played in close to real time, the countdown adding to the tension as they face various pitfalls on their journey. What makes it even better is that one of the crew is clearly a double agent and out to sabotage the mission, a plot Grant attempts to uncover as the minutes tick away.

Watched now, the cracks start to appear. The biology seems sound enough to layman viewers and there’s a note of authenticity before the film starts to add to its gravitas. Leonard Rosenman’s score doesn’t kick in until they’re in the bloodstream, as though giving the piece a documentary feel. However, the miniaturisation, whilst a cleverly assembled sequence, is straight out of science fiction. It’s a great process, the submarine shrunk until it’s the size of a toy car, before it’s placed carefully into a big cylinder of liquid that is then diminished so that it can form the trunk of a syringe. But it’s crazy, and they know it, keeping technobabble to a minimum so that audiences can enjoy the ride without being fobbed off with a pat explanation of how it all works.

The main length of the film, whilst the crew are inside the man, is good stuff, utilising contemporary cutting edge special effects that don’t look so terrible now (and indeed, it was for technical achievements that it won two Academy Awards). I like the scenes inside the lungs, which look like an alien landscape from an episode of Star Trek, when it’s explained that what appears to be rocks are in fact specks of dust. The whole sequence reminds me of the Starship Enterprise’s lengthy flight to the centre of V’ger in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, which makes sense as Kirk and his crew were traversing the extended ‘body’ of the little probe.

But it is hokum, complete fiction, and this was recognised by writer Isaac Asimov, who was approached to pen the novelisation. At first dismissive, Asimov went ahead with the job with the proviso that he could lessen some of the film’s crazier leaps in logic, for instance dealing with the destruction of the Proteus. In the film, white blood cells attack and destroy the submarine, but any bits of wreckage left behind would be sure to expand after an hour, bursting horribly from within the scientist. Along with the discarded laser gun, this turned into a fatal oversight that was resolved in the book, though clearly it was hoped the excitement of the climactic moments would excise any of this from the thoughts of viewers.

Fantastic Voyage was directed by sure hand Richard Fleischer, who brought some of his technical people from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to help make the show look more realistic. Fleischer knew how to make a tale tick along, aware that audiences would want to get from the set-up to the realisation as quickly as possible and not wasting time in making it unfold. Boyd was entirely capable of playing square jawed heroes and, despite having no medical experience, comes to suggest solutions to the crew members that keep the mission going, relying on little more than his sense of authority and charisma. Kennedy’s job is to come out with philosophical statements that bring to life the wonders of the human body, saying things like ‘Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought’ whilst looking on in sheer amazement. Welch, who at the time was in the process of attaining stardom, has little to do beyond look good in her tight fitting (obviously) scuba diving costume and get into situations of peril, as in the moment when she’s attacked by antibodies and has the indignity of her fellow crew members removing them from all over her body. As for Pleasance, he’s one of those actors, like Herbert Lom and Brian Cox, whose presence removes any sense of mystery when there’s a secret villain within the crew…

The film inspired an animated series, novels and a comic book, and talks continue over the possibility of a remake, with various illustrious directors attached. It does seem to be one of those stories tailor-made for a twenty first century update, and there’s something tantalising about recreating the ‘inner space’ scenes using the latest CGI technology. For now, there’s this version, which remains a slice of good fun and certainly doesn’t fail to thrill, as in the famous scene involving a pair of dropped scissors, something mundane that creates great suspense.

Fantastic Voyage: ***

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.

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

When it’s on: Monday, 21 May (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

Raquel Welch didn’t want to be involved in One Million Years B.C. Under contract with Fox and ordered to go, she eventually came around to the idea of working for Hammer because of London’s newfound status as the capital of the Swinging Sixties, only to find the production was taking place in the Canary Islands. Wearing naught but a tiny fur bikini and forced to work in freezing conditions on the peaks of Tenerife and  Gran Canaria, the shoot was anything but happy, yet by the time Welch returned to the States she discovered she was a global sex symbol thanks to a photo taken of her on set. It was this photo, shot as the actress recoiled from the effects of a sulphur bomb that had been released to help create the film’s prehistoric, volcanic atmosphere, which transformed both Welch’s personal fortunes and created one of Hammer’s biggest hits.

The film was a remake of the 1940 release, The Cave Dwellers, and took advantage of a passing craze for prehistoric pictures. If it seems like an excuse to film nubile starlets in bikinis, then that’s probably because it was – Martine Beswick also features prominently in the cast. The plot is an excuse to pit cavemen in situations where they battle dinosaurs. Tumak (John Richardson) is booted out of his tribe and crosses the volcano-pitted land, eventually coming across the blonde, more advanced Shell People. Here, he meets Loana (Welch). The pair fall in love and head back to his original dwelling to confront the treacherous Sakana (Percy Herbert).

The 1940 film, which starred Victor Mature, used live lizards that were optically magnified to make them look bigger. Hammer referenced the earlier work by having Tumak’s first dinosaur encounter be with an iguana in a bullying mood. Unfortunately, the reptile kept falling asleep under the studio lights, meaning they had to move it along manually. From there, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects took over. A big fan of dinosaurs, Harryhausen loved the idea of humans combating creatures that had died out millions of years before, sidestepping the point that these situations were impossible by arguing, quite rightly, that he was involved in the entertainment business, not making a film for professors. In One Million Years B.C., he serves up a giant turtle, a Velociraptor, Pterodactyls, and for his big set piece a stand-off between a Tyrannosaur and a Triceratops. Viewers spoiled by the CGI of Jurassic Park and beyond will no doubt find the technical work to be at best quaint, and possibly laughable. But these scenes have real charm; the effort that went into both animating the creatures and having them interact with live actors must have been phenomenal, and until digital effects took over this was about as good as these things tended to get.

The film was directed by Don Chaffey, who had cut his teeth in television and worked with Harryhausen previously on the masterly Jason and the Argonauts. Chaffey does a good job here, using visual prompts to make the plot flow without the benefit of having actors speak any exposition. After a few lines of narration, we’re left with characters who grunt at each other. It’s unintelligible, which is entirely the point, so the direction does the work for us. Besides that, Chaffey had a nice eye for composition, taking in some spectacular Canarian scenery. Also notable is the score. Hammer hired Mario Nacimbene to provide One Million Years B.C’s distinctive music. Best known on this site for his evocative work on The Vikings, Nascimbene combined overblown orchestral overtures for the panoramic scenes with what sounds like prehistoric sticks being banged in rhythm for the film’s fights.

But the show belongs to Welch, in her star-making role. The former dancer was never going to be the stuff of acting masterclasses, and even her voice in One Million Years B.C. was dubbed by Nikki Van der Zyl, but the studio knew best how to showcase her talents. With little to do but run around and occasionally get wet in her fur bikini, Welch provided one of the most iconic images of her age and for that, there’s much to be thankful.

One Million Years B.C.: ***