By Scott Ross
A joyous collaboration between Richard Lester and the satirical novelist George MacDonald Fraser.
There are certain books (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn springs immediately to mind) that, for reasons that defy logic, are eventually deemed “children’s classics” but which, although an advanced child may enjoy them, are the furthest thing from novels for kids. By the time I was a small boy, The Three Musketeers had become one of these. But if you read it you realize that it’s very much a tale for adults — that the sexiness of the movies was not something Fraser and Lester imposed on them but rather was there, in Alexandre Dumas’ winking prose, all along… except in those subtly abridged editions given to unsuspecting children. Reading the original years after seeing these pictures, I found myself even more impressed by Fraser’s fidelity than I had been with his wit which, despite his repellent personality and staggering prejudices, was considerable. (He got the job as author of the deliciously irresponsible, swashbuckling Flashman novels one of which, the Prisoner of Zenda-inspired Royal Flash, was subsequently well filmed by Lester.)
Peter Bogdanovich, in New York magazine, wrote of The Three Musketeers, “I haven’t had such a good time at a new movie in years.” He wasn’t alone; the picture one of the shining movie memories of my early adolescence, and if its “sequel” (which, read on, was no sequel) is slightly less sparkling it’s only because the Dumas novel itself becomes less effervescent, and more sober, during the second half, and the moviemakers respected that. The tone is pleasingly light — at least until about midway into The Four Musketeers — the sets (Brian Eatwell) and costumes (Yvonne Blake) are meticulously recreated, and the elaborate swordplay is both comic and breathtakingly intricate. Lester’s wry hand is evident throughout, from the comic asides and overdubbing to the satirical thrust of much of the action; York’s two initial duels with Lee are charmingly staged, the first with 16th century lanterns, the second on a frozen riverbed. Lester seems to have been besotted by 17th century gadgetry, and there are some wonderful props employed throughout, like a 1625 edition of a magic lantern and a periscope that renders the image upside-down and even an early submersible.
The Three Musketeers represented one of the few times in movie history the assembling of an “all-star” cast wasn’t just a P.R. stunt: Every actor in the picture is utterly right for the role, and they’re clearly having a blast, from Charlton Heston’s subtly duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu to Spike Milligan’s peerlessly pandering coward Monsieur Bonacieux; wed to Raquel Welch’s Constance, he’s so lust-smacked he vibrates. Michael York is an simultaneously bumptiously naïve and sumptuously desirable D’Artagnon, Oliver Reed a dark and dangerous Athos, Frank Finlay a vain and strutting peacock as Porthos (he also plays the jeweler O’Reilly), Richard Chamberlin a wry and charming Aramis, Faye Dunaway a sinuously dangerous Milady de Winter, Christopher Lee a suavely and aristocratically bored Rochefort, Geraldine Chaplin a spoiled and pouty Ann of Austria, Simon Ward a boyishly handsome and utterly winning Duke of Buckingham, and the great Roy Kinnear is marvelous as D’Artagnon’s put-upon factotum Planchet, his entire body a witty visual gag. Welch makes Constance an adorable klutz, constantly tripping down stairs, getting her foot caught in spittoons or being knocked down by fencing dummies, and although Jean-Pierre Cassel is an amusing popinjay as Louis XIII, his entire vocal performance was dubbed by Richard Briers. (Michael Hordern likewise dubbed Georges Wilson as the captain of the Musketeers Treville.)
Maddeningly, the movies have not been released on Blu-ray in America, and the European Studio Canal edition, unlike the old Anchor Bay DVD set, contains no extras of any kind. The restoration, however, is an absolute knockout. David Watkin’s cinematography surely hasn’t looked so mouth-wateringly gorgeous in 47 years; the clarity of his images is breathtaking. There is, for example, a sequence with Welch and Chaplin, set in the Queen’s boudoir, in which the royal blue of the walls is so deep you feel you could swim in it.
Although released in two parts by Alexander and Illya Salkind, the picture was filmed as a single 3 and-a-half hour epic and the surprise of the actors on realizing they’d made two movies for the price of one led to a special codicil in future Screen Actors Guild contracts now known as “the Salkind clause.” The Four Musketeers contains a splendid score by Lalo Schifrin and The Three Musketeers boasts a melodic and very witty one by Michel Legrand reportedly written, under deadline pressure, in a little over a week. No wonder her didn’t return for more.
Text copyright 2013, 2020 by Scott Ross