The Three and Four Musketeers Double the Swashbuckling Charm
by Kristin Battestella
Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (Superman) and director Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night) infamously doubled the adventure with 1973's The Three Musketeers and its 1974 sequel The Four Musketeers. Despite the behind the scenes two for the price of one controversy, both films remain charming with supersized Dumas spirit.
Young d'Artagnan (Michael York) is off to join the King's Musketeers. Unfortunately, he immediately finds himself dueling with not one but three musketeers – the brooding Athos (Oliver Reed), boisterous Porthos (Frank Finlay), and religious but romantic Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). d'Artagnan seizes the chance to assist the musketeers in fighting the villainous Rochefort (Christopher Lee), henchman to the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), who also conspires against the King of France with Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) amid stolen diamonds, secret letters, kidnappings, and revenge.
Opening crescendos, swords slices, and clanging metal set the tone for The Three Musketeers, which is also subtitled as The Queen's Diamonds. Our young hero isn't quite ready for this outfit with training tumbles, bungling in the mud, and swinging and missing his quarry amid rowdy musketeers, snotty enemies, and sassy attitudes. The Three Musketeers is truly cavalier with bawdy drinking, chuckling errors, and winking asides – swords are cut in half, library shelves domino over, scaffolding below makes a lover look more heroic when he jumps out the window, and courtiers try to organize the king's dogs into playing life size chess in the park. The well edited comedic timing isn't slapstick, leaving room for French quips and tag team dead pans. Against odds melees versus the Cardinal's Guards provide a variety of action gags and fighting tricks accented by up close winks, overhead shots, and wide angles. The intense pace is done in camera – The Three Musketeers doesn't have to cut corners with editing or special effects because everyone's kick ass shows. Granted, the musketeers aren't fully developed as characters beyond their lighthearted distinctions and some humorous padding is unnecessary. However, the ensemble is up to any task with the right delivery and period gravitas be it intrigue or wit, providing charming moments that keep this familiar tale fresh without obvious cues. Unlike contemporary romps, The Three Musketeers doesn't need to show excessive raunchy thanks to subtle romantic winks and rowdy laundry house brawls. The coordinated thieving, horseback races, hidden passages, and betrayals culminate at the grandiose ball before The Four Musketeers brings viewers right back where we left off with narrations and credits showing highlights from The Three Musketeers. Now that d'Artagnan is a musketeer, the swashbuckling rescues continue as our eponymous soldiers must thwart the subtitled Milady's Revenge before battlefield canons and firing squad target practice where no one can hit a thing. Although serious talk on coups and religious strife becomes somewhat lost thanks to kidnappings, intercepted messages, primitive submarine inventions, and daring escapes; tender flashbacks deepen character histories. Swords, poisons, and feathers fly as hiding in the water trough ruses and stilts versus attack dogs don't work. In The Four Musketeers, the famous trio has more to do, yet their convenient rescues feel deus ex machina easy amid the disjointed plots – dilemmas are quickly resolved without the wither tos and why fors because the focus here is enjoying the good guys versus the bad guys and their daring fights upon frosty bridges and frozen lakes. The terribly risky but unique action looks like a lot of fun, keeping the swash in swashbuckler alongside deceptions, confrontations, and darker aspects of the novel that many adaptations gloss over in favor of Hollywood trite. A lot's happening with protestant versus catholic, England versus France, Buckingham plots, and front line encampments – the sieges, assassinations, and strangulations at times conflict with the humorous nunnery disasters. Villains montage over Tower of London captures and La Rochelle victories as carriage chases and superb one on one sword fights keep the kicking butt pace before a fiery finale with killers in disguise, executions, revenge, and consequences.
What's not to love about Michael York's (Romeo and Juliet) young, handsome, and sweaty d'Artagnan? The foolish farm boy cum wannabe musketeer is bonked on the head when picking his first fight but has all the roguish charm required – tipping his hat to a lady before promising to kill her other male friend and scaling the vines to her balcony even if he doesn't exactly make it to the window. d'Artagnan is earnest in love and war but is only granted a musketeer consideration because of his renowned father while he proves his worth. He's spirited but has a lot to learn as one woman after another tries to get into bed with him or use him for her own motives. d'Artagnan can't outwit the Cardinal but knows not to accept his duplicitous offer even as he blindly and blissfully does what the Queen tells him to do. The Three Musketeers is largely about him doing most of the bumbling or heroics himself with only peripheral musketeer assistance. By The Four Musketeers, however, d'Artagnan understands where Athos is coming from as the men bond in the tavern over the women they are supposed to love. Oliver Reed's (Paranoiac) Athos is an angry, ornery, sarcastic, and serious but drunken leader reluctant to join d'Artagnan's follies – the dark horse rarely seen in his musketeer frock. There has perhaps never been a more perfect casting, as Reed is definitely believable as a chip on his shoulder drunk wild man with a sword. The Four Musketeers recalls his ruined romance with Milady, and her murderous deception haunting Athos gives Reed some scene chewing when this not one but two movies ploy ironically doesn't provide much meaty drama for the ensemble. Fortunately, Athos becomes like an elder brother to d'Artagnan, threatening to kill anyone who touches a hair on his head – all for one and one for all and all that.
