I have only Erroll Flynn to blame for my love of swashbuckling films. The first time I saw Erroll Flynn as Robin Hood in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1936), I was hooked. I bounced around on my bed, dueling with imaginary villains. Judy Gallagher in my second grade class reminded me of actress Olivia de Havilland who played Maid Marian. I never did try to swing from a vine from my roof top to my neighbor's roof top nor did I wear green tights. Right around the time I saw ROBIN HOOD on television, another swashbuckling film was playing at the Beaverton Westgate Theater called THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974), directed by Richard Lester, a sequel to Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) the year before. I remember buying the bastardized film novelization of Alexander Dumas's THE THREE MUSKETEERS but if I read it, I don't remember any part of the plot just the photos in the center of the paperback, stills from the film of actors Michael York, Raquel Welch, and Faye Dunaway.
One must consider Alexander Dumas the king of the historical adventure. If he were alive today, he would be Number One on the New York Times Bestseller List kicking Stephen King and John Grisham's butts. The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers are his most famous novels. All have been made multiple times into theatrical and television films. THE THREE MUSKETEERS alone has been made over ten times. And yet, as I discovered, I didn't really know much about THE THREE MUSKETEERS. MUSKETEERS protagonist is not the Musketeers Athos, Porthos, or Aramis. The young swordsman D'Artagnan is the star of the Dumas's story.
I knew about some of the recent versions of THE THREE MUSKETEERS including the 1973 version directed by Richard Lester but only recently discovered there was a 1948 version starring Gene Kelly. Directed by George Sidney who primarily directed musicals like SHOW BOAT (1951) or BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), this MUSKETEERS does not have a single musical number or dance sequence, just the athletically gifted actor/dancer Kelly plus a nice array of supporting actors that movie fans will recognize.
Set in 1625, the Gene Kelly version has Kelly playing D'Artagnan from Gascony heading off to Paris with his father's blessing and sword to join the Musketeers. Barely a few hours in Paris and at the Musketeer Academy and D'Artagnan has already angered each of the Three Musketeers -- Athos (Van Helfin), Porthos (Gig Young), and Aramis (Robert Coote). Each has challenged D'Artagnan to a duel. When the Three Musketeers show up to duel D'Artagnan, Prime Minister Richelieu's guards also show up and the four men duel with the guards instead. The Musketeers are impressed by D'Artagnan's skill. Louis XIII (Frank Morgan) thanks the Musketeers for defeating Richelieu's men and awards D'Artagnan better clothes and his own servant Planchet (Keenan Wynn).
There is much political intrigue at the time going on between France and England and between the powers that be. King Louis disagrees with the war plans of Prime Minister Richelieu (Vincent Price). Queen Anne (Angela Lansbury), King Louis's wife, is in love with the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton). When Anne gives Buckingham her 12 diamond studs to profess her love, Richelieu sends his best spy and seductress Lady de Winter (Lana Turner) to steal two of the diamond studs back. Richelieu plans to reveal Queen Anne's infidelity to Louis when she can't produce the 12 diamond studs at a royal party, hoping this will ignite Louis to go to war with Buckingham and England. One of the queen's maids Constance Bonacieux (June Allyson) learns of the plot and tells her new love D'Artagnan. The Musketeers help D'Artagnan head to England to warn Buckingham.
When he arrives, it's too late. Lady de Winter has already stolen the two diamond studs. Buckingham has his private jeweler forge two more and sends D'Artagnan racing back to France to deliver them. Ambushes await as Richelieu's lieutenant Rochefort (Ian Keith) and his men try to prevent D'Artagnan's return but with Constance's aid, she gets the studs to the Queen in time. Constance now becomes Richelieu's enemy and he has her kidnapped. D'Artagnan offers his life for hers but Richelieu wants D'Artagnan to join his side. Fed up with Buckingham, Richelieu sends Lady de Winter to assassinate the Duke. Athos learns of the plan and through D'Artagnan, sends word to Buckingham.
When de Winter arrives in England, she is put under arrest. Buckingham makes Constance her jailer. De Winter psychologically wears down Constance and persuades her to bring her a knife so she may kill herself. Instead, de Winter kills Buckingham and Constance. She retreats to her new manor, paid for by Richelieu but D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers find and arrest her. Lady de Winter's life ends on the chopping block of a masked executioner.
Adapted by writer Robert Ardrey, he jams quite a bit of Dumas's novel into the film. It took me a second viewing to grasp all the characters and their roles in the story. THE THREE MUSKETEERS benefits greatly from Gene Kelly's athletic performance as D'Artagnan. Kelly's dance training serves him well in his dueling scenes, which are as well choreographed as any of Kelly's dance numbers. Kudos should go to Kelly's stunt man as well who performs some magnificent swashbuckling stunts throughout the film. A swashbuckler film has to have good action scenes and director Sidney stages an excellent horse chase involving the Musketeers and Richelieu's guards that climaxes with a sword fight on the beach.
