If you really, truly love The Three Musketeers (1993) and hold it in your heart as a great nostalgic fun time, as I once did, you may not want to read this article.
For lo, the thing I most dreaded has come to pass.
And the suck fairy is a cruel, cruel wench.
The 90’s Three Musketeers was my first introduction to the characters, and I loved them dearly. The Golden Age of Musketeers, truly, is 15. In particular, I seem to recall, I adored Kiefer Sutherland’s Athos, Rebecca De Mornay’s Milady, and Oliver Platt’s Porthos. I regularly forgot who played Aramis, and was always surprised on rewatching to discover that it was in fact Charlie Sheen.
(In retrospect, not knowing anything about Charlie Sheen makes this a much better movie)
I always got a kick out of Gabrielle Anwar being Queen Anne (Press Gang actor ahoy!), I never really saw why everyone loved Tim Curry so much (this is an endemic problem for me), and Chris O’Donnell’s chin is VERY LARGE AND PUNCHABLE on the big screen.
But all in all, my memories were happy. Perhaps I should have left them be…
There’s something about the style and tone of this movie’s opening scenes that makes me think that it really wants to be the next Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Was it the scenery chewing opening gambit of Tim Curry’s Cardinal, or the gratuitously random prison and torture scenes? Was it the Sheriff-and-Guy-of-Gisborne relationship between the Cardinal and Rochefort? At that point I stopped, checked IMDB and realised that this Rochefort is in fact also Guy of Gisborne. He has apparently stolen Alan Rickman’s costumes for this movie.
Raeli (my nine year old Musketeer fangirl in the making) was convinced that this Rochefort was the same one as in Musketeers In An Exciting Adventure With Airships (2011) and it was hard to argue with that. There are actually several aspects of that movie that made me wonder if it was in fact a remake of the 1993 iteration rather than an adaptation in its own right… but that’s actually not fair, as airships aside, the 2011 version has a lot more narrative adherence in its script than 1993.
If 1993 did anything for me, it was to show me that I was being a bit too hard on Airships 2011.
Of course, what really what I was thinking during the opening scenes of this movie was: what, Paul McGann is in this? I just saw his name in the credits. Who on earth does Paul McGann play… OMFG PAUL MCGANN!
Because I didn’t have to wait for long. There he was, in long red hair, duelling D’Artagnan as a horrid, girding fop who uses far too much of his face. I couldn’t even admire the fencing, as I was too busy staring in horror at the shrill pantomime character that Paul McGann had decided to inflict on me. I may never look at the Eighth Doctor the same way again.
Though I did laugh when his character Girard howled that his brothers were going to beat up D’Artagnan and a whole bunch of chaps on horses appeared on the horizon, at which point my honey snarked “There’s the rest of the McGann brothers.”
Oh, Chris O’Donnell. I had no idea who you were when I first watched this movie, and I hated you then. The thing about D’Artagnan is, you don’t have to like him in order to appreciate a Musketeer movie. Which is a good thing as he’s usually the most annoying character.
I actually like this one a bit better than I used to, either because I’ve mellowed with age (seems unlikely) or because this time around I have noticed that he’s rather good at fencing. This may prove important later in the movie.
Okay, is that Michael York as a cranky Musketeer in the first Musketeer crowd scene? Because it looks a LOT like Michael York under that beard and hat, and that would be a splendidly awesome cameo given his starring role in the 1973-74 Musketeer movies (which will also form part of my Musketeer Media Monday series). On the other hand, there’s no sign of him on IMDB so perhaps I was imagining it.
While this movie takes insane levels of liberty with the plot, I do think it’s a good filmic choice to have the Cardinal actually close down the Musketeers in the first act, so that it’s only our boys who keep the flag flying. Having said that, the blue costumes are adorable and it makes me very sad to see them all taking off their pretty tunics.
It’s not surprising that the Musketeers have always translated so well to a visual medium – the colour coding always works so well, with the Musketeers in blue and white, the Cardinal and his men in red, Rochefort always in black, and so on. It looks great on screen and helps to keep them all separate. It also helps to remind us of the quite important plot/structural point that the ones in blue are directly loyal to the king, while the ones in red are only indirectly in service to the king, via the Church.
The costume also works well in the ‘how they met’ scene which I do think is done quite well here – D’Artagnan’s arrogance leading him into a duel with all three Musketeers. When they reveal their blue-and-whites in the confrontation scene, he is so crestfallen to realise he has insulted his heroes, it’s a bit adorable.
This is also one of the last points at which the movie resembles a Three Musketeers plot, so that’s nice.
