You know how everyone has that one film that they love more than anyone else? I think Richard Lester’s Musketeers films are mine. An irreverent, often playfully subversive adaptation of Alexandre Dumas‘ classic novel split into two parts, I feel like the films are often dismissed for being mannered, dated, or twee by people who haven’t given it a fair chance, when in fact they are remarkably subversive films, and genuinely funny.
The first film, The Three Musketeers follows the young, impulsive D’Artagnan (Michael York) as he trains to join the king’s musketeers, and becomes embroiled in a mission to save the queen (Geraldine Chaplin) from the machinations of the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) and his nefarious lieutenants Rochefort (Christopher Lee) and Milady DeWinter (Faye Dunaway). Assisting him along the way, and offering much needed guidance, are his three new compatriots, moody Athos (Oliver Reed), cultivated Aramis (Richard Chamberlain) and pompous Porthos (Frank Finlay).
It’s appropriate that the two films are being released at the same time, since they are really one long film – in fact they were intended to be released as such, but the sheer wealth of footage meant that the producers decided to split the film in two – a controversial decision which was not shared with the cast until very late in the day, which led to numerous lawsuits, and the emergence of “the Salkind clause,” something that is now a requirement on all Screen Actor Guild contracts.
As a result the films themselves are a little choppy, and aren’t entirely satisfactory from a narrative perspective unless viewed together – the first one ends with a “coming up next” teaser and the second begins with a quick recap of the events of the previous film. From a purely technical standpoint though, they are brilliant; Lester has a subtly distinctive eye for shot composition which never draws attention to itself, but he also has some stunning location cinematography, and rousing scores from Michel Legrand and Lalo Schifrin.
Aside from anything else, The Three Musketeers is one of the funniest films of its era – casting well known comedians like Spike Milligan and Roy Kinnear in memorable supporting roles. Lester brings the same anarchic sensibility he honed on the films he made with The Beatles, with a subversive streak running through both films and several playful vignettes that unfold in the background, including Rodney Bewes as a spy who is a little too candid in front of Richelieu, and some mild-mannered henchmen getting shirty about a torn carpet. There is a definite focus on class distinctions that can easily be missed by a casual observer, but which infuses the entire film – the queen going on the merry-go-round pulled by servants, cheerfully crying out “Whip them! make them go faster!” the sheer decadence of using dwarf servants as plates for canapes or living chess pieces.
The Four Musketeers is a lot darker in tone, (something signified through the way the comic characters are marginalized) as Milady plots her revenge on D’Artagnan. As it’s own film this one is a little less successful than the first, with plot that is less immediately gripping, meandering around for a while before settling in for the climactic showdown. Everything building up to that final fight is incredible though, and features what might be my favourite sword-fight of all time.
William Hobbs is responsible for some of cinemas most idiosyncratic, authentic sword-fights, from Robin And Marian to Rob Roy, but his crowning achievement has to be the climactic showdown between D’Artagnan and Rochefort in The Four Musketeers. It carries so much more weight when their animosity has been growing over the course of the two films, you really get the feeling that these two hate each other, and there is a genuine intensity to their fight, with both characters visibly exhausted by the end.
Michael York is the perfect choice for D’Artagnan – an actor who would have been insanely good-looking if not for his broken nose, a feature that makes his character precisely the right balance of dashing and clumsy. Oliver Reed gives what is possibly his best film performance as the troubled, alcoholic Athos. He makes an imposing fighter but gives a remarkably understated, subtle performance in the quieter moments, his soft voice masking deep emotional scars. Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain are also a delight. They are constantly bickering and clashing, but there is a warmth to their interactions that feels like an influence on the relationship of Gimli and Legolas in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
Charlton Heston is really, surprisingly good as the Machiavellian, formidable Richelieu. He’s the best kind of master villain, with no personal animosity towards the heroes, who he considers utterly beneath him. He’s not a moustache twirling villain, just a pragmatist who treats every other character as a piece on the chessboard. Even better are his subordinates, especially Christopher Lee, who makes an imperious, sinister Rochefort, more than holding his own in the fight scenes against actors at least 10 years his junior. Just watch in the scene where he faces off against Reed in the second film, he jumps and darts around with impressive speed.
There are some elements that are problematic when viewed through a modern lens, but it’s often difficult to identify whether these are attitudes from the 17th century or from the 1970s. The sexual politics of the films are perhaps the most egregious instance of this – there is often an uncomfortable “confessions of a window cleaner” sensibility to D’Artagnan’s numerous liaisons throughout the films, which doesn’t cast him in a particularly sympathetic light, despite York’s winning performance.
However, other aspects of the story, such as the treatment of Milady DeWinter, instead show the attitudes of the characters and the environment of the era where the story is set, and crucially the script and Faye Dunaway’s performance are actually fairly progressive, showing her as a resourceful and cunning villain, a femme fatale in the truest meaning of the term, making the best of the hand she has been dealt. Similarly Raquel Welch manages to find the pathos and comedy of the beautiful Constance Bonacieux – she gives a witty performance that is much more knowing than may have been expected at the time.
Viewed as one sweeping epic, Lester’s adaptation remains the definitive version of Dumas’ story (Well, until now anyway – I’ve heard good things about The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan) and while I’d rather they were released as one epic film, this release is the best these films have ever looked. Subversive, witty, with genuine emotion and some jaw-dropping moments, it’s a swashbuckling masterpiece, and finally has the physical release it deserves.
These releases are a little sparse, but include a really interesting conversation with Neil Sinyard about the making of the film, where he offers up some expert analysis of both films, plus more insight into Lester’s career. There is also an enlightening documentary featuring interviews with the cast, all of whom are refreshingly candid on the behind the scenes shenanigans.
However, this may sound like nit-picking, some of the subtitling is wildly inaccurate in places. Previous releases didn’t include any subs, presumably due to the constantly overlapping dialogue, but there are too many basic errors here to let it go.