The Three Musketeers (1973)

Country boy d'Artagnan (Michael York) has left his home in rural Gascony, and is newly arrived in 17th century Paris, intent on joining the elite royal guards, the Musketeers. But the eager d'Artagnan soon finds himself in trouble, clumsily barging into three different Musketeers on his travels and then agreeing to a separate duel with each one the same afternoon. The three men are, of course, the Three Musketeers, Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain).

The duelling is cancelled when the Musketeers' rivals, the guards of Cardinal Richelieu, arrive. After seeing off the Cardinal's men, the Musketeers decide to take young d'Artagnan under their wing. He finds himself some decent clothes, a servant, Planchet (Roy Kinnear), and falls for Constance (Raquel Welch) the beautiful young wife of his eccentric new landlord (Spike Milligan).

But there's also intrigue afoot in the city. The Machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) is plotting to expose an illicit affair between the Queen (Geraldine Chaplin) and the English Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward), with the help of his agents, Rochefort (an eye-patched Christopher Lee) and the beautiful, but deadly, Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway). 

The Queen has given Buckingham a diamond necklace as a token. Knowing this, Richelieu suggests to the King that the Queen should wear the necklace at a ball in her honour. It falls to the Musketeers to outwit the Cardinal's agents, while retrieving the necklace and bringing it back to Paris in time for the ball.

Porthos (Frank Finlay), Athos (Oliver Reed), d'Artagnan (Michael York) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain
Porthos (Frank Finlay), Athos (Oliver Reed), d'Artagnan (Michael York) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain)

The 1844 novel The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, has been regularly adapted for film and television since the earliest days of the cinema. Several English language versions had been made in the Hollywood studio era, including a 1935 RKO film with Walter Abel, a 1939 musical comedy with Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers, and a 1948 MGM film starring Gene Kelly.

The 1973 version was produced by the Salkind family - Michael Salkind, his son Alexander, and his grandson Ilya. The three men had enjoyed moderate success as producers on various European co-productions of the 1960s, including The Battle of Austerlitz (1960), directed by Abel Gance, and Orson Welles's film of The Trial (1962).

At one point it was apparently mooted that this version could feature the Beatles as the Musketeers. This wasn't the only unlikely film project they were linked to, as there was also the possibility of a film of The Lord of the Rings at one time, with the Beatles playing the Hobbits.

It was probably this possibility of the Beatles starring as the Musketeers that saw Richard Lester become involved. Lester had directed the first two Beatles films A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965) and directed John Lennon in How I Won the War (1967). 

By the early 1970s, Lester was trying to make a film of George MacDonald Fraser's historical novel, Flashman. That project fell through, but Lester appreciated Fraser's understanding of the period and his use of humour, and when he was given the opportunity to make The Three Musketeers instead, Lester brought Fraser on board to write the screenplay.

Lester and Fraser's approach to the story is to turn it into a rambunctious romp, a tongue-in-cheek adventure that parodies old-fashioned swashbucklers as much as it celebrates them. D'Artagnan's efforts to act like the adventure heroes of old are repeatedly thwarted. In an early scene, he grabs hold of a rope and swings on it in order to attack a bad guy on horseback, only to miss and be deposited in a pool of muddy water. In a later scene, he attempts to pull a rug out from under the feet of some assailants, in order to trip them over, only to end up with a piece of torn carpet in his hand and the bad guys still standing. This kind of gleeful parody is reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), when Indiana Jones knocks out a German soldier and steals his uniform but finds that, unlike in the movies, it doesn't fit.

Joss Ackland and Michael York
D'Artagnan's father (Joss Ackland) teaches him his sword-fighting skills

Despite the comic elements, the fights in The Three Musketeers have a sense of effort and exertion about them, making them noticeably different from the effortless, balletic swordplay of classic Hollywood. The fight arrangements are by William Hobbs, who would later work on The Duellists (1977), Flash Gordon (1980) and Excalibur (1981), as well as Richard Lester's Robin And Marian (1976).