I did enjoy the part where Rochefort and Jussac turn up to arrest the Musketeers, and I realised all of a sudden that Jussac is ALSO PLAYED BY PAUL MCGANN. It’s a masterpiece of bizarre, apparently due to a last minute dropout of the actor cast in this second role. This is where McGann’s overdone foppish performance ten minutes ago (and occasionally returning to punctuate the movie with shrill cries of “D’ARTAGNAN!”) pays off, because he plays Jussac totally straight, mostly in mid- or long-shot, and with a flat Californian accent. And I had to rewind and look very carefully to be absolutely sure it was him.
So we get another McGann/O’Donnell fight scene and it’s a beauty, with their ‘duelling up on this wall’ routine used to draw attention from the less competent fencing of the senior Musketeers down on the ground. I have to say, O’Donnell’s commitment to the sword stuff definitely helps to redeem his otherwise insufferable character.
What of the Musketeers themselves, though?
ATHOS – still pretty awesome, I have to say. Kiefer Sutherland hits all the necessary beats of the character, which is to say drunk, angsty, melancholy, sarcastic and occasionally charming. I still love him, so that’s nice. Cynical, battered, and the person I most want to watch on my screen during this movie. He’s not in it as much as I remembered, though.
PORTHOS – hmm. Oliver Platt is still a fun, entertaining Porthos, but he does suffer quite a lot in comparison to Ray Stevenson and Howard Charles. So he’s no longer my favourite. It was hard to ignore this time that while he does indeed still get the best lines, they are still not very GOOD lines, so that’s something of a low bar. Platt gets bonus points for being the person most obviously enjoying himself in this movie.
ARAMIS – ugh. Really, ugh. Charlie Sheen has become one of those actors that I can’t watch in anything now. It doesn’t help that he is playing the role in the least nuanced way possible. Look, he’s religious, look, he’s a ladies’ man! Charlie Sheen’s commitments to Hot Shots Part Deux meant he was not able to take part in the fencing lessons that the other actors had for 6 weeks before filming. This is very, very obvious in the finished result, which doesn’t do his Aramis any favours.
Despite the ridiculously simplified plot, I do rather like that this new version of the story repeats the trope of the Musketeers (especially Porthos and Aramis) getting ahead of whatever is happening, disguising themselves and then pulling a reveal. It’s fun and very Musketeery even if it does rely on a touch of ‘having read the script ahead of time’. However, my general annoyance at Sheen’s Aramis does make me cranky that he gets so many ‘hero’ moments in the final act when I’d rather be watching Kiefer Sutherland.
The presence of Sheen also adds an extra skeevy aspect to the ‘let me tell you about wenching, young man,” scene in which Porthos and Aramis pass women back and forth like they are a bottle of wine, in order to ‘teach’ D’Artagnan that Wench Is A Verb. We can pretend this is a touch of historically authentic grottiness but let’s face it, there are plenty of 80’s and 90’s contemporary films which show a similar attitude to women. It was really uncomfortable to watch but no more so than Wayne’s World or whatever. Wenches = sexy lamps.
While we’re talking about gender stuff… do we remember how in Musketeers In An Exciting Adventure With Airships, Constance was reduced to being a pretty lady in waiting who was damselled so thoroughly that Rochefort tied her to the front of an airship as a figurehead? Well, the portrayal of Constance in 1993 made me think quite fondly of how she was treated in 2011! At least the 2011 version got to wear D’Artagnan’s hat, say at least three sarcastic things, and BE IN THE MOVIE in between all that being taken hostage and threatened.
Whereas 1993 Constance, played by Julie Delpy who is lovely and has a proper French accent, is given quite literally nothing to do. I can’t tell if her part was cut out or if she was never given anything to start with, but these are her scenes:
1. She meets D’Artagnan while on horseback in a vaguely promising scene that allows her to be feisty, self-assured and a bit flirty. They never talk again.
2. She talks about how hot she is for D’Artagnan while helping the queen in her bath.
3. She turns up briefly, on the same staircase as D’Artagnan is duelling with Rochefort.
4. She snogs D’Artagnan at the end.
It gets worse, because while I expect a Musketeers movie to not do very well with Constance (the whole thing about her being D’Artagnan’s married landlady AND a lady in waiting, and getting involved in political schemes and espionage to protect her Queen is all layered with a bit too much nuance for Hollywood to cope with), this film’s treatment of Milady is even more awful.
Milady is one of the most interesting female villains of all time, and Rebecca De Mornay’s version was the first I ever came across (except, possibly, the version in Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds who is a saucy cat). I had very fond memories of her, and promised my eye-rolling nine year old daughter (who is convinced that the Airships version is the best ever and cannot be matched) that this movie had a very good Milady.
Halfway through, Raeli wailed, “This Milady you said was good, what good stuff does she do?”
And that was when I realised, this Milady does NOTHING.
As with Julie Delpy’s Constance, this is entirely not the actress’s fault. Rebecca De Mornay plays the icy blonde Milady very well, given appallingly little to work with.
