There have been literally dozens of film and television adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ novel Les Trois Mousquetaires; but once you’ve seen director Richard Lester’s one-two punch of The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), all other adaptations are superfluous. Lester’s swashbuckling films are rousing adventures, with near-perfect casting, beautiful sets, ornate costumes, authentic locales, intentionally awkwark and often brutal fight choreography, and surprising dashes of slapstick. However, above all, the reason these adaptations succeed where others fail is because they are faithful to Dumas’ original text.
There’s a reason why Dumas’ stories have endured. His romanticized version of French history, mixed with high adventure, political intrigues, affairs of the heart, and high and low comedy, is just plain fun. So why fix what’s not broken? Still, producers before and after the Lester adaptations have felt the need to change the plot and character relationships in hopes to make the stories more audience friendly, while only succeeding in making the narrative less enjoyable.
It is ironic that Richard Lester should direct the most faithful adaptation of the book, as the property was originally brought to him as a vehicle for The Beatles, who he had previously directed in A Hard Days Night and Help! Wisely, Lester decided that The Beatles‘ personalities would overshadow the characters and instead populated the film with promising newcomers (Michael York, Simon Ward) professional B-list actors (Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay), movie stars in a slump period (Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway), skilled comedians (Spike Milligan, Roy Kinnear), and one A-list celebrity wanting to prove that she could hold her own with more respected company (Raquel Welch).
The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) were conceived as a single 3 1/2 hour roadshow epic, complete with intermission; but it was eventually decided to split the narrative in two and release the pictures one year apart, a common practice today but a gamble during the early 70s. The split actually works rather well, because just like in Dumas’ novel, the first half of the narrative is a lighthearted romp, while there are greater stakes and darker themes in the second half.
The Three Musketeers (1973) concerns itself with the young, naive, and slightly dense D’Artagnan (York) leaving home to join the king’s guards and find his fortune. Along the way, he meets up with a trio of lowlife Musketeers (Reed, Chamberlain, and Finlay), makes enemies of a couple of spies (Lee and Dunaway) of the conniving Cardinal Richelieu (Heston), beds the queen’s dressmaker (Welch), and tries to save the crown from scandal when Richelieu tries to provide proof of the queen’s extramarital affair. That alone is a lot to pack into a single film.
The cast is outstanding, especially Oliver Reed, who’s brooding performance and ferocious fighting give the film gravitas. Reed’s take on Athos, the alcoholic, self-loathing leader of the Musketeers, helps to counterbalance the slapstick and witty throwaway lines Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser (novelist of the Flashman series) inject into the narrative. Still, Reed can also be funny, and a physical bit of business with Athos sitting on the edge of a well is my favorite joke in the picture.
Previous critics have made much of the slapstick comedy that Lester infused into the film, but the physical shtick is never gratuitous or silly. Neither is it out of character with Dumas’ story. The Musketeers of the book are boastful and often ridiculous. Lester and Fraser simply manifest the humor already present in Dumas’ prose in physical form.
I could go on heaping praise on this delightful film, but I still have the sequel/latter half to get to. Trust me. The Three Musketeers (1973) is time well spent.
USA/C-106m./Dir: Richard Lester/Wr: George MacDonald Fraser /Cast: Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Frank Finlay, Christopher Lee, Geraldine Chaplin, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston, Spike Milligan, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward
If You Like: Fans of the humorous swashbuckling in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and The Mask of Zorro (1998) should also enjoy The Three Musketeers.
Video: The Lester Musketeer films have only been offered on DVD in the U.S., most recently as
The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (Two-Movie Collection). However,
The Three Musketeers / The Four Musketeers - 2-Disc Set Blu-ray from the U.K. is region-free.
Streaming: At the time of the writing of this review, The Three Musketeers and its sequel are streaming for a limited time on Filmstruck.
More to Explore: The Four Musketeers (1974) is the natural follow-up. in addition, Lester got the gang back together 16 year later for
The Return of the Musketeers, a loose adaptation of Dumas’
Twenty Years After.
Trivia: Oliver Reed’s swordplay was so ferocious that the stunt men drew lots to determine who would have to fight him. Reed eventually received a slashed wrist from one of the stunt men who grew fed up with the actor’s dangerous method acting.
For More Info: You can’t go wrong with Dumas’ original novel. The best English translation is by Richard Pevear, released as
The Three Musketeers (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition).