The Three Musketeers Review
On its first publication as a serial in 1844, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers was an immediate success and it has been entertaining audiences in one form or another ever since. Aside from innumerable printings of the novel, there have been countless plays, musicals, a pantomime and a ballet. Since the dawn of cinema, we have been treated to straight movies, spoofs, soft-porn, hardcore porn and cartoons. Its attraction is obvious; a carefully structured story of derring-do set during a colourful period of history with good guys you can cheer, villains you can hiss, breathtakingly gorgeous girls and plenty of bucklers being thoroughly swashed.
Indeed, the cinematic appeal of the film has led to over forty movies featuring the characters of Athos, Porthos, Aramis and the young Gascon, D’Artagnan. The earliest is an extract of the novel dating from 1898 while the most recent is an Italian animated feature currently being produced. But I think it would be fair to say that, for English speaking audiences, there have been three versions which have competing claims for being definitive – possibly four if you can stomach the non-acting of Chris O’Donnell, which I can’t. My heart belongs to the 1973 two-part adaptation by Richard Lester, partly because it’s the one I saw first and at the most impressionable age, but also because the casting is just so perfect and the screenplay is such a fine combination of insolence and romance. But I have a lot of time for the silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks at his most extraordinarily athletic and I also have a great fondness for the version under review, directed in 1948 for MGM by the reliably versatile George Sidney. There are lots of things wrong with it but it has such an irrepressibly good nature that it’s virtually impossible to dislike.
The outline of the original story remains unchanged. In the early part of the Seventeenth Century, the young D’Artagnan, carrying only a recommendation from his father, sets out for Paris in the hope of becoming one of the King’s musketeers. But on the way he is robbed by the sinister scar-faced Rochefort, chief spy for the First Minister Richlieu (Price), and devoid of his letter he has to plead to be admitted as a cadet. While arranging his service, he manages to offend the eponymous Musketeers and schedules a duel with each one. However, before a single blow of honour can be struck, Richlieu’s guards attack the men and D’Artagnan finds himself fighting alongside the veterans.
This is a fantastic opening, one of the finest in the history of the adventure story, and Sidney’s film does it justice. Rattling through the introductions, he heads straight for the first big duel sequence and it’s a beauty. D’Artagnan goes head to head with the leader of the guards and comprehensively outclasses and humiliates him. Of course, movie swordfights are ten-a-penny but there’s something special about this one and I think it springs straight from Gene Kelly. Although Kelly’s acting isn’t always much to write home about – he tends to rely on his irresistible grin to get him through – his physical agility is quite extraordinary and his training as a dancer means that the swordfights are like a musical number. Every time you think he’s run out of new things to do, he manages to astound you. George Sidney’s direction is as light and airy in these scenes as his star and the two make a delightful match.
It’s perhaps a little unfortunate that Kelly is so brilliant as a fighter because he makes his three comrades look, at best, a bit clumsy. They are pretty well cast though with Robert Coote making an amusingly hammy meal of Aramis and Gig Young looking suitably young and eager as Porthos. Best of them, however, is Van Heflin who, as Athos, has the most interesting role and plays it with impressive intensity. Athos gives the original story its heart, reaching into areas of romantic fatalism which transcend the swashbuckling hi-jinks, and Heflin captures some of that on film.
A key component of all Dumas’ work is the scheming of a fine array of villains and The Three Musketeers has three of the very best. In terms of historical accuracy, this meant committing a major libel on one of the most important figures in the history of France but in literary terms, it’s perfect. Cardinal Richelieu is portrayed as a scheming, wicked potentate, using the power of his office to further his own ambitions – while this may have been partly true, it’s hardly the whole story – and Vincent Price has a whale of a time in the role. By this time, his contract at Fox – which saw him get memorable parts in Laura and Dragonwyck - had ended and he was limbering up for a career of colourful villainy. He’s slightly hindered by the de-Catholicisation which means that Richelieu is never referred to as a Cardinal; a sop to the religious pressure groups which exerted enormous pressure on Hollywood during the period. But Price is still a lot of fun and he makes a fantastic match with the delicious Lana Turner, playing the ultimate femme fatale, Milady De Winter.
Although Lana Turner was never a great actress, she had a real talent for malice and it’s displayed here to the full – it helps that she looks utterly stunning throughout, making her ability to use and discard man after man entirely believable. The third memorable villain from the story, the spy Rochefort, isn’t fully realised in this film, particularly not in contrast to the Richard Lester version – Ian Keith is certainly no match for Christopher Lee.
There are certainly flaws in this movie. It’s a little too concerned to cover the plot of the original, meaning that too many story elements are rushed over – and the – commendably dark - second half tends to become rather episodic as a result. There’s also the huge problem of June Allyson, who is never comfortable as the tragic heroine Constance – you keep expecting Peter Lawford to pop up to perform “The Varsity Drag” with her. But it’s a film which looks beautifully colourful, full of good spirits and gloriously alive, the kind of movie which makes you feel good for ages after you’ve watched it. That’s not something to be sniffed at.
Another long-awaited title has received a DVD release from Warners and, once again, the result is slightly unsatisfactory. The 1.37:1 picture is a definite mixed bag. In terms of detail there’s nothing to be disappointed about. The image is crisp and full of character with a beautiful sharpness that never steps into over-enhancement. However, I found the colours a little disappointing. This is a 1940s Technicolor film and, as such, it should be as bright and colourful as Medieval illuminated illustrations. But here, while the colours look accurate enough, they are somewhat lacking in vivacity. There is also rather a lot of minor print damage on show in the form of small scratches here and there. It would have been nice to see an Ultra-Resolution job done on this film but I do appreciate the prohibitive financial factors involved in doing this on all catalogue titles.
Fortunately, there are no such reservations about the mono soundtrack which is delightfully snappy and clear throughout. The rambunctious music score is particularly notable.
As for extras, we get the usual short and cartoon along with the original trailer and an audio feature. These are one of the major pleasures of releases from Warners, not least since this is the first time some of them have seen the light of day for over half a century. Looking At London is a ten minute James A. Fitzpatrick “Traveltalk” feature which, er, looks at London in the aftermath of the Blitz. It runs through the expected sights – the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace etc – and is very nostalgic, even if you weren’t even a twinkle in your parents’ eye when it was made. There is much emphasis on the potential for urban redevelopment. It’s got a lot of historical interest as a colour record of London in the 1940s and, despite the clunking commentary, has a lot of charm. It’s not in the best of condition, seemingly taken from a TV print, but is certainly watchable. The cartoon, “What Price Fleadom” is a Tex Avery creation with the usual lunatic invention, though the condition of the print is far from good. The theatrical trailer, oddly, looks rather more colourful than the main feature. Finally, there is a radio promo for Lana Turner which dates from 1948. This contains a stentorian narration along with snippets from Turner which sound hilariously un-spontaneous with the actress coming over like the Duchess of Kent.
The film is subtitled but the extra features, sadly, are not.