Leonard here. My colleague Mark Searby is going to be sharing columns with us highlighting British cinema past and present. Please enjoy A Bit of Crumpet.
Possibly the most famous big screen adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s historical action/adventure novel has been the 1993 film starring Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, Chris O’Donnell and Tim Curry. It was soundtracked by that nails-down-a-chalkboard bad “All For Love” by Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart & Sting. Thankfully, many of the other big screen adaptations of The Three Musketeers haven’t had rubbish tie-in songs. But none of them have really stood out as much as the Brat Pack goes historical. Which seems quite tragic for director Richard Lester’s 1973 version because it’s a movie that deserves as much, if not more, attention than all the others due to its entertaining swashbuckling, its cheeky romance and its British comedy/sarcasm.
Lester’s version was originally given the greenlight for production when it was rumoured that The Beatles would be playing the lead roles. Lester had directed The Fab Four in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, so it seemed a natural fit that they would all work together again. But producers felt that the legendary band would overshadow the Dumas’s characters and the film itself. As such The Beatles were out and some of Britain’s top acting talent – Oliver Reed, Michael York, Frank Finlay, Christopher Lee, Geraldine Chaplin – and a few from America – Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston – were in. Sticking closely to Dumas’s novel, Lester makes the film an adventure that has more than enough entertainment to barrel along at a quick pace without losing any energy when it comes to the action. Swashbuckling a-plenty when Reed, Finlay and Chamberlain as the Three Musketeers poke, prod and stab away at their enemies while also having time for a laugh & joke. It’s a winning combination from director Lester and writer George MacDonald Fraser (who would go on to script Octopussy and Red Sonja). Blending terrific sword fighting action with good old fashioned British humour/sarcasm is something that many have failed to do in filmmaking. However, here it is seamless. A stab here, a joke there. It’s also a triumph of the film that it manages to keep that blend fresh and entertaining right to the very end. Even the final scene has Welch’s Constance Bonacieux smashed in the face by a medieval version of the Pinata game.
And speaking of Welch, her performance as Bonacieux amounts to little more than looking beautiful (which Welch naturally is) and doe-eyed opposite Michael York’s d’Artagnan (who appears to have his shirt off most of the film). Yet there is something rather lovely and genuinely romantic about their will-they-won’t-they plot. Both York and Welch ham it up spectacularly well at times, and then other moments are intimate & tender. This balancing act of romantic styling works wonders not just for the film but also for the actors involved. It is a film where it is hard to pick out just one great performance from the ensemble.
All the performances combine wonderfully well to create a non-stop action/adventure, with dashes of romance, and big dollops of British humour in this excellent adaptation that should be seen as the high watermark for any future film versions of The Three Musketeers.
The Four Musketeers was released eighteen months afterwards. Which was news to the main cast as they though they had only signed on for one film. What transpired was the producers realised that Lester had shot far too much footage for their intended “roadshow” edition of The Three Musketeers and instead decided to split the footage into two films. But didn’t tell the actors who thought they were only making one film and had only been paid for one film. Lawsuits were filed and eventually the actors won their case (This court ruling still exists today in movies. It’s called the Salkind Clause, and it stipulates that producers must specify how many sequels each actor will be contracted for and how much each film will pay them.). But the monies received was not anywhere near as much compared to their pay packets from the first movie.
With that knowledge safe in the mind while watching The Four Musketeers, it is clear that this sequel is made up of offcuts from the original movie. It truly is a new movie made up of deleted scenes. And while it may not play as thoroughly as a narrative feature film, it does have some entertaining moments. The opening of the film is eerily pinching from Monty Python with its irreverent voice-over and its sarcastic dialogue. It desperately wants to a swashbuckling version of Life of Brian, and if the rest of the film had followed that opening then it possibly would have been, and it would have been very, very funny. But the film gets bogged down in all manner of plot ideas that spin wildly out into different characters and stories. It’s fairly difficult to keep up with what is actually happening. IMDB’s synopsis reads: The Four Musketeers defend the queen and her dressmaker from Cardinal Richelieu and Milady de Winter. But there is so much more than that including d’Artagnan’s bedding of other women, the alcoholic stupor of Athos, the torture of a bad guy who reveals all Richelieu’s evil plans before dropping dead from poisoned wine, an affair between a Duke and the Queen, an assignation attempt gone wrong, a vague who-signed-it? death warrant, a major character imprisoned in the Tower of London, a fight in a convent, a dastardly revenge plot and so many other randomly strung together narrative points. If Mad Libs had made a swashbuckling action/adventure movie then this would be it.
Because of the film’s wildly all over the place plotting, it is difficult to pick out any of the better bits of the film or of the acting. The actors themselves are just as good as the first film (as they should be. They all thought it was still one movie), but because their stories are all cut up into little segments it makes it very difficult to be truly enthralled by any of them. However, one of the few extended entertaining sequences see’s d’Artagnan duel with Rochefort on ice. Yep, a swashbuckling fight on ice. It is entertaining in the sense of watching both Michael York and Christopher Lee try to stand up throughout the fight. They slip and slide all over the place and several times land heavily on their knees. It’s a painful fight to endure and that’s because it looks like the actors are struggling to act and instead are trying not to fall and break a bone or two. There is more action in this sequel. But it is chopped up so much that the long action scenes as witnessed, and enjoyed, in the first film are not here. Instead replaced with MTV style fast cut editing between characters, action and dialogue.
Also, when editing together this second film somebody must have decided to have Michael York in a near constant state of undress. Maybe it was from the reaction to his shirt off scenes in the first film that in the sequel they would be dialled up to make him topless even more and on the odd occasion bottomless too. Also, the idea to make d’Artagnan a womanizer after all he went through to woo Constance in the first film is a plot device too far. He went from George Clooney silky smooth to Russell Brand sex addict in the space of a few months.
Unfortunately, this haphazardly taped together sequel (Originally titled – The Four Musketeers: The Revenge of Milady) isn’t anywhere near as much fun as it’s predecessor.
The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers are now available on 4KUHD, Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital from StudioCanal UK.