Oh they let the whole Athos-and-his-wife story play out, complete with dramatic reveal of the fleur-de-lis and an almost bedroom scene with D’Artagnan, but what we don’t get is any of the actual criminal antics of Milady. The revised plot has her delivering a letter. No jewels, no theft, no proper espionage hijinks. We are told about her past crimes but apart from the apparent death of one of her husbands, we never hear what those crimes are. We certainly never see her doing anything worse than playing messenger for the Cardinal as he attempts to make a treaty with England. Her job could be replaced by one of his pigeons.
The thing about minimising Milady’s crimes (and her competence) is, if you don’t show us what an evil person she is, and how damned dangerous she is to keep around, then you end up on a clifftop with a sad, vulnerable lady facing execution, and the Musketeers looking like COMPLETE DICKS for standing back and letting it happen.
When Athos does interrupt the execution, it’s mostly to talk about himself, and then Milady hurls herself off a cliff which everyone seems to think is the best result all around.
This included Raeli who had been chanting “Jump! Jump!”
Now, I know that The The Three Musketeers is pure bromance. It’s a manly story about manly men and their macho doings, and that’s fine – it’s a story of unapologetic swagger, and that’s one of the things I really like about it. It’s also, of course, why I thought it would be so very interesting to gender-swap the story.
HOWEVER, if you present a version of The Three Musketeers in any medium which removes the ‘ladies being excellent at espionage’ aspect of the story, and THEN rework the plot so it has nothing at all to do with the queen, then what you have is a 1990’s version of a 19th century novel set in the 18th century that is actually more sexist and bloke-centred than the original. Well done, that’s quite an achievement.
I did still really enjoy Gabrielle Anwar’s Queen Anne this time around. She manages to be integral to the movie despite the plot no longer having much to do with her at all. She plays the part beautifully, often in scenes where she is given hardly anything to say – I particularly like the scene where the young and hopeless king stands up to the Cardinal about disbanding his Musketeers, and she looks so proud of him and is then downcast when he leaves without acknowledging her. Also, later, the two of them whispering together about how to deal with the fact that kindly old Uncle Cardinal is blatantly evil is a very cute scene. Slowly we see them shift from being separate people to being a team, and she makes up for her oddly wooden young co-star.
Sigh. Okay. It’s probably time to talk about the Cardinal. Now, I’ve never been a particular fan of Tim Curry as Villain (with the exception of Rocky Horror Picture Show, Muppets Treasure Island and It), and this means that the one aspect of this movie that most people rave about (well at least Tim Curry’s in it) is the aspect I usually enjoy least. This time around, I found the scenes with the Cardinal especially unpleasant, mostly because of the really creepy sexual predator elements added to a character who seems at other times to be played for comic relief – it’s a weird combination, all the more because it’s a Disney movie.
The only scenes I liked with the Cardinal were those where his cloak was allowed to do most of the acting, and the one with the pigeons where he says “All for one and more for me,” clearly on the understanding that this is going in the trailer. The rest of it is mostly him staring at Milady’s bosom and sexually harassing the Queen. It’s not fun, and feels particularly out of place in a Disney movie. All I can take from this as a positive is that it makes Aramis and Porthos appear slightly less lecherous by comparison.
Ahem. Let’s get back to positives. The action sequences are mostly quite good, as you’d expect from a Hollywood adaptation. Plenty of swords and carriage chases and quips. Athos pouring alcohol on a carriage, setting fire to it with a musket and then sending it rattling slowly towards a convenient pile of gunpowder barrels was entertaining if silly. I enjoyed the excessive use of parrying weapons. The slow escape via gondola at the end was amusing, though maybe not for the reasons they thought it would be.
As I discussed at the beginning, the costumes add a lot to this film – the final battle in which all the red Cardinal’s men face off against our three plucky boys in blue, and then a whole bunch more Musketeers reveal their blue tunics, looks great on screen. The colour coding works very well in the battle scene, like one big football game – directors of battles should take note!
Also, I like Rochefort a lot, especially when it becomes clear that he has chucked away the script and is stealing liberally from The Princess Bride (a thing that actually annoyed me when Athos did it in the 2011 movie). He’s my favourite villain in this, which makes me feel sad about Milady and the Cardinal all over again. But kind of pleased for him, because poor old Rochefort sometimes gets forgotten in the crush.
Raeli’s final verdict: “A lot less airships. They traded them for horses.”
This is surprisingly generous considering she rolled her eyes and abandoned the movie halfway through only to return for Milady’s execution scene which she enjoyed rather too much.
It’s all a bit depressing, really. I didn’t want this Musketeer Media Mondays series to be a whole lot of me poking holes in Musketeer adaptations while promoting my own. It’s just… sigh. I really wanted to still like this movie. Truly, the suck fairy is a cruel mistress.
Next month I promise to write about a Musketeer adaptation that I really genuinely am completely in love with. Or the Barbie movie. One or the other.