Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Three Musketeers: The Queen’s Diamonds, and The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge


DIRECTED by Richard Lester
PRODUCED by Alexander & Ilya Salkind
SCREENPLAY by George MacDonald Fraser
BASED ON THE WORKS of Alexandre Dumas pere
ORIGINAL MUSIC by Michel Legrand (3) Lalo Schifrin (4)

These two films have an even greater claim to be considered as one than the Godfather series, as they were in fact filmed at the same time … and the cast was under the impression it would be released as one film. Trouble was, they only got paid for one film. Contracts had to be renegotiated.

Richard Lester has done what I would have thought impossible with these movies. He has created a comedy/adventure that at times is almost a spoof, and made it all work at the same time. This is not your ordinary swashbuckler geste, this is down and dirty fighting and nasty politics. There are seven sword fights just in T3M, and half a dozen in T4M. But these are not Douglas Fairbanks fights, with ropes and chandeliers handily placed for swinging through the air, and none of the fighters are acrobats.

In real life there are two kinds of sword fighting. There’s Olympic fencing, which is over practically before it begins, because it’s mostly attack and if you lose, you just lose a point, not a limb or your life. Then there is deadly serious fighting, which has no long-drawn-out clashing of swords. Real sabers are heavy, you can’t swing them around like a bamboo cane, at least not for very long. You slash, you parry, and you fall back and reassess the situation. Swashbuckling heroes or Kung Fu people never get tired. At the end of T4M, the climactic battle between D’Artagnan and Rochefort, both of them are breathing so hard they can barely stand up, much less fight. I love this! Most of the fighters here have a saber in one hand and a long knife in the other, or in the case of Athos, a heavy cape.

In real fights, terrain is more often your enemy rather than your friend. Gene Kelly will leap nimbly over castle parapets; in real life he’d break his freakin’ neck. In these movies fights occur in a courtyard hung with drying linen, in a laundry full of vats and scrubwomen, on a frozen lake (talk about deadly slapstick!), in a burning building, in a pitch-dark forest where opening your lantern so you can see will reveal your position to your opponent. At one point Athos is fighting in the water and then around a moving water wheel, and he’s about to kill his opponent when the wheel snags his clothes and lifts him up, helpless, to await a sword thrust on the way down.

There is one “fight” staged by the musketeers in a tavern, solely so they can steal food, because they’re broke. It’s an homage to the old swashbucklers, not meant to be believed. Otherwise, whenever a character grabs a rope and tries to do a Tarzan number, he ends up in a pratfall. There are more failed stratagems than heroic duels here, and it all works. You can be laughing in one moment, on the edge of your seat the next. That’s because Lester insisted the actors do their own sword work, with real swords. Oliver Reed was injured during one fight.

A trademark of Lester is dialogue by extras. People don’t just do their menial work in silence. Two guys carrying Milady de Winter in a sedan chair put it down, huffing and puffing, and one of them mutters “She’s put on weight!”

D’Artagnan has been played on the screen by Orrin Johnson, Douglas Fairbanks, Walter Abel, Don Ameche, Armando Bo, Gene Kelly, Jeffrey Stone, Robert Clark, Kenneth Welsh, Jeremy Brett, Maximilian Schell, Chris O’Donnell, and Mickey Mouse. And Michael York. For my money, York was the best. The rest of the cast is perfect. Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu achieves a calm, understated menace he has never done before or since. Raquel Welch, of all people, is comically inspired. Faye Dunaway is truly scary as Milady de Winter. Oliver Reed, Frank Finley, and Richard Chamberlain are wonderful as the three.

Lester being Lester, the movie is crammed with wonderful little bits of business. Everywhere people are playing games, including an indoor game that is half tennis, half squash. Spike Milligan and Roy Kinnear provide comic turns.

Footnote: I had wondered for a long time why I hadn’t seen a new film from Richard Lester in a while. True, some of his more recent ones hadn’t been all that great; maybe nobody wanted to hire him. Then in researching this article I found out that during the filming of Return of the Musketeers, the great character actor Roy Kinnear fell off his horse, broke his pelvis, and bled to death. It must have been horrible. Kinnear had been in a lot of Lester films, I imagine they were good friends. Lester decided to get out of the movie business, and he’s stuck to it. What a tragedy, both for Kinnear and for the art of movies.

(The screenplays were by George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the Flashman books, of which only one, Royal Flash, has been filmed. Which is a damn shame as they would make a wonderful series. Does anyone out there have a copy of Royal Flash? It has never been released on video). and