Richard Chamberlain's (The Thorn Birds) Aramis prays during a duel, but it is just another crafty musketeer ruse. In fact, Aramis barely talks in both films, merely standing around a lot and looking pretty when not in the steam bath. He does suggest one plan of action, but of course it goes completely awry with a kick in his groin to boot. Frank Finlay's (Othello) larger than life Porthos also knocks folks on the head with whatever is handy and picks the pocket of a man who's down for the count. Porthos is a gambler making bets on silly games when not eating and drinking in battle. He's sure to make a fighting spectacle in the marketplace so they can steal more wine, and his silly way of fighting – like dropping pots on the bad guys – always helps at the perfect moment. Both Aramis and Porthos are portrayed as a more circus styled duo where one can't seem to do anything without the other. Neither is fully developed and both seem to be there just because they have to be, bemusing as their moments are. Likewise, Raquel Welch (Fantastic Voyage) as dressmaker Constance Bonacieux has being a klutz as her main character development. She's perky, bouncy, and uses a delicate nightie to her advantage when not catching d'Artagnan's eye. Her husband's weakness and the Queen's confidence in her are merely plot devices before she herself is used in a kidnapping scheme in The Four Musketeers that plays for both rousing humor and shocking, well, shocks.
It's immediately clear to start The Three Musketeers that Charlton Heston's (The Omega Man) Cardinal Richelieu is that selfish kind of Man of God. He has parades to himself and pays the bystanders to be there, stands out in his purple regalia at court, and talks out both sides of his mouth to the King. Richelieu uses the Queen's affairs with Buckingham to pressure the King, gaining information from the top as well as his tormented underlings. He captures people and tortures them only to release them with money so they will become his friend – effortlessly creating a network of spies and manipulation while he remains Teflon and Rochefort does his really dirty work. Richelieu has the most dialogue thanks to his numerous plots yet insists he has no personal enemies – only the enemies of France. Christopher Lee also looks even more nefarious with his eye patch and attitude as Rochefort. He's suave in contesting the Cardinal's plans even if he fears and hates him, and I would have loved to see these two together in more than some blink and you miss it moments in Julius Caesar. Lee has a rough, physical role and must match wits with each musketeer – even if he's always foiled. Likewise charming and deceiving in white or pristine in pearls, Faye Dunaway's (Don Juan DeMarco) Milady de Winter is undressed so all her clandestine weapons can be pulled from inside her frock. The ladies also have some dust ups before the boys come diving in through the window, and Milady has more to do in The Four Musketeers – such as luring d'Artagnan to her chamber for some poisonous daggers about the bed. Down shots over her bosom or close ups upon her lips reflect her temptation, and Milady knows how to use her femininity to serve her fatal nature or make her jailer fall in love with her and kill on command. Again, I'd loved to have seen more of her in league with Rochefort, but Milady remains ruthless right to the end.
Of course, when you end up shooting two movies for the price of one, the colorful production values between those pictures remain seamless with rousing scores invoking the medieval fun amid extensive duels, zany acrobatics, awning leaps, and clothesline spins. Such stunts happen fast and in camera, natural action rather than a superficial, slow motion effect. Horses, country roads, cobblestone squares, and authentic buildings accent the Spanish filming locations as bleak dungeons, barren quarters, and stained green patinas of the poor contrast the marble palaces, grand staircases, and massive chandeliers. Capes and big hats with even bigger plumes set off the regal carriages, red interiors, luxurious bedrooms, and vintage weaponry – daggers nestle inside the corsets even as the cinched bosoms nearly burst from the colorful frocks, fabrics, and sparkling parures. The costumes reflect one's station as the crowded, dirty, plain marketplace bustles against the pompous regalia and music likewise reflects the whimsical of the musketeers or leisurely at court. While some may find the complex fight choreography stagnate thanks to today's flash and dazzle whirlwinds; it's pleasing to completely see the difficult riverside sword action, frigate raids, and night time duels by lantern light. The actors earned their cuts and bruises in these melees with no CGI assistance in the realistic, well filmed battle scenes. Strangely, the DVDs offer options for widescreen or full-frame viewing, and the lack of subtitles can make audiences miss some of the sarcastic asides and quick quips. Thankfully, both videos offer half hour behind the scenes features with some of the late cast recalling the twofer controversies, elaborate fights, and incomparable Oliver Reed.
Despite some ups and downs in adapting the written humor and peril, The Three Musketeers is a straightforward story in full spirit of the novel. The superficial characterizations could have been deeper, but they don't have to be thanks to the roguish charm, courtly adventure, and witty personality continued in The Four Musketeers. Kids can laugh at the swashbuckler visuals while adults can chuckle at the cavalier innuendo. Though intended as one epic film split in two after the fact, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers can be viewed together or separately for a timeless escapade.