Weekend Film Recommendation: The Three Musketeers

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.

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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.*

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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).

En garde!

* 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.

14 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Three Musketeers”

  1. Odds bodkins, what a fun film! This is pure Saturday afternoon matinee stuff, light-hearted and incredibly entertaining. Excellent choice indeed.

  2. My favorite Three Musketeers movie is actually from one of the sequels: the 1998 edition of The Man in the Iron Mask. Billing it as a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle really was false representation. Leo is fine but THE star is Gabriel Byrne as D'Artagnan. Jeremy Irons, Jon Malkovich, and Gerard Depardieu are pretty good, too.

    1. Sure, Byrne is great, as are his three accompaniments — but if we're going to look for musketeer interpretations that stray from the original, I'll have to mention the 1993 Disney version with Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, and Oliver Platt. Very hammy, but still self-aware — drastically unlike the execrable 2011 version.

  3. The swordfighting technique seemed to consist of jabbing at your opponent a few times and then try to disable him with a kick in the ass.

    Eye-catching and enjoyable … I got a sudden rush of memory that Spike Milligan appeared in it. Indeed he did, as Constance's cuckolded husband.

    1. I'm not much of a swordplay aficionado, but the duel at the end of the 1995 Rob Roy between Liam Neeson as Rob Roy and Tim Roth as Montrose's henchthug Archibald Cunningham is gripping and credibly nasty. Rob Roy wins by seizing Cunningham's sharp rapier in his left hand long enough to grab his own claymore back for the fatal blow.

      1. I found that film loathsome. The swordfight at the climax was well done, but wildly implausible.

    1. Thanks for bringing it to my attention — I haven't seen it before. I don't know much of Stewart Granger's stuff, but I've been told that in "Scaramouche" he picks up where Errol Flynn left off. High praise indeed.

      Btw, that trailer you linked to is hilarious.

  4. I liked this film immensely and I thought all of the actors were superb. I liked Charlton Heston quite a bit. I think he was an excellent Richelieu. Very possibly the best ever—I thought he struck just the right sardonic tone with a slight undercurrent of malevolence.

    I also agree with your criticism of the film's inconsistent tone. I found the constant bouncing from being a very serious period drama to being a cartoonish, almost slapstick comedy à la the old Batman television series to be extremely jarring. One minute we're laughing at the buffoonish villains and everyone is indestructible like in a cartoon and the next minute one of them is strangling Constance to death. It's almost as if they ended up with two different, but incomplete versions with the same case; one intended as a real drama and the other comedy send-up of the genre but they ran out of money before completing either film and ended up just splicing the two together. I really wish they'd stuck to playing it reasonably straight.

    1. In the follow-up "The Return of the Musketeers", Lester clearly opted for a straightforward slapstick tone and jettisoned the seriousness altogether.

      Maybe the on-set death of Roy Kinnear, who played D'Artagnan's servant Planchet, during the making of "Return" (which resulted in Lester's retirement from move-making) had something to do with it. Who knows.

  5. It might be noted that these “Musketeer” films were made during the four or five years when Michael York was probably the most beautiful man on earth.

  6. And you didn’t even mention Spike Milligan’s turn as Raquel Welch’s cuckolded husband!

    1. I didn't even mention that Faye Dunaway was in it. That happens in reviews of good movies. It's hard either to remember or to fit in a mention of all the good bits. Occupational hazard!

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