The fight scenes are often elaborate and inventive, utilising a water wheel, a laundry, and washing lines, among other objects. There's also plenty of climbing up and leaping off of stuff and one especially promising fight between Michael York and Christopher Lee that takes place in the dark. Each character carries a lantern which they turn on and off in the darkness to catch the other unawares, although the lighting in this scene is too light for this to work as well as it should, with no element of surprise for the audience, since both actors are visible even when it's meant to be dark.

Lester also has a keen eye for the absurd, incorporating an elaborate chess game played by the King, using dogs in costume on a giant outdoor chess board in the palace gardens. He also overdubs comic dialogue onto minor characters to comment on the action as it progresses. 

Some of the humour is a little too broad though, and one scene in particular, when Roy Kinnear appears to ride into a tree and falls from his horse, is even less funny now than in the 1970s, since this is not dissimilar to Kinnear's death, after falling from a horse while filming The Return of the Musketeers in 1988.

Faye Dunaway as Milady
Faye Dunaway as Milady de Winter, spy of Cardinal Richelieu

The Three Musketeers was clearly an expensive production, with plenty of evidence of a large budget, generally well spent. It's attractively photographed by David Watkin, handsomely designed by Brian Eatwell and extravagantly costumed by Yvonne Blake.

It also boasts a very impressive and eclectic Anglo-American star cast. Michael York makes for a decent d'Artagnan, believable as a rough-around-the-edges country type making his way in the big city, and Oliver Reed is on good form as the lead Musketeer Athos, who becomes a sort of father figure to d'Artagnan. Frank Finlay makes for an amusing Porthos (he also plays a second character, an Irish jeweller, for no obvious reason), but Richard Chamberlain is a slightly colourless Aramis and it doesn't help that he can't decide if he should have an English or an American accent.

Among the villains, Faye Dunaway is perfect casting as the scheming Milady, although she has more to do in the sequel, and Charlton Heston is intriguingly cast against type as Cardinal Richelieu. There's a sense that Heston is a little too young, a little too vigorous to play Richelieu, but the casting just about works. Christopher Lee was leaving the Hammer horrors behind and expanding his range a little in the 1970s, and as the secondary bad guy, Rochefort, he is as effortlessly villainous as ever.

Lester fills out the cast with British comics and character actors including Spike Milligan, hamming it up as Raquel Welch's unlikely husband, Rodney Bewes and Frank Thornton, as well as Roy Kinnear (as the servant Planchet), who was one of Lester's regulars, appearing in eight of his films in all, including Help (1965), How I Won the War (1967) and Juggernaut (1974).

Raquel Welch with Spike Milligan
Constance (Raquel Welch) and her eccentric husband (Spike Milligan)

Some of the other supporting actors are dubbed into English for that authentic Euro co-production feel, although this oddly includes English speakers Geraldine Chaplin and Jean-Pierre Cassel. In the latter's case, someone probably realised he was the only actor in the film with a French accent and so, ironically, would have sounded out of place. Various people claim that the actor dubbing his voice is Richard Briers and it certainly sounds like him. Otherwise the English actors retain their English accents and the Americans their American accents. The exceptions are Faye Dunaway, who goes for an English accent, and the undecided Richard Chamberlain.

The casting does muddy the international political aspects of the storyline. England and France are presented as rivals and enemies, but this doesn't work as well as it should as nearly everyone in France sounds English anyway, and there isn't a clear distinction between the two nationalities.

The film was produced by the Salkinds through their Panamanian company Film Trust S.A. Although this is a flag of convenience, the film does have a very international not-really-produced-anywhere-in-particular feel about it, despite the Anglo-American cast and the mostly British crew. The film was shot in Spain, utilising various Spanish palaces and historic buildings, and the locations have a dusty Mediterranean look that doesn't really suggest Paris or northern France. In one montage, the Musketeers are shown crossing a range of mountains and a desert on their journey from Paris to London, which suggests that they must have been very lost indeed.

Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu
Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu

George MacDonald Fraser's script is vague on exactly what Richelieu is hoping to achieve by exposing the Queen's affair, and the rivalry between the Musketeers and the Cardinal's guards is also unexplained, being treated as just another excuse for a fight scene. While the French King and Queen are presented satirically, he is so twerpish and she so clueless that you have to wonder if they are really worth fighting for, or if the Musketeers' loyalty is not misplaced.

