Monday, April 9, 2012

Forgotten Gems: The Three Musketeers

I watched The Three Musketeers with the boys a couple weeks back.

No, not that stupid, frivolous bit of gear with Orlando Bloom as Buckingham and Mila Jovovich as Milady de Winter. Nor the squeaky-clean Disney-backed Brat Pack version that so many people seem to idolise, with Tim Curry chewing the scenery in red robes as Richelieu, and Oliver Platt/Charlie Sheen/Kiefer Sutherland hogging the limelight as the infamous swordslinging trio. Nor even the energetic but silly Gene Kelly version, with dance numbers between the duels.

No, the version we watched came out in 1973. The screenplay was written by George Macdonald Fraser, who famously wrote the Flashman books, amongst many other titles. And the cast list? You can't get more than two or three names in without stopping to say "Holy fuck, Batman, how did they shove so much awesome into a single movie?"

This is the movie which brought us a wide-eyed Michael York as an often-shirtless D'artagnan full of naive optimism and energy. A still-young, only-slightly-beefy Oliver Reed brings a real sense of menace and danger to the role of Athos. Christopher Lee, only twenty years after serving his country as a true killer -- a Commando -- in world war II is tragically underused as the one-eyed villain Rochefort. Richard Chamberlain remains the prettiest Aramis ever to reach the screen. And if you need a commanding presence for Richelieu, it's hard to figure somebody with more gravitas than Charlton Heston.

Eye candy? Well, I have to admit I wasn't much impressed by Faye Dunaway's version of Milady de Winter. But they needed someone for D'artagnan's paramour, the Queen's dressmaker Constance Bonacieux. Possibly, casting Raquel Welch at the height of her pneumatic pulchritude was overkill... but the producers knew that, and they pitched her as comedy relief, making her accident-prone and clumsy, resulting in occasional slapstick gold, as well as enough cleavage to disguise any number of plot holes or historical liberties.

Of course, if you're talking about comedy relief it's very hard to go past Spike Milligan, isn't it? He turns up as the aged landlord Bonacieux, paranoid and cuckolded husband to the ridiculously beautiful Constance. Milligan makes a meal of the role, endowing Bonacieux with his characteristically energetic and twitchy vein of madness. It's lovely to see  him on-screen, and particularly gorgeous to see Charlton Heston, utterly nonplussed as Richelieu, attempting to make sense of Milligan's slyly madcap goonishness.

The movie is bursting with vigor and energy. The fight sequences are frequent, and wonderfully choreographed. There's no sense of artificiality here, no staged elegance. Fighters grab scenery, throw bottles, and fence with a feeling of jittery energy which is more convincing than any amount of smoothly shot skill, though there's plenty of athleticism on display. More importantly, the fights have that quality of story-telling which makes them satisfying in their own right, adding to the plot as well as advancing it, building character through action. The scene in which the penniless musketeers stage a brawl in a tavern to cover their food-filching is worthy of Jackie Chan's finest moments - if not in sheer physical prowess, then at least for the effortless combination of comedy and action.

Another remarkable aspect of the film is its attention to historic elements. Not so much the broad strokes of history, no, but fine details: the busy laundry in the palace, where the women are hard at work while D'artagnan and the Musketeers create havoc while attempting to protect the Duke of Buckingham from various villains. Take an eye off the action, and you'll see a very serious effort to reconstruct scenes from the era, done so very carefully and yet with so little fanfare that they give the film a far deeper and richer texture than one has any right to expect. The costuming alone far outshines most modern efforts for verisimilitude and interest.

If the film fails at all, it is because too much respect was offered to Fraser's screenwriting. Those who know the Flashman books will be aware that Fraser loves to offer historical asides, and pursue all kinds of interesting side issues while his eponymous hero flounders caddishly about the landscape, from bed to bed, peril to peril. This version of The Musketeers is paced in similarly episodic fashion, without a real sense of the three-act structure, without the inevitable rising tension that we have come to expect as the immutable staple of action cinema. In short: it's not so much a true action film as a cinematic, historical romp. It's shot through with comedy which completely annihilates any suspense or tension that may have been expected. There's no question at any point as to whether the Musketeers are going to thwart the machinations of Richelieu and Milady de Winter. How could they possibly fail? They are, after all, the heroes of the piece, and as long as they are "all for one and one for all", no villain can be too vile, no danger too desperate, no woman too virtuous to defeat the Three Musketeers and the doughty D'artagnan.

The verdict? It's not a textbook film. The structure and the pacing are ineffective in strict cinematic terms. But who the hell comes to The Three Musketeers for pure cinema? The boys and I loved it. We cheered where we should, laughed frequently, and took great delight in appreciating performers like Christopher Lee and Oliver Reed at their finest.

Do yourself a favour. Grab a copy of this film. Roast a chicken or two, grab some fresh, crusty bread, and break the neck off a couple bottles of good, hearty red wine. Then settle down and enjoy a raucous, knockabout journey through a heroic history that never was... but really should have been.


  1. [Long time lurker...etc]

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane! That really was a corker of a "Boys Own Adventure" movie - with just enough cheekie bits for grown up boys! I am not, nor ever have been, a boy - but I do love a bit of swash & buckle. Also approve of the menu.

    1. Glad to hear you approve! And you're right "Boy's Own Adventure" does come close to describing the film. But it's enormous fun, and my own boys were delighted. Can't ask for much more than that!

  2. I liked Orlando Bloom as Buckingham.

    Thank you, once again, for reinforcing my conviction that I am alone in this existence.

    1. Well... SOMEBODY has to shoulder the burden of declining social standards, no? Best of luck with that, PB!

  3. I love that version, but had no idea it had been written by George McDonald Fraser. No wonder it was so naughty. Great stuff.

    1. A hoot. Huge fun. I'll watch it again sometime - and from me, that's high praise.

  4. Damn another hole in my knowledge ;) ordered.

    PS check your mail a subject appropriate disc is approaching.