This is easily one of my top ten favorite films. We re-watched over it this last holiday season. I never get tired of it. Fortunately my family feels the same way.
I feel as if my family, including my father and my siblings, may be about the only people I have known who have this depth of affection for the movie. It might just be that The Three Musketeers has also been subject to some really terrible film and television adaptations and it’s hard to sort through them (or having seen one of the bad ones, a possible viewer decides to steer clear of all of them).
It may also be that the things which really delight me about this version would elude many viewers. It’s a big star vehicle, though at least some of the very familiar faces in it were either less famous at the time they appeared in the film or were famous and are now much less so. Charlton Heston is just so perfect as Cardinal Richelieu. Michael York was just coming off his role in Cabaret the previous year to play a very fun and funny D’Artagnan. Oliver Reed plays a very dark and serious Athos—there’s a sense of menace and depression whenever he gets some dialogue. Richard Chamberlain is a pitch-perfect Aramis, the dashing ladies’ man/priest and Frank Finlay is a very silly and pompous Porthos. (He also has a second bit role as a jeweler later on.) Geraldine Chaplin plays Queen Anne as a bit of a cipher but that’s rather like the source material; Raquel Welch plays Constance Bonacieux, D’Artagnan’s eventual love interest, and the film unsurprisingly takes some visual interest in her bodice. An elderly Spike Milligan plays Monsieur Bonacieux and maybe gets a bit too much screen time to ham it up. And then awesomely, Faye Dunaway plays Lady de Winter and Christopher Lee plays Rochefort.
So the cast is one source of real pleasure, but what sends me over the moon every time I watch it is the set design. There is so much investment in early modern material culture, so much care, and I think some serious research is in evidence. The cinematographer was David Watkin, who was known both for his innovations with lighting and for having a “painterly” feel to his work and that is all over this film—there’s a good 10-20 shots in the film that if you freeze frame them you feel like you’re seeing a forgotten Old Masters painting. I tried to get a class all excited about this a few years ago and I couldn’t really seem to stir them up much.
Another thing that I just love so dearly about the film is the fight choreography. That’s not surprising in that the coordinator for the sword fighting was William Hobbs, one of the most accomplished people to do that job in films (though I like Bob Anderson’s very famous work a bit more). But it was one of Hobbs’ early jobs, so the very assured, distinctive, aesthetically deliberate style of the fighting is pretty notable in that respect. None of the fighting is neat, formal, precise fencing. This is not Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn squaring off in Robin Hood. The titular musketeers and their adversaries are brawlers and dirty fighters. There’s a lot of physical comedy in the fighting, most of it good—here the director Richard Lester’s sensibility is pretty visible. The scenes are shot loosely, with a lot of broad little set pieces, some of them not especially well-connected to the main action. Each fight has an improvised feeling to it that I really like, but also they’re thematically memorable and distinct from one another, with their own rhythm.
The comedy occasionally intrudes, especially with D’Artagnan’s servant Planchet, played by Roy Kinnear, who also gets a bit too much screen time. But it’s part of the overall lusty, physical feeling of the whole film. There’s a few bits that also don’t hold up very well now—one bit where Constance gets groped by a passer-by particularly.
I didn’t realize until a rewatch about a decade ago that the script was written by George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman books, but once you know, you can really see his thumbprints over a lot of the dialogue. There’s some memorable lines in the films that we often recite around here—I think particularly Heston’s Richelieu gets some great lines that he delivers perfectly.
ROCHEFORT: I failed. One does occasionally.
RICHELIEU: If I blundered as you do, my head would fall.
ROCHEFORT: I would say from a greater height than mine, Eminence.
RICHELIEU: You would?
ROCHEFORT: The height of vaulting ambition.
RICHELIEU: You have none?
RICHELIEU: Do you fear me, Rochefort?
ROCHEFORT: Yes, I fear you, Eminence…I also hate you.
RICHELIEU: I love you, my son. Even when you fail.
The production history is also interesting in that The Four Musketeers, which premiered the following summer, was filmed at the same time. As Wikipedia notes, the whole thing was originally going to be one film with a running time of more than three hours. But because it was released as two movies while the cast only got paid for one, it led to SAG inserting a new clause into contracts that a studio couldn’t split a film without having made that part of the contracts in the first place.
It’s a good thing that the movies were split in aesthetic terms, though. Not only would the long run time have killed some of the fun, the tonal shifts in the second half would have made it a really different feeling movie. (That’s the case with the book too, I think.) The story has a depressing conclusion, though I do also like The Four Musketeers (it has a couple of fights that are just as smartly choreographed as the first film’s, some scene-chewing performances, and the same great set design and material culture).