All for one, and one for all.

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Three Musketeers (1935). Directed by Rowland V. Lee. Written by Rowland V. Lee and Dudley Nichols, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Walter Abel, Ian Keith, others. 97 minutes **

The Three Musketeers aka The Singing Musketeer (1939). Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by M.M. Musselman, William A. Drake, and Sam Hellman, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. 73 minutes. *

The Three Musketeers (1948). Directed by George Sidney. Written by Robert Ardey, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Vincent Price, June Allyson, Lana Turner.  125 minutes. ***

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).  Two-part film directed by Richard Lester. Written by George MacDonald Fraser, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Faye Dunaway.  105 minutes, 108 minutes. Both ****

The Three Musketeers (1998). Directed by Stephen Herek. Written by David Loughery, from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Starring Charlie Sheen, Rebecca DeMornay, Tim Curry, Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt. 105 minutes. **

The Three Musketeers (2011). Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Written by Alex Davies and Andrew Litvak. Starring Orlando Bloom, Milla Jovovich, Others. 105 minutes. Not reviewed here, but Holy Mother Of God.

Other Versions Not Covered By Us: Far, far too many to mention.

Now, here’s one of the most filmed stories of all time. There are literally dozens of versions, from the dawn of film (a 1903 version that no longer exists and that almost nothing at all is known about), to a mid-thirties version starring a pre-stardom John Wayne that somehow contrives to move all the action to the French Foreign Legion, to a full-length Disney cartoon starring Mickey and Donald, to another animated version starring Barbie, to pornographic versions, to one released just this month by the maniacs at the studio known at the Asylum, where the Three Musketeers are modern-day soldiers of fortune on a violent mission for one “President King” (cute). There are French-language versions, Mexican versions, versions which treat the story with reverence and versions that take a huge steaming dump on it. If you add to the list the various versions of The Man In The Iron Mask, which represents one-third of the final novel in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers trilogy (a very long book), you head for triple digits.

And why not? It happens to be one of the greatest adventure  stories ever written.

The long book we now think of as The Three Musketeers is actually two novels, which detail two related historically-based adventures. In the first, a young and naïve Gascon boy named D’Artagnan travels to Paris to fulfill his dream of becoming a Musketeer, but almost immediately makes more enemies than most of us are unlucky to have in entire lifetimes. In short order he finds himself scheduled for three duels to the death with Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. Before the first of those fights can begin, D’Artagnan finds himself aiding the Musketeers in a larger duel against the men of Cardinal Richelieu, and so impresses the trio that they declare him a friend and take him under their collective wing. Before long, the lad’s penchant for getting into trouble embroils him in palace intrigue, as he and his companions find themselves racing toward England to retrieve the Queen’s jewels from her British lover, Lord Buckingham, before the scheming Richelieu can humiliate her at a palace ball by using their absence to prove her traitorous infidelity to the king.

In the second half, Richelieu’s spy and assassin Milady de Winter – an unstoppable female terminator, and one of the deadliest and darkest villains in the history of literature – schemes to carry about the assassination of Buckingham and the murder of D’Artagnan’s great love, Constance. Much is made of Milady’s true identity, the wife whose criminal past once broke Athos’s heart. In a twist most movies cannot tolerate, the heroes lose. Milady does succeed in bringing about Buckingham’s death, and does succeed in killing Constance before D’Artagnan and the Musketeers can arrive to save the day. She doesn’t survive their subsequent wrath, but that is of course little consolation to the murdered Constance.

It’s a long story, if between pages a riveting one. (Honestly: if you haven’t read it because of its antiquity, you really owe yourself a look.) If you factor in the various levels of court intrigue, the adultery, the undeniable fact that in the first half at least the Musketeers are fighting to hide that royal’s adultery, a historically-based bad guy who happens to be an officer of the Catholic Church, and Dartagnan’s less-than admirable (excuse me) inconstancy in forgetting Constance to fall into the arms of another woman whenever one turns her pretty head, it’s no wonder that most filmic versions take great liberties in streamlining and simplifying the original narrative, often to a fault.  Many do this by only telling the first half, but others try to cram both halves in, to varying effect.We can therefore afford to be generous on the issue of fidelity. To wit: all we really require in a Musketeers movie is D’Artagnan’s swashbuckling, Athos’s brooding, Milady’s treachery, Richelieu’s depth, swordfights, adventure, and a story that, if it doesn’t meet every beat of the story Dumas told, then at least possesses all the same attributes, in the same measure. Fidelity is, however, a major plus. You don’t take one of the great stories of all time and and replace it with idiot template. Alas, some have.

