Be prepared to buckle your swash and save the day in this week’s big-budget movie recommendation, as we’re going back to the 17th century in Richard Lester’s take on The Three Musketeers (1973).
The plot is well-trodden ground: the feisty and ambitious D’Artagnan (played by Michael York), son of a dispossessed nobleman, dreams of joining the ranks of the famed musketeers, the King’s personal guard. He travels to Paris, oafishly making enemies along the way with the powerful Cardinal Richelieu’s henchman de Rochefort (played by Christopher Lee), and three dissolutes named Porthos, Aramis, and Athos (played by Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, and Oliver Reed, respectively). Resolving himself to the restoration of his honor, D’Artagnan challenges the last three to a duel and bides his time with de Rochefort.
It turns out that Athos, Aramis, and Porthos are themselves musketeers, and could use D’Artagnan’s help repelling the Cardinal’s men. Meanwhile, the Cardinal (played by Charlton Heston) is busy hatching a dastardly plot to expose the Queen of France’s infidelity to the King with the Duke of Buckingham. D’Artagnan endeavors to foil the power-hungry Cardinal’s plan, although we suspect he does so more to impress his fellow musketeers and his new paramour Constance, the Queen’s maid played by Raquel Welch, than as a matter of fealty to the King.
The premise of the plot takes some time to set up, and for good reason. As far as adaptations of books go, this one is pretty faithful to the original. Dumas’ book, it should be noted, is not spare on plot details; as was common for serialized novels at the time, galloping plotlines held readers’ attention more effectively than did profound character development, which resulted in a sizeable book with an excess of intricate details of exposition. That meant that Lester was left with an abundance of material far beyond what could be fit into a single feature length film – so the producers from the Salkind family split the reel into two, and released the sequel (The Four Musketeers) a few months later. When Welch expressed consternation that her work was creating un-remunerated profit, other actors joined her in a legal suit, the product of which is the ‘Salkind Clause’ requiring up-front declarations of how many movies are to be made from filmed footage.*
The production is a little difficult to place: at times, it feels like a fanciful and carefree family film; at other times, it is pretty desperate, raw stuff. For example, Lester has an eye for slapstick, as is evident in the many thigh-slaps, coquettish Benny Hill female caricatures, and maladroit stumbles and trips over the furniture. But there’s also a real sense of toil and struggle in Musketeers, given that it’s an early work of gangbanger fiction. Nothing quite shows how empty the lifestyle really is of people living in squalor as the effortless transition from the most detached luxuries of King Louis’ palace to the slop of Constance’s home; nothing quite captures the meaninglessness of honor violence as the sweaty, tortured, and quite frankly sad duels between the musketeers and the Cardinal’s guards; and nothing is quite so pathetic as the pretense to nobility among over-dressed henchmen stealing meals from the starving owners of a local inn.
Fear not, though. Musketeers won’t leave you worried about your conscience. It succeeds at what it was intended to do, which is to provide a fun conspiracy romp across France (even though the landscape is actually Spanish), some dazzling swordplay, and 17th century costumes replete with lace, pearls, and feathers. What’s not to like, really? The big name ensemble is certainly up to the task, although highlight performances include those by Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed, both of whom (correctly) bring a touch of psychopathy to their roles. Thank goodness Lester didn’t pursue his original idea to cast the Beatles as the musketeers, following from his earlier films (e.g., see Keith’s review of A Hard Days’ Night).
* As it happens, the Salkinds were hardly put out by the legal imbroglio; the huge profits garnered from Musketeers would go on to fund Brando’s colossal paycheck in their next film Superman (see review here), but that’s a story for another day.