The conclusion to the story is also a little underwhelming, but there's a good reason for that. The Three Musketeers was originally intended to be a much longer film, but the decision was made during post-production to split it into two parts and therefore get two films for the price of one. The first film, The Three Musketeers, is subtitled The Queen's Diamonds, while the second part, The Four Musketeers, was released the following year and subtitled The Revenge of Milady (sometimes also known as Milady's Revenge). 

The actors all believed they were making only one film, and so lawsuits inevitably followed for payment for the second film. This case led to the adoption of the Salkind Clause by the Screen Actors Guild, named after the film's producers, and requiring contracts to state how many films were being made.

The Three Musketeers seems like an unlikely film to have been a big success in the 1970s, but it did very well at the box office and was generally praised by the critics. It's perhaps unsurprising that the film didn't originate from the American industry, which probably would have thought this subject too old-fashioned to draw a large audience in 1973.

The film won Raquel Welch a Golden Globe award and several of the British crew, David Watkin (cinematography), Yvonne Blake (costumes), Brian Eatwell (art direction) and John Victor Smith (editing) were nominated for BAFTAs, as was the composer Michel Legrand.

Oliver Reed, Michael York, Richard Chamberlain and Frank Finlay
Ready for a sequel: Athos, d'Artagnan, Aramis and Porthos

The film revived Lester's career, the director having been in the wilderness for a while, in particular following his surreal post-apocalyptic comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969). It also briefly revived the swashbuckler genre and was followed by the same producers' The Prince and the Pauper (1977), released in the US as Crossed Swords, the pirate movie Swashbuckler (1976), Lester's Robin and Marian (1976) and an unrelated Musketeers film The Fifth Musketeer (1978). It also helped Lester to get his Flashman film made, although it was based on the second book, Royal Flash, and released under that title in 1975, with a script by the novel's author George MacDonald Fraser.

Despite numerous attempts since, The Three Musketeers is probably the closest there has been to a definitive film version of this story, at least when combined with the sequel The Four Musketeers. The film's larky tone doesn't always quite come off, and the endless sword fighting can get a bit exhausting after a while. But it's generally an agreeable entertainment with a strong cast and excellent production values. It sticks closely to the Dumas story while adding subversive elements of its own, and mostly successfully mixes old-fashioned swashbuckling with offbeat humour and parody.

The Three Musketeers 

Year: 1973
Genre: Historical Adventure
Country: Panama
Director: Richard Lester

Cast  Oliver Reed (Athos), Michael York (d'Artagnan), Raquel Welch (Constance de Bonacieux), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis), Frank Finlay (Porthos / O'Reilly), Christopher Lee (Rochefort), Geraldine Chaplin (Queen Anna), Jean-Pierre Cassel (King Louis XIII), Spike Milligan (M. Bonacieux), Roy Kinnear (Planchet), Faye Dunaway (Milady), Charlton Heston (Cardinal Richelieu), Georges Wilson (Treville), Simon Ward (Duke of Buckingham), Joss Ackland (d'Artagnan's father), Nicole Calfan (Kitty), Michael Gothard (Felton), Sybil Danning (Eugenie), Gitty Djamal (Beatrice), Ángel del Pozo (Jussac), Rodney Bewes (Spy), Ben Aris (1st Musketeer), William Hobbs (Assassin), Gretchen Franklin (d'Artagnan's mother), Francis De Wolff (Sea captain)

Screenplay George MacDonald Fraser, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas  Cinematography David Watkin  Production designer Brian Eatwell  Editor John Victor Smith  Music Michel Legrand  Costume designer Yvonne Blake  Executive producer Ilya Salkind  Presented by Alexander Salkind

Running time  107 mins  Colour Technicolor

Production company Film Trust / Alexander, Michael & Ilya Salkind  Distributor Warner (UK), 20th Century Fox (US)

See also: The Four Musketeers (1974)


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