Because of the sheer number of films being covered in this installment, we will not be discussing all of them at the length readers of this blog have come to expect, but we expect our assaults on some of them to reach the usual level of volubility. For other, strategic reasons we’re gonna split this column into two, making this the first franchise to spread out over more than one installment. Judi will stick her comments in at the end of part two. So stick around.
 
The Three Musketeers (1935)

One oddity of the book-to-film phenomenon is that the nature of D’Artagnan’s first meeting with the Musketeers – i.e. getting into fights with all three of them on the same day, scheduling duels with each, and then impressing them with his heart and skill when he joins them in their battle with the Cardinal’s men – is so very perfect a character introduction that pretty much all filmed versions present it intact, if with different levels of effectiveness. It also takes up so much time to dramatize that many films skimp on further developments. This one is no different, and the fight as presented is well-staged, with D’Artagnan and the Musketeers marching off with a rousing victory song. Their moral ambiguity is also captured in a scene where the Musketeers, throwing their weight around, essentially terrorize an innkeeper into giving D’Artagnan a room, rent-free.

Further developments show some serious compression. The stout fellows do race off to Calais to retrieve the jewels from Buckingham, but there is never any need for D’Artagnan to drag himself all the way to England; instead, he meets Milady while she’s on the way back. And, though she does uttera  threat against Constance, she is stopped before she gets even close, and conveniently throws herself off a bridge just in time for the movie to wrap up. That was nice of her.

Also interesting is that, in this version, Cardinal Richelieu is not the Macchiavellian puppet-master, but a somewhat doddering innocent, barely responsible for the vile machinations of his assassin, Rochefort. Indeed, he kindly nods at the end, when D’Artagnan and company expose Rochefort in front of the king. This development may have been an exercise in not offending the Catholic Church, and it may have simply been the measure of a film that had reached its allotted length and needed to end with as little ambiguity as possible. None of it works as well as Dumas did, but the swordplay is well-staged, the characterization of the Musketeers is clever enough, and the extreme compression of the last half of the film does pretty much prevent any of the proceedings from entering the realm of tedium. Bottom-line: It’s a fun film, though far from a great one.

The Three Musketeers (1939)

This is by no means the oddest Three Musketeers movie ever made, but is by God one of the most annoying.

A little personal detail here: your friendly essayist owes much of his appreciation of old movies to his father, who made sure that he was introduced to many of the classics and helped him learn how to read the vocabulary of older movies. But this is not the same thing as saying that insoluble conflicts failed to arise. The old man had some idiosyncratic opinions, among them that the Marx Brothers really weren’t all that funny and that the Ritz Brothers beat them in every conceivable way.

Because the Ritz Brothers have not enjoyed the cultural longevity of the Marxes, leaving us with a million chances to adore the genius of Groucho and company and almost none to catch up with the Ritzes, years passed before your friendly essayist had a chance to test this premise for himself.

When he did, the only possible response was: Holy Cow, what was the old man thinking?

The Ritzes, using the precise critical term, suck.

And it is likely they never sucked as much as they do in this vehicle, where they play a pair of undifferentiated oafs who steal Musketeer outfits and are mistaken by the heroic, dashing D’Artagnan for comrades in arms. What needs to be noted here is that they are not Musketeers; they are idiots who got mistaken for Musketeers, who exist here as comic-relief foils to a D’Artagnan who is responsible for all the derring-do. Don Ameche labors hard in the straight-man role, and is pretty damned good, even if he doesn’t have the naivete that a proper D’Artagnan should have; here, he’s a generic dashing hero, laughing in the face of danger while the Ritzes mug at the camera and run around in circles. It is a lot like watching a version of Robin Hood where Errol Flynn plays Robin and the Three Stooges play the Merry Men, except that the one thing even Stooge-haters (see: almost all women), would concede about that trio is that, at the bare minimum, they had distinct personalities. The Ritzes play a single moron in three bodies. Being able to tell them apart is not just impossible, but irrelevant.

D’Artagnan never does seem to realize that he’s thrown his lot in with a trio of idiot imposters, and by the end of the movie it’s rendered irrelevant, as the fake Musketeers are last seen marching with the others. It’s unclear whether they gave in and joined out of inertia, or have simply not gotten around to making their break. Nor does it matter. There is one-fourth of a potentially good Musketeers movie here, but it’s like a cupcake floating in a septic tank.

The Three Musketeers (1948)

The first memorable version in this survey is also the first to make an honest attempt to tell the whole story, not just a piece of it – and though that is impossible in the time allotted, it comes damned close, presenting us with such elements as Milady’s fiendish skill at running mind games on prison guards and her malignant killing of Constance and Buckingham.

