As Hollywood foists upon us yet another re-telling of ‘The Three Musketeers’ in the Cinemas, the world of Home Cinema receives the welcome release of the 1973 version on UK Region free Blu-ray. To say that the cast is stellar is an understatement as it reads like the Spotlight directory. It boasts Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Michael York, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Spike Milligan, Geraldine Chaplin, Simon Ward... – holy smoke this is a name dropper’s paradise.
In the 1948 Hollywood version, we had Gene Kelly standing up for right and honour. In the 1973 version, the Musketeers didn’t so much stand as fall over drunk and instead of appearing to be expert swordsmen, they behaved more like a bunch of oafish buffoons. The tag line used to promote the movie at the time of its release was ‘All for one, all for fun’ – so the audience was tipped the wink at an early stage not to expect anything too serious.
Directed by Richard Lester, who made a name for himself with The Beatles ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and the trendy comedy ‘The Knack’ in the 1960’s, the film harks back to the spirit of the Alexandre Dumas classic novel by making humour, not adventure the main feature. This is reflected in George MacDonald Fraser’s script which preserves some of the original dialogue for the movie going public to become acquainted with.
The novel's hero, young master swordsman D'Artagnan (portrayed by Michael York at his most boyish), is clearly the product of an impoverished Gascon household, unable to read or write, but filled with dreams of heroism in the elite Musketeers, and "fighting frequent duels". Quickly embarrassed by the smoothly villainous Rochefort (Christopher Lee), and ridiculed by the mysterious Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), the lad reaches Paris with a broken sword, but his idealism undimmed. With a borrowed sword, he then blunders into a series of challenges from the three title characters, emotionally scarred alcoholic Athos (Oliver Reed), comic buffoon Porthos (Frank Finlay), and dandified ladies' man/priest wannabe Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). When the Cardinal's Guard attempts to arrest the four as Athos and D'Artagnan begin their duel, the Gascon displays such extraordinary skill with a sword that he is happily welcomed into the band of rogues, who help him procure a servant (the wonderfully comic Roy Kinnear) and lodgings at the home of an old reprobate (Spike Milligan) and his beautiful, if rather clumsy young wife (Raquel Welch, in her finest comic role), who the boy immediately lusts after. The four friends then embark on a series of amusing, swashbuckling escapades.
Meanwhile, intrigue runs rampant in the Court. The Queen (Geraldine Chaplin) carries on a clandestine affair with the British Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward), under the oblivious eye of her husband, Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel), while evil Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston, playing against type) plots to publicly embarrass her and reveal her involvement - thus provoking a war with England. The object of betrayal is a multi-jewelled necklace, a gift from Louis, given by the Queen to Buckingham - which has two jewels stolen during a tryst by the Cardinal's agent, Milady de Winter. The task of recovering of the necklace, and replacing the missing jewels, is given to D'Artagnan and his Musketeer allies, who 'sacrifice' themselves to help the Gascon reach England. Do they succeed? Will they avert the potential war? Will D’Artagnan become a fully fledged Musketeer? I’m sure you already know the answer to all three questions, but it’s good fun watching all the sight gags as the movie unspools.
The pace of the film may be a tad slow for the MTV generation - and those expecting real heroes might be disappointed. The movie also takes on a European Cinema style due to Cinematographer David Watkin’s lighting and Dick Lester’s light handed direction. Some will find it unfulfilling, but it’s probably the version that’s closest to the original story. Speaking of which, what we have in ‘The Three Musketeers’ is merely the first half of Dumas’ novel. Unknown to the stars, they were actually shooting two movies at the same time, with ‘The Four Musketeers’ being released a year later. Law suits followed against the producers, the Salkinds, and eventually the cast were compensated for their troubles. Both films did well at the box office, so everyone was happy.
As a result of the producers splitting the film into two parts, the American Screen Actors' Guild contracts now often feature what is called a ‘Salkind Clause’, which requires producers to state up front how many films are being shot, and that the actors involved must be paid for each. The latter clause applies even, or even especially, when producers make that decision during or after production.
In the acting stakes, Michael York excels in the role of D'Artagnan using sword skills picked up while making ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The late great Oliver Reed is a suitably drunken, overpowering Athos. Also noteworthy is the film's villain. Charlton Heston's restrained performance brings the puppet-master Cardinal Richelieu to life (and far better than Tim Curry managed in the 1993 Disney version). Raquel Welch brings both of her talents to the role of Constance and Spike Milligan is always worth watching as her husband. Perhaps the most important of all is Faye Dunaway, as the Countess DeWinter who brings to life all the character's cold allure that appeared as good on the screen as it did on the page.
On a sadder note, during the filming of a sequel ‘The Return of The Musketeers’, comedian Roy Kinnear (who played servant Planchet) fell from his horse and sustained injuries that resulted in his death. He was a very funny man who could get a laugh with nothing more than a sideways glance.
All in all, this 1973 version of ‘The Three Musketeers’ beats the Disney Brat Pack version into a cocked hat. How it fares against the 2011 version currently doing the rounds has yet to be seen, but if you feel like swashing your buckle of an evening, you could do a lot worse than pop this disc in your Blu-ray player.
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