|Four Musketeers, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 12 August 1998|
When director Richard Lester and screenwriter George Macdonald Fraser (author of the Flashman books) turned Alexandre Dumas' classic The Three Musketeers into a movie for the Salkinds (a father and son producing team), the original intent was to make a lengthy epic. They followed the original novel faithfully, adding more overt comedy elements and lots of period gadgetry. Like Dumas' novel, the film was to evolve naturally from a lighthearted swashbuckler to a much more serious adventure. A spirited, talented cast was hired, and location work in Spain took advantage of the countryside, castles and old cities. So far so good.
But the Salkinds turned the one movie into two -- 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Four Musketeers' -- which eventually forced them reluctantly to pay the cast for having made two movies. But the division was still probably a good idea; Dumas' story is rich in incident and Fraser's script full of vivid characters. The trouble is, though, that this meant the first film had most of the comedy and the second most of the serious, even grim, stuff, with likable characters dying and the Three Musketeers and their pal D'Artagnan taking part in war. Why, they even have to fire muskets.
So over the years, 'The Four Musketeers' has had a kind of shadow thrown over it that it doesn't really deserve. It's an excellent swashbuckler too, even with the trip through a vale of sorrows that the story requires. It seems more loosely structured, both in terms of the script and the editing -- scenes that take place days apart were obviously shot at the same time to the extent that minor characters begin an action in the earlier scene and complete it in the later. This is probably a result of the decision to make two films out of footage intended to be one; left to his own devices, Lester probably would have cut a lot of stuff that's now in the movie.
Nonetheless, this is one of the greatest swashbuckling movies, a notch below 'The Three Musketeers' (and it requires you to have seen the first), but with excellent performances, some great fights and great locations. Some of the actors, including Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston and Faye Dunaway, are particularly good; Lee is a standout as the panther-like Rochefort, a villain but an honorable man.
The story continues to involve the romance between Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) of France and the British Duke of Buckingham (Simon York). The schemes of the corrupt Cardinal Richelieu (Heston) involve Milady De Winter (Dunaway) and her lover Rochefort, and center for a while on the adorable Constance (Raquel Welch), beloved of D'Artagnan (Michael York). We learn that Milady and the dark, brooding Athos (Oliver Reed, splendid) once were married, and that he's never entirely freed himself of his feelings for her. The other two musketeers, Porthos (Frank Finlay) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), have less to do this time around, but they're on hand when needed.
Director Lester has great fun with various set pieces, including heaps of vegetables in a Parisian market (Rochefort slips on grapes, D'Artagnan is buried under potatoes, etc.), the arrogance of the Musketeers when they choose to dine on a parapet directly in front of the enemy's guns, a wonderful, vigorous swordfight at a blazing convent, and the glacially beautiful Milady DeWinter and her schemes. Some things don't work, such as a swordfight illuminated by fireworks, and York is just a bit too bouncy and blithe. But overall, this is great stuff, the kind of thing that movies can do so well, and yet so rarely attempt any longer.
This and its predecessor deserve rediscovery, and definitely deserve far better DVD treatment than that afforded them by Fox Lorber Home Video. The titles of 'The Four Musketeers' are entirely in French (so this is really 'On L'Appelait Milady'), and the soundtrack, though in English, sounds tinny and incomplete, as if all the Foley work hadn't been done. It's also only sort of letterboxed, so that King Louis XIII is knocked back a couple of generations: in the credits, he ends up Louis XI.
This cast and filmmaking team had a wonderful time making this movie -- uh, these movies -- and reunited some years later for 'Return of the Musketeers.' However, during that production, Roy Kinnear, returning as D'Artagnan's servant Planchet, was accidentally killed. The deal of this deeply-liked man cast a pall over the production; the movie is dispirited and unhappy, and Lester stopped making movies altogether.
But 'The Four Musketeers' was made in his richest, most creative period, and even in Fox Lorber's unsatisfactory form, it's well worth seeking out. However, let us pray to the DVD gods that sooner rather than later, these two great, funny, moving and joyful swashbucklers will get the treatment they deserve. (And then let's talk about Lester's excellent thriller, 'Juggernaut'....)