It also has the best D’Artagnan of this particular compendium in the person of Gene Kelly, who is woefully miscast (in that he’s totally contemporary, totally American, too old for the part, and too sure of himself), but none of that matters at all. The movie makes a deal with you, going in. Here’s your D’Artagnan. You will note that it’s Gene Kelly. We know it’s Gene Kelly and we know that you’ll never forget, for a single frame, that it’s Gene Kelly. He will make no attempt to disappear inside the role. You should not care about this. Honestly, you won’t. And that’s exactly what happens. His every fight is a dance, so brilliantly choreographed that we were not surprised to learn that Jackie Chan credits him as well as Buster Keaton as such a major influence. The first fight with the Cardinal’s men is staged as a genius, playing with and humiliating his lessers; and it is not hard to empathize with Van Heflin’s Athos, watching with dismay the skill of the young snot he came so close to dueling. It is the best duel in the film, but the ones that come after it are almost as terrific.

In the place of Cardinal Richelieu, we have another attempt to appease Roman Catholics, “Counselor” Richelieu (Vincent Price).  Guys, he was a historical figure; get OVER it.

For what it’s worth, though, giving the dude another job title turns out to be a small price for regaining him as villain. He is, robes aside, the villain of the novel, the powerful schemer beside the throne who wants to consolidate power for herself and is willing to murder in order to get it, but who once or twice betrays a streak of decency, despite himself. For instance, there’s the matter of the written permission he provides Milady, giving her a blanket license for any deeds she commits on behalf of the crown. One of the neatest twists in the novel is how this vaguely-worded permission slip for murder winds up in D’Artagnan’s possession and exonerates the Musketeers for Milady’s execution. In the novel, Richelieu is not precisely defeated when this is handed back to him; it is, after all, just a slip of paper, and he can disregard it if he chooses. But the second he sees it handed back to him he senses a certain appropriate irony in being stung by his own deeds, and a certain greatness powering the destiny of a young man who would simply hand the kill order back to him. He simply takes wry amusement in being hoist by his own petard and lets D’Artagnan go. That’s not just a great villain; that’s a villain you can respect as a man. This version takes away some of the element of choice in Richelieu’s decision, as the kill order is returned to him while the king is present and objecting will mean exposing his own perfidy. But Vincent Price knows what the moment is all about. He takes his defeat with a wry smile, and even seems to grin at the irony of his comeuppance, his eyes telling D’Artagnan: well-played.   It’s an extraordinarily subtle moment, that most film versions don’t even try to sell.

Lana Turner, who specialized in “bad girls,” is not quite a great Milady; she was great in other films, but here doesn’t quite convey the layers of cold sociopathy that the part requires. Still, it is chilling to see her manipulate the hapless Constance, a seduction of trust that will, we know, culminate in the murder of a girl naïve to the point of idiocy. (Constance, here played by June Allyson, really does only make sense in a faithful version if she’s an idiot).
 
As for Van Heflin, who plays Athos, we need to say this. The story of The Three Musketeers depends on outrageous coincidence to an extent that would almost never be allowed in a respected tale today, and one of its many contrivances is Athos pouring out his heart about his betrayal by the woman he loved, years after the event but  just before D’Artagnan needs to realize who Milady is. That’s the best-timed alcoholic reminiscence there ever was, but in prose a great writer can sell it and on-screen a great actor can sell it. Van Heflin was not, I think, a great actor, but he could be a good one, and he sells, really sells, the tragedy and pathos of the moment. (Pathos being, of course, the musketeer who was always outside of camera range.) A very, very young Angela Lansbury, who grew up to play secret serial killer Jessica Fletcher, is also in it, performing her function, which is pretty much just standing there looking pretty.

All in all, this is not a great version either, but it  is a very good one, driven by Gene Kelly’s magic. It deserves credit for making a good-faith attempt to tell the whole story in the allotted space, and might today be remembered as the definitive version were it not for the one made by the man who first envisioned his as a vehicle for the Beatles.

But that’s a story for next time.

TO BE CONTINUED

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Comments
  1. Steven H Silver says:

    I’ve actually found at least one person who enjoyed the Don Ameche/Ritz Brothers film, and it is someone whose opinion of movies I usually can understand and even agree with. Not in this case. I’m not a huge fan of the Walter Abel film. Although the sword-fighting sequences are well done, the timing for much of the movie seems a bit off to me, although that may be because it was filmed prior to the introduction of incidental music when breaks in dialogue can seem preternaturally silent. The Gene Kelly version is, as you say, the best of these three, but it is Gene Kelly on the screen, not D’Artagnan (not that Don Ameche disappeared into the role, such as it were, any better than Gene Kelly did).

  2. […] made within ten years, the last of which was the only great one; and, only slightly less dramatic, three versions of THE THREE MUSKETEERS made within thirteen years, of which only the last one can be legitimately argued to have gotten the story anywhere close to […]

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