99. The Three Musketeers – 1973
Director: Richard Lester
Starring; Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Frank Finaly, Faye Dunaway and Charlton Heston
Screenplay: George MacDonald Fraser
As #100 on the list reflects my love of pulp adventures so this choice is indicative of my love of a good swashbuckling romp. Indeed this film may be the reason I enjoy a film that swashes its buckle. Like many people my age my first encounter with Alexandre Dumas’ most famous novel came via the animated show Dogtanian and the Three Muskerhounds. That show taught me who those characters were so that by the time that I saw Richard Lester’s adaptation of the same story I had some idea of what to expect.
This is a story that had been adapted multiple times before with the most recent before this having been in 1969. I discovered, while doing so reading for this post, that the ‘69 version is notable for D’Artagnan being played by Kenneth Walsh (Who would later go on to play Wyndham Earle in Twin Peaks) and a small role for a young Christopher Walken. Let it never be said that writing this list isn’t educational.
Lester was brought onto the project when there was talk of casting The Beatles as the Musketeers. Though the Fab Four eventually were not cast Lester’s presence resulted in by far the most broadly comic adaptation of the book and it remains so to this day. In that respect it was the perfect film to transition from the kids version to the actual story. At the beginning of the film D’Artagnan is a skilled swordsman but he is also clumsy and very naive. Michael York gamely pratfalls his way through his first his first encounter with Christopher Lee’s Count Rochefort and his first meeting with Monsieur Treville has almost Inspector Clouseau levels of slapstick. Yet York is perfectly cast as he still carries off being a romantic lead and the film shows a definite development in his skills as the film progresses.
The level of comedy is enhanced by Lester casting some great comedians in supporting roles such as Spike Milligan as Monsieur Bonacieux and the great Roy Kinnear as Planchet. This leads to some wonderful moments that you won’t find anywhere else such as Milligan sharing the screen with Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu or the sight of Kinnear being berated by Oliver Reed and Richard Chamberlain. Lester brings together some big names and it is fun to see them interacting with the more eclectic members of the cast. It gives the film unique feel although it can mean that occasionally the tone can change quite wildly.
Of the titular Musketeers Oliver Reed will always be the greatest Athos to me with his combination of world weary cynicism and seething aggression always bubbling under the surface. His fighting style is sword in one hand and whatever is nearby in the other, everything about him exudes danger as someone you don’t want to mess with. Likewise Richard Chamberlain is still the best Aramis, the romantic warrior with a raised eyebrow and a sardonic sense of humour. Frank Finlay is fun as Porthos but doesn’t click for me as much as the other two do but then I’ve felt that Porthos is a difficult part to get right. The problem in this film is that as in most adaptations (I admit I have yet to read the book) he is the most overtly comic character and in an adaptation that is broadly comic overall he gets a little lost in the shuffle.
Of the other cast Christopher Lee is clearly having a ball as Count Rochefort and his wearing an eye-patch, something that the character doesn’t wear in the book, was so striking that it was adopted by the majority of subsequent Rochefort portrayals. While Raquel Welch is often the focus of the films raunchier side with its obsession with her cleavage she does also gets to show that she has a great gift for physical comedy. She has a lovely moment where she has a series of accidents that ends up overpowering her guards and allows her to escape that is perfectly timed and she is one of the films secret comic weapons. Faye Dunaway is just stunning as Milady De Winter, a perfect combination of seduction and menace. There is never any doubt that she is one of the most dangerous people in the film and it is a portrayal that has yet to be beaten. Milady has been played by some fantastic talent since this film but none of them have come close to beating Dunaway.
The fates conspired to make The Three Musketeers a strange hybrid of swashbuckling adventure and bawdy sex comedy and yet it looms large over subsequent adaptations thanks to a stellar cast and, in some cases, definitive portrayals of the characters on screen. While it certainly has its faults it is also a lot of fun and the versions that came after have never quite captured that same spirit for me. It will always have a special place in my affections and is the basis for my enjoying other films that will also appear later on this list. For that alone it deserves to be here.