A sad and all too often told tale in these waning days of Babylon is to hear of someone, usually freelance, working two jobs for a company while only being paid for one. So, spare a thought for the freelance cast and crew of Richard Lester's 1973 The Three Musketeers and 1974 The Four Musketeers. They filmed initially as one sweeping, rip-roaring, and other positive adjective phrased that load down Film Press Kits, a swashbuckling epic based on Alexandre Dumas's ‘The Three Musketeers', the procedures realise they had a problem. They were going to miss their deadline. So, with that, they decided to take what they had shot, cut it into two films, and release it six months apart. This wasn't a Lord of the Rings “film the whole thing back-to-back” affair. Oh no. This was more of a “Don't tell the staff, but we're making two films, not one, and hope they don't ask for double feature pay” affair.
Some, allegedly, only knew the day of the premiere.
Both films should be, technically, viewed as one epic. This is fortunate as they are both now out on Blu-Ray from StudioCanal.
Having learned swordsmanship from his father, young D'Artagnan (Michael York) heads to Paris, intending to become one of the King's Musketeers. Robbed by the Comte de Rochefort (Christopher Lee) and Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), he has a series of misadventures resulting in challenging the Musketeers Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay), and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain) to a duel each. A timely interruption from the Cardinals solidifies the friendship with the young D'Artagnan and the Musketeers as they become swept up in the high court politics of France. Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) attempts to assert more control over the foppish Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel). At the same time, Queen Anne of Austria (Geraldine Chaplin) has her dress-maker Constance (Raquel Welch) seek help from the Musketeers to save her husband. From there, it's a breakneck adventure across France and England and back to the Sige of La Rochelle.
The Lester Musketeer films are easily the closest adaptations of Dumas's novel. They capture the adventure, gravity, and, notably, the book's comedy. Other Musketeer films have had comedic elements; the 1993 Disney version with Kiefer Sutherland is a prime example. But the humour in the book and Lester's adaptations match. A mix of slapstick, deadpan, and comedy of errors, Lester's films feel more akin to an episode of Frasier than previous and indeed post adaptions. The late great Spike Milligan's casting as Constance's older husband is a perfect fit for the tone of these films while porting the Musketeers as rouges and rakes to keep with the style and overall feel of the film.
An all-star cast known chiefly for their roles in epics, horrors, and Shakespearian drama, they lean into the comedy and bring theatrical melodrama to the parts. York's D'Artagnan begins as less the dashing rouge and more the country bumpkin in the big city. Typically an obnoxious trope, York adds thespian zeal to make his D'Artagnan an earnest and relatable fish out of water, which allows him to showcase his development from rustic awkwardness to grizzled veteran. Heston, by turn, known at this stage of his westerns, Biblical epic, and punching monkeys, lends his Richelieu an air of a world-weary civil servant, trying to maintain control to prevent his foppish, idiotic boss from making yet another blunder. That doesn't mean it's played light heart all the time, but when it becomes serious, there isn't a jarring neck break.
Not only is this one of the closest adaptions to the original novel, but it's also the best. While other adaptions are good, this remains the gold standard. Viewers will be hard put not to enjoy this film which, at times, feels like a painting by an Old Master from the 17th Century coming to life on the screen. The blend of framing, set dress, and light capture a texture to the visuals that mixes dusty, gritty realism with social luxury. The viewer can almost smell and taste the stench of the taverns and streets while juxtaposing them with the perfumed opulence of palaces.
But what truly stands out and sets it above others is the swordplay. Previously and even after, swashbuckling films used stage fences, maybe sport fencing, if they were feeling adventurous. Lunge, parry, riposte, repeat. The thing is, it's not a combat that feels dangerous. It feels too clean and gentlemanly. The sword fighting in Lester Musketeer films is much more realistic and dirtier. Lunge, parry, punch, chop, hack, stay down. It's not elegant or honourable. But it feels natural. That is probably why Oliver Reed got a nasty slash on his neck in a scene that makes it into Three Musketeers. That might have been more to do with the Reed being drunk.
With Martin Bourboulon French language two-part adaption Les Trois Mousquetaires coming out this year, StudioCanal release of Lester's The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers is a timely reminder of the fun, adventurous swashbuckling film. Just ignore all morally dubious acts regarding cast and crew payment. It will only lead to feeling sad.
The Three Musketeers
- Interview with Neil Sinyard
- The Saga of the Musketeers Part 1
- The Marking of the Musketeers vintage EPK
- Original US Trailer
- Original UK Trailer
The Four Musketeers
- Interview with Neil Sinyard
- The Saga of the Musketeers Part 2
- Original Trailer
The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) will be released on Blu ray & 4K on 8th May