This version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS has a certain fairly tale quality from it, not surprising since the studio MGM made it. The colors are quite vivid with every character having his or her own distinct color. The Musketeers need to have a color to distinguish each other and so Athos is purple, Porthos red, and Aramis orange. Lady de Winter is much like the Wicked Witch from SNOW WHITE or the evil Queen from SLEEPING BEAUTY and her color is emerald green. De Winter even breaks a mirror in anger, shades of SNOW WHITE. Even the cottages and castles have a fairy tale look to their design. Director Sidney even throws in an occasional musical string from Tchaikovsky whenever D'Artagnan and Constance are together.
The 1948 version showcases one of the Musketeers nicely from other versions I've seen. Athos played by Van Heflin has a romantically fatalist view of the world. "To die among friends. Can a man ask more? Can the world offer less? Who wants to live 'till the last bottle is empty? It's all-for one, d'Artagnan, and one for all." We learn that Athos was once married to the viper known as Lady de Winter and their break-up may have led to his heavy drinking. Athos warns his comrade D'Artagnan that she's "poison" and it's advice that D'Artagnan will heed.
THE THREE MUSKETEERS has a fantastic cast. Kelly, as mentioned, is agile yet self-deprecating as D'Artagnan and Van Helfin as Athos stands out amongst the other Musketeers. It's nice to see the lovely Lana Turner play a villainess yet some of her dastardly acts happen off camera perhaps to save her screen image a bit (this would be her first color film as well). Vincent Price as Richelieu gets all the best lines. In most MUSKETEER films, Richelieu is a Cardinal as he was in the novel but MGM was sensitive to any religious controversy in 1948 and made the Richelieu character a prime minister. A young Keenan Wynn is almost unrecognizable as the comic servant Planchet. Wynn would become more famous in 1963's DR. STRANGELOVE. Angela Lansbury, who would become most famous on the TV show MURDER SHE WROTE plays Queen Anne. Frank Morgan plays King Louis XIII and he plays the French ruler almost like he played the great and powerful Oz in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), all bluster but very little backbone. June Allyson as Constance is the one performer who seem a bit miscast and even Allyson admitted later she didn't think she was right for the part.
If the 1948 version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS is a fairy tale version, director Richard Lester's 1973 version is a stripped down, naturalistic, almost anti-Musketeer approach to Dumas's novel. Unlike the 1948 version, Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser make a bold choice to split the story into two films. Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS (i.e. THE QUEENS DIAMONDS) focus on D'Artagnan meeting the Musketeers and the four of them foiling Cardinal Richelieu's plot to expose Queen Anne's affair with the Duke of Buckingham by having Countess de Winter steal two of Queen Anne's diamond studs from Buckingham. THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (i.e. MILADY'S REVENGE), the first one I saw, showcases Countess de Winter and her revenge on D'Artagnan and the Musketeers.
Young D'Artagnan (Michael York) leaves his small village of Gascony with his father's (Joss Acklund) blessing and sword, destination Paris where he hopes to become a Musketeer. Within minutes of his departure, he runs afoul of Rochefort (Christopher Lee), henchman to Cardinal Richelieu (Charleton Heston). Rochefort's men break his father's sword and knock D'Artagnan unconscious, stealing his money. Penniless and swordless, D'Artagnan arrives at the Musketeer Academy in Paris and proceeds to insult and anger each of the Three Musketeers - Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and Porthos (Frank Finlay). Each challenges D'Artagnan to a duel at a nearby convent courtyard.
The duel is interrupted by Richelieu's guards. D'Artagnan helps the Musketeers defeat the crimson guards of Richelieu. In turn, the Musketeers reward D'Artagnan with a few coins to get himself a room and a servant Planchet (Roy Kinnear). D'Artagnan falls in love with his landlord M. Bonacieux's (Spike Milligan) wife Constance de Bonacieux (Raquel Welch), who is a maid to Queen Anne of Austria (Geraldine Chaplin). Constance secretly helps the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward) unite with the Queen briefly during a clandestine rendezvous. But Richelieu's spies are everywhere. Queen Anne gives Buckingham her 12 diamond studs, given to her by her husband King Louis XIII (Jean Pierre Cassell), as a token of her love for the Duke. Richelieu learns of this gift and sends the Countess de Winter (Faye Dunaway) to England to seduce Buckingham and steal two of the diamond studs back.
