Director Richard Lester strikes the perfect balance between slapstick and swashbuckling swordplay in The Three Musketeers (1974), his whimsical adaptation of Alexander Dumas’ grand adventure.
Young D’Artagnan makes quite an impression as he first arrives in the big city of 17th century Paris: he challenges all three of the legendary Musketeers to a duel. Michael York is all innocence and wide-eyed chivalry as the naïve but impassioned D’Artagnan, a country boy skilled in the art of swordplay, but he proves his mettle to the worldly Musketeers when their duel is interrupted by the Cardinal’s soldiers and he sides with his former adversaries.
The worldly rascals led by Athos (Oliver Reed), who hides his brooding past behind a sarcastic wit, adopt the young hero. Soon D’Artagnan is stealing hearts and stealing food with equal aplomb as he joins their campaign to defend the Queen (Geraldine Chaplin) against a plot devised by the scheming Cardinal (Charlton Heston, underplaying the role brilliantly) and his cold-hearted accomplice, Milady DeWinter (Faye Dunaway).
The movies have been adapting this classic swashbuckling adventure since they began moving, with new adaptations arriving every decade. Richard Lester’s film is the gold standard, a rousing, lively, witty take on Dumas’ story scripted by novelist and first-time screenwriter George Macdonald Frasier, whose rollicking screenplay combines boisterous adventure and roguish humor with marvelous characters.
Richard Chamberlain’s Aramis, the trio’s Don Juan and resident man of God, and Frank Finlay’s pompous, fun-loving hedonist Porthos round out the Musketeers, while Christopher Lee’s sneering Rochefort executes the Cardinal’s wishes as commander of the Church’s soldiers. Raquel Welch shows off her comedy chops as Constance, the beautiful but disaster prone seamstress to the Queen and other members of this talented cast include Spike Milligan as the beauty’s jealous husband, Roy Kinnear as D’Artagnan’s bumbling servant Planchet, and Jean-Pierre Cassel as the clueless king.
Lester, who directed The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), brings a slapstick quality to the physical comedy—including the cleverly choreographed swordfights—and a dryly self-aware flair to the dialogue. Yet the comedy never overwhelms the compelling adventure tale. His dynamic direction turns it into one of the greatest comic swashbucklers of all time.
The Three Musketeers was a hit with crowds and critics alike, earning five BAFTA nominations and a Golden Globe award for Raquel Welch’s comic performance.
Trivia note: The film was originally intended as a three hour-plus epic but in postproduction the story was split into two parts and released as separate films, with The Four Musketeers (1975) completing the story in a darker vein. The actors had no idea that they had made two separate films for the price of one and their lawsuit against the producers resulted in a new addition to standard actors’ contracts known as the “Salkind Clause” (named for producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind) to prevent future productions from doubling down.
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The Three Musketeers / The Four Musketeers [DVD]
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The Anchor Bay and Lionsgate double-feature sets include the 50-minute documentary “The Saga of the Musketeers,” featuring a wealth of interviews and a few tasty revelations (producer Ilya Salkinds originally wanted to cast The Beatles as the Musketeers), and the archival seven-minute featurette “The Making of The Three Musketeers.”