The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS | The Movie Waffler


50th anniversary restoration of Richard Lester's swashbucklers.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Richard Lester

Starring: Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear

By the 1970s Alexandre Dumas' 1844 novel The Three Musketeers was believed to be the world's most read book after the Bible. In spite of its enduring popularity, Dumas' swashbuckling tale had received relatively few English language screen adaptations. Then came producer Ilya Salkind, who hired director Richard Lester to helm an epic take on the classic tale. Originally intended to be a three hour movie, Salkind had the idea of cutting it into two movies, which greatly riled his cast and crew, who were unhappy at being paid for a single film. This would lead to the establishment of the "Salkind clause," which forbade producers from pulling this stunt on their employees.

The Three Musketeers (1973)
Lester had been attached to the project in an earlier incarnation that would have starred The Beatles, whom he had directed in Help! and A Hard Day's Night. That idea collapsed with the break-up of the Fab Four, but Lester would find himself ultimately directing Michael York (d'Artagnan), Oliver Reed (Athos), Frank Finlay (Porthos) and Richard Chamberlain (Aramis) in the central roles rather than John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Sticking closely to the original story, the film sees the young and naïve d'Artagnan leave his country home and head to Paris, where he hopes to be enlisted in the ranks of the Musketeers. He immediately makes an enemy of Rochefort (Christopher Lee), France's greatest swordsman and agent of the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), who secretly rules France with his manipulative powers of controlling King Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassell, dubbed by British sitcom star Richard Briers). He also finds himself rubbing the musketeers up the wrong way, but when he takes their side in a clash with the king's guards they take the young man under their wing.

The titular trio are really supporting characters in what is very much d'Artagnan's adventure. Falling for Constance Bonacieux (Raquel Welch), d'Artagnan is embroiled in a plot by Richelieu to expose the Queen of France's (Geraldine Chaplin) affair with the leader of England, the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward). This sees him buckle his swash across the channel to England and back, ending in a climactic set-piece at an elaborate royal ball.

Had the planned Beatles version of The Three Musketeers been made, it would have been an outright comedy. While it's nowhere near as knockabout as the Fab Four's version would likely have been, Lester's film is nonetheless as much a spoof of Dumas' tale as an adaptation. As a result it falls between two stools, and never quite satisfies as either a comedy or an action movie. The comedy feels particularly dated now, and probably did even back in 1973 as it's an odd mix of Bob Hope and Carry On. A miscast York looks uncomfortable throughout, struggling to convince as either a bumbling Bob Hope type or a skilled swordsman. Lester displays no knack for constructing action sequences, his camera somehow always either too close or too far from the action to convey it precisely. The sword-fighting choreography is about as convincing as kids playing with sticks in a school yard. There is one set-piece where the comedy and action gel as the musketeers use their skills to steal food from a tavern in a sequence that plays like a big-budget riff of the sort of routines British comic duo Morecambe and Wise specialised in during this era.

Watch The Three Musketeers with the sound off and it likely plays as a far more prestigious production than the bawdy romp its dialogue reduces it to. David Watkin's cinematography may not capture the action well, but his establishing shots are a thing of beauty. Yvonne Blake's costumes are exquisite, and combine with the production design for a visually dazzling finale at the climactic ball.

The Four Musketeers (1974)
The followup benefits greatly from giving York's d'Artagnan a reduced role, allowing more talented supporting actors like Reed, Lee and Dunaway more screen time. Dunaway's Milady becomes a prominent figure here, seducing d'Artagnan while Rochefort abducts Constance. A backstory is then revealed involving Milady's past relationship with musketeer Athos, who believed he had killed her after exposing previous wrongdoings. Milady is then sent to England with orders to disrupt the Duke of Buckingham's assistance to France's Protestant rebels.

Dunaway excels as the duplicitous Milady, and her backstabbing and conniving represent arguably the most interesting moments across the two films. Reed, who was largely a non-presence in the first film, gets to display his acting chops in a monologue reminiscing of his days with Milady. It's a rather blandly written piece but Reed lends it a gravitas, his face betraying his confused feelings regarding the villainess. It's too easy to simply think of Reed as a drunken hellraiser today, but this is a reminder of just what a fine actor he was.

Lee gets to show off his swordfighting skills in a couple of set-pieces that are more skillfully staged than those from the previous film, particularly a climactic duel against d'Artagnan. A sequence on a frozen ice field is sadly fumbled by director Lester, leaving us to wonder how great it might have been in more action-oriented hands.

The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers are on 4K UHD, bluray, DVD and VOD from April 24th.