Richelieu wants to go to war with England. He plants in King Louis's ear the idea to throw a royal party for Queen Anne to show off the King's gift - the diamond studs. Queen Anne realizes Richelieu's plot to expose her affair with Buckingham. Constance convinces D'Artagnan to go to England to warn Buckingham. With the Three Musketeers running interference against Richelieu and Rochefort's men, D'Artagnan and Planchet board a ship headed to England. When they arrive at Buckingham's palace, it's too late. De Winter has stolen the two diamond studs. Buckingham commissions his jeweler to make two more. D'Artagnan makes it back to Paris just in time as fireworks erupt at the party and the king begins to lose his patience. Queen Anne has all 12 diamonds plus two more from a beaten Richelieu. D'Artagnan is made a Musketeer at the end but Lady de Winter hovers nearby with revenge in her heart.
Director Lester had already directed four young, adventurous men before named Paul, George, John, and Ringo i.e. the Beatles in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) and HELP! (1965) so the Three Musketeers and D'Artagnan may have appealed to him as historical anti-establishment heroes. These Musketeers are not exactly gallant and Lester plays them against type. They're a bit more drunk, vain, and disheveled. They're not opposed to steal money from a Richelieu guard or food from a local tavern owner. They not only fight with their swords but anything they can get their hands on. Capes. Towels. Sticks. Lester's fight scenes are unorthodox and comical. He stages them in the mud, water, a royal laundromat, and in a convent courtyard with sheets hanging. Don't expect an athletic Gene Kelly in this MUSKETEERS. Except for D'Artagnan, who's even a bit clumsy, these Musketeers are nonathletic. There's one shot of the four Musketeers sitting on a table in a room, stuffing their faces with food that resembles a Rembrandt or Reubens painting.
Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS benefits from some great Spanish locations, standing in for France and England. Real castles and palaces give the film a nice European authenticity. Director Lester also incorporates some historical touches such as King Louis playing chess on a giant outdoor, manicured chessboard with live animals as chess pieces or Porthos and Aramis playing a Renaissance version of doubles tennis.
Dumas's novel has such great characters it's not surprising that actors line up to play even supporting characters. This THREE MUSKETEERS has an eclectic cast. The volcanic Oliver Reed as Athos, the good looking Richard Chamberlain as ladies man Aramis, and Frank Finlay (not as famous as Reed or Chamberlain but surprisingly interesting) as Porthos are well cast as the Musketeers and easily make one forget the horrible Musketeer casting of Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, and Oliver Platt in 1993's THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Michael York's D'Artagnan is solid. He's naive, a bit awkward in his manners, but proud and determined to become a King's Musketeer. Faye Dunaway is a nice coup as the beautifully treacherous Lady de Winter but she's featured more in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. Any French costume film needs some cleavage and Raquel Welch as Constance de Bonacieux provides sex appeal. Charleton Heston adds to his impressive list of playing historical characters such as Ben Hur, Michaelangelo, President Andrew Jackson, and Henry VIII as the manipulative Cardinal Richelieu. Horror star Christopher Lee gives the one eyed Rochefort some humanity and humility as one of Richelieu's agents. Rounding out the cast are three comic supporting performances that shine from Spike Milligan as M. Bonacieux, Roy Kinnear as Planchet, and Jean Pierre Cassell as the childish man king Louis XIII.
Lester's THREE MUSKETEERS has comic elements that foreshadow another humorous historical comedy MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1974) a year later although not quite as absurd as GRAIL. Director Lester would go on to make another anti-Hollywood version of a famous character when he filmed ROBIN AND MARIAN in 1976 with Sean Connery as an aging Robin Hood, Audrey Hepburn as Maid Marian, and Robert Shaw playing the Sheriff of Nottingham. MUSKETEERS also features the cat fight of the decade between 70's sex symbols Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway as they wrestle for the two diamond studs that will either save or destroy Queen Anne's life so forty seven year old men beware.
But this 1973 version also stays true to the Dumas novel with Richelieu being restored to a Cardinal instead of a Prime Minister. And Constance de Bonacieux is Monsieur Bonacieux's wife and not his god child as she was in the 1948 version. Modern audiences could handle a corrupt man of the cloth or D'Artagnan seducing another man's wife. Producer Ilya Salkind (SUPERMAN) would get into some trouble on the MUSKETEERS films for filming two films at once but only paying the actors as if it was one film. The Screen Actors Guild would add a clause to future contracts for actors making it clear that producers had to divulge how many films were being made up front and pay actors for each films.
Whether one prefers an old fashioned THE THREE MUSKETEERS or a THREE MUSKETEERS a bit more modern, either film will charm and delight swashbuckling fans everywhere.