This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the swashbuckling Richard Lester classic, ‘The Three Musketeers’ (1973). It is part one of a double bill along with ‘The Four Musketeers’ (1974), which picks up the story of D’Artagnan where this film leaves off. (There was some controversy at the time since the actors thought they were only making and being paid for one movie – but that’s beyond the scope of this review!) The two films are set for release on Blu-ray and 4K UHD by Studiocanal.
Several generations will have grown up enjoying this delightful adventure story closely based on the bestselling and enduringly popular novel by Alexandre Dumas. It probably remains the best big screen adaptation. The director Richard Lester was fresh from success directing two of the Beatles’ acclaimed films. His approach with ‘The Three Musketeers’ was to shoot it using multiple cameras (a technique closer to television of the era) in order to capture long distance and close-ups at the same time, and thus to minimise the need for stunt doubles. Doubtlessly, the film is impressive for some highly imaginative and daring stunts that each of the bankable actors take part in, not least through more sword fights than you can shake a stick at. But this came at a high price in the sheer number of injuries the actors sustained behind the scenes. Anecdotally this is somewhat amusing until you consider that a later sequel, 1989’s ‘The Return of the Musketeers’, (also directed by Lester) lead to the premature death of Roy Kinnear following a horse riding accident. This tragedy retrospectively inevitably casts a long shadow over the trilogy.
The film follows the story of D’Artagnan (Michael York), a young man from the French provinces who heads to Paris with the aim of becoming one of the celebrated king’s musketeers. Upon arriving in the city, the plucky young upstart has run-ins with Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), who are established king’s musketeers and fine swordsmen. They separately challenge him to a duel, but when the four assemble at the designated fighting place, guards of the villainous Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) arrive. Suddenly realising that he has insulted the very men he was aiming to impress, D’Artagnan teams up with them against Richelieu’s men. The musketeers then become embroiled in thwarting Richelieu’s plot to embarrass the Queen (Geraldine Chaplin) who has rekindled a romance with the English Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward) at a time when England and France are mortal enemies. The rest of the film involves a cat and mouse game between the musketeers and their temporary alliance with the English Duke against Richelieu and his henchmen (Christopher Lee and Faye Dunaway). It unfolds with an abundance of epic stunts, sword fights, camaraderie and frivolity. It’s brought to life against the backdrop of the sunny Spanish countryside, which doubles for Seventeenth Century France.
A major selling point for the film is its all-star cast. Leading names from Hollywood and Britain were queuing up to be in it, and each one has their moment to shine. Michael York (‘Cabaret’, ‘Logan’s Run’) is suitably squeaky clean and endearing as D’Artagnan, and he delivers many an adventurous and improbable stunt with immaculate timing. The established musketeers all have showier parts. Oliver Reed (‘Oliver’, ‘Gladiator’) is glowering and magnetic as Athos, and he livens up the action sequences with his dangerous and erratic qualities. Steady character actor Frank Finlay (‘A Bouquet of Barbed Wire’) grabs his chance of the spotlight as the refined and slightly pompous Porthos (and he later also plays the Duke of Buckingham’s jeweller – was that just an opportunity for him to show his considerable range?) American star Richard Chamberlain (‘The Towering Inferno’) is given the least to do in this one.
Complementing the all-star heroes, the villains are all superb. Charlton Heston (‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Planet of the Apes’) is the scheming Cardinal Richelieu. He underplays it splendidly, as this makes him all the more menacing. The towering and always reassuring presence of the late, great Christopher Lee, in scarlet red velvet and eye patch, is enough on its own to make the film a rewarding watch. As he is keen to point out in interviews, he was the finest swordsman of the cast, and this shows. But Rochefort is a more charismatic villain that Lee’s dour, scowling Dracula. He gives the impression that he is relishing the role. His pairing with Faye Dunaway (‘Network’) as Milady de Winter is inspired casting. The two supporting villains instantly click and have an excellent rapport.
Another interesting piece of casting that pays off is Spike Milligan as the landlord Bonacieux, the husband of Queen’s dressmaker Raquel Welch. The very idea is enough to raise a chuckle. Outside of the madcap worlds that he created for himself, Milligan rarely works on film because he can’t help but take you out of the drama by drawing attention to his wild eccentricities. ‘The Three Musketeers’ is a notable exception, and Milligan’s comedic performance isn’t out of step as director Lester leans heavily into humour. Perhaps unexpectedly, the film is laden with slapstick moments and a quick wit. You can tell that the screenplay was written by George MacDonald Fraser, best-remembered for his series of ‘Flashman’ novels based around a dandy with loose morals who is somewhat redeemed by his bravery. The Musketeers as presented here could easily slot into a MacDonald Fraser novel.
As the cast is at pains to point out in the extra feature interviews (recorded in 2002), the sword fights were played for real, using genuine metal swords rather than safe lightweight props. The fight sequences, which take up much of the screen time, are superbly choreographed. You can see exertion in the actors’ faces. The two problems that arise with this approach is that Lester has a tendency to lock off his camera in order to capture the full range of the fight, so the direction can feel oddly static in contrast to the derring-do of the actors. Secondly, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and considering that there are many more long and drawn out fight sequences in ‘The Four Musketeers’, the clash of metal on metal can eventually induce a certain ennui. What is to be commended though is just how gutsy the fights are. The director dispenses with the idea of gentlemen using only their swords in combat. Rather, the musketeers and indeed the Cardinal’s Guards are more than happy to kick, punch, roll around in the dirt and pull any stunt that may give them the upper hand. Whilst the dialogue is light and witty, the fights are down and dirty. It’s a winning combination.
Our overall verdict is that, for a swash to buckle ratio, you can’t do better than ‘The Three Musketeers’. It benefits from a world class international cast. We especially adored Oliver Reed’s carefree, animalistic Athos. Deep and meaningful it is not. But as a period film about camaraderie and how the little people can foil the machinations of the rich and powerful, ‘The Three Musketeers’ has a strong moral message and a good heart. There’s a great pleasure in watching a competently-assembled film that everyone involved with it clearly enjoyed making. The well-chosen Spanish locations help to give it veracity as Seventeenth Century France, and the hot summer of the early 1970s when it was filmed looks especially bright and stunning in 4K UHD. Part one of an interview with some of the remaining cast members (filmed in 2002, as sadly Frank Finlay and Christopher Lee have left us since then, and Raquel Welch died earlier this year) provides an anecdotal background to the making of the film. If you grew up with Richard Lester’s ‘The Three Musketeers’, the good news is that it stands up to this day as a thoroughly entertaining movie.
Cast: Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain, Raquel Welch, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Simon Ward, Spike Milligan, Roy Kinnear Director: Richard Lester Writer: George MacDonald Fraser Certificate: 12 Duration: 107 mins Released by: Studiocanal Release date: 8th May 2023 Buy ‘The Three Musketeers’ now