Alexandre Dumas classic swash-buckling adventure The Three Musketeers has inspired many different versions since it was first published in 1844. For many, the finest adaptation came with directors Richard Lester’s two movies: The Three Musketeers: The Queens Diamonds and The Four Musketeers: The Revenge of Milady.
Originally shot together (supposedly without the knowledge of many of the cast) the two movies were released in 1973 and ‘74. They tell the well known tale of the adventurers as they fight for friendship, love, and duty, against a backdrop of political intrigue and protestant rebellion in 17th century France. Though filmed at the same time with the same cast and crew, tonally these films are strikingly different, with the first feeling more like a romp, while the second brings a darkness and realism to bear. Undoubtedly the best way to view them is back to back, using the end of one as a chance for a short intermission before you start the second. Luckily, this is more than manageable with the running time of both together coming in at around 210 minutes. It is time well spent.
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The casting is near perfect. Firstly, we have the musketeers themselves. The leader is Athos. In the book he is described as handsome, with a noble bearing, though with a melancholy air and the habit of losing himself in drink. Who could be better than Oliver Reed? Next is the good looking and quick witted Aramis. Former teen idol Richard Chamberlain is spot on. Of the original three, the casting that most deviates from what a purist might have imagined is Frank Finlay, who somewhat lacks the imposing physicality of the Porthos of the books. But he brings a flamboyance and lust for life that rings absolutely true, and helps bind the group together. The role of d’Artagnan has been played by a wide variety of actors, from the original action hero Douglas Fairbanks, to the wildly athletic Gene Kelly, and, of course, an anthropomorphised cartoon beagle. However, few actors manage to bring the pride, foolishness, and zest for life of youth in the way Michael York manages.
All of these men were household names, but this film is what once might have been described as a cavalcade of stars. The two female leads – the beautiful but clumsy Constance Bonacieux and the original femme-fatale Milady de Winter – are played by Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway respectively. Though Dunaway was perhaps not at the commercial heights she had been and would reach again, in part due to this film, Welch was one of the hottest properties around, and the billing of the two together was dynamite.
But the big names continue. Charlton Heston plays the master strategist Cardinal Richelieu. Other than his wonderful performance, this role brings with it a storytelling subtlety that is so often lost in cinema. Richelieu has his own goals that don’t align with the musketeers, but there’s no pantomime villainy, no melodrama. This is not a moustache twirling nemesis; he is a minister of France and a cardinal of the catholic church. Though their actions might impact on some of his plans, our heroes simply do not play in his league. He doesn’t take their victories personally. Instead, the role of getting up close and personal is left to the ever popular Christopher Lee as Rochefort. Along with de Winter he is the real nemesis of the Musketeers.
Does the list end there? Of course not! Fans of French cinema will recognise Jean-Pierre Cassel as King Louis XIII of France, while fans of The Good Life might recognise that he was dubbed by Richard Briers. As an aside, this year sees the release of two new Musketeer movies which star Cassel’s son Vincent as Athos. Yet Vincent isn’t the only child with a famous father, as Anne of Austria is played by Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie. Joss Ackland, Simon Ward, the list is truly dazzling.
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There are two more names that need to be singled out. Spike Milligan makes an appearance (only in the first film) as Monsieur Bonacieux, husband of Constance. It’s amazing to imagine how the scenes he shot with Heston worked between takes, but his comedy chops are on full display here. Finally the late, great Roy Kinnear as d’Artagnan’s man-servant Planchet is the perfect everyman. With eye rolling, sighs, and the occasional muttered comment he is the perfect Greek chorus, eminently watchable, and gloriously hilarious.
The script is by George MacDonald Fraser, and it’s perhaps one of his best works. Adapting a classic is always difficult, but Fraser manages to stay true to the feel of Dumas’ work while also bringing his own obvious touch. Using slapstick and even bawdy humour (the films come with a warning that they were made at a time of different attitudes) the script is still incredibly clever and witty. At one point Oliver Reed, well known for his deep, English accent, notices the incognito British Prime Minister, wondering if anyone else thought he sounded foreign. A recurring delight are the background comments, usually made by unnamed and hardly seen characters. One sedan carrier wonders “has she put on weight?” as Winter alights, while in another scene, when a heroic gambit from d’Artagnan falls flat, you can hear the shocked complaint “he’s torn our carpet” from one of his opponents. All of these hidden gems help the movies stand up to repeated viewings.
Another element that does this is the amazingly creative fight scenes. These days a Hollywood fight is made “interesting” by a few lone masters cutting down a huge swathe of faceless opponents, often with the help of CGI. Instead we’re treated to a far more earthy yet imaginative approach. Despite being masters of their craft, these musketeers couldn’t take on one hundred of the Cardinal’s Guards as we see in something like the 90’s Disney adaptation. Their style feels more realistic, a single encounter often being a short and brutal affair, though not necessarily deadly. A stabbed leg is enough to make a person lie on the floor, clutching their wound in agony in the real world, and the same is true here. In the final fight scene between d’Artagnon and Rochefort we see utter exhaustion creep in after only a few minutes of duelling. Yet these scenes are also hugely creative. From sliding on a frozen lake to battling in a laundry, Lester’s set pieces manage to be thrilling and utterly engrossing.
Which is why it’s such a good job that the restoration work is top notch. These movies look and sound like new. Throughout there is a well observed contrast between the haves and have nots, and with this clean up Studiocanal have helped further heighten that difference, whether it’s rich colours bursting from the screen, or the sounds of 17th Century Paris filling the room. A special shout out has to go to Yvonne Blake, whose costume work is, in a phrase, mind blowing.
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Despite these sterling efforts, these releases still manage to let us down. There are some archive special features which are enjoyable enough, but the only thing that’s been created just for these releases is a talking head interview – which has been split into two – with Neil Sinyard. Unquestionably he knows his stuff, but it doesn’t feel like it’s even close to what these films deserve. With HMV asking for £20 a movie, couldn’t more have been done?
Still, these are two of the finest action films ever made. Full of romance, excitement, sword fights, and loss, they are movies that demand to be watched.
The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers are out now on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Studiocanal.