This film, directed by Richard Lester and scripted by George McDonald Fraser, is a surprisingly close interpretation of the original novel’s narrative. I’d watched it before and liked it a lot, but this time around (with my engagement with the text just a BIT more intensive) I was surprised at what a fantastic job they did.
The Three Musketeers (1973) features very old school interpretations of the characters, plenty of direct quotes from the book itself, and a deep dedication to awesome sword fighting as well as background historical detail. Great costumes, great sets, great action, sharp dialogue, and random hawking and hunting scenes. All good stuff. The story is split over two movies, The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), with this first film covering the Matter of the Queen’s Diamonds. I really should have looked at this one at the beginning of the Musketeer Media Monday project, as there are many creative decisions of the later adaptations (particularly Musketeers in an Exciting Adventure With Airships (2011) but it could be argued for Musketeers Are All For Love (1993) and Looks Good In Leather (2014) as well) which are obviously alluding to, inspired by or working against this particular film.
The main innovation of The Three Musketeers (1973) is that it’s a comedy. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – after all, the novel itself is very, very funny. But I was still a bit shocked at how completely hilarious the film version was. I was in stitches most of the time I was watching – and apart from a few wince-inducing moments, I was mostly laughing WITH the movie rather than at it.
I’ve tried to explain the brilliance of this film to people in real life and they tend to look at me dubiously. Yes, okay, slapstick + sword fighting sounds a bit terrible, and once you add the sexy/clumsy shenanigans of Racquel Welch’s Constance, it does sound like the worst kind of 70’s bedroom farce.
Let’s get one thing straight though – I am a person who generally loathes physical comedy. I can appreciate it grudgingly when it’s done well, but when the humour hinges on the physical rather than dialogue and character, I get the urge to poke my eyes out with a spoon. The comedy in The Three Musketeers (1973), however, is choreographed wonderfully. In particular, many of the set piece sword fights combine great fighting skills with a layer of clever and artfully-created comedy, which makes them amazing to watch. I would love to get to watch this on the big screen.
Then there’s the casting – which has dated in the best way. It’s like a time capsule of actors who were famous in the 1970’s, many of whom aren’t really remembered now. Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Racquel Welsh, Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Spike freaking Milligan, and of course the king of naive beta heroes, Michael York as D’Artagnan.
I’ve said before that D’Artagnan being young, brash and annoying is appropriate to any Musketeer adaptation. Michael York is the ultimate, as far as I’m concerned, example of this. His D’Artagnan is dumb as a stone, brave as a lion, and completely screws up on multiple occasions. He’s a complete dork. And yet, I can’t take my eyes off him. His earnestness is just so funny.
The word adorkable is going to be used more than once in this essay, and I’m not even sorry.
I laughed, I swooned, I enjoyed the hell out of this film. And now I’m a bit scared because Part 2 is gonna get darker, and I don’t know that I want to see my darlings having that kind of a rough time.
The film begins with a surrealist slow motion scene of Michael York with his shirt off performing sword skills with his dad. It’s… alarming. There are no other words. Any distress caused by our dorky (I’m just going to call him D’ork for the rest of the essay) hero’s bare chest is balanced out by the marvellousness of his country bumpkin straw hat, which is a thing of beauty. This D’Artagnan has a hat!
The early scene with D’ork and his D’ad makes it clear what kind of adaptation this is – one that is going to refer back to the actual novel as often as possible. I really loved seeing D’ad lecture his son about the importance of getting into fights, while setting him up for his journey.
“Don’t sell the horse! Let him die honourably of old age.”
D’ad is going to be D’isappointed.
Sure enough, the next scene in the film is ‘Rochefort pwns our boy while Milady flirts from afar.’
Christopher Lee playing Rochefort has obviously influenced all succeeding actors to make very similar choices. In fact, Musketeers in an Exciting Adventure With Airships (2011) pretty much copies this scene note for note including the appearance of Milady. The only odd thing is that he’s not using his CHRISTOPHER LEE voice. I didn’t know it was optional!
Michael York does gormless so very well, though I hadn’t yet fallen for his charms during these early scenes, so was left wishing I was watching him in Cabaret instead. There would be songs. On the other hand, watching Rochefort chuck D’Artagnan a muddy puddle is worth the price of admission.
I am on Team Rochefort for this one. Sign me up for the fan club, baby.
Faye Dunaway’s Milady is arch and sarcastic, and rather lovely. Like Christopher Lee, she’s underplaying the part to appear sinister and possibly to disassociate herself from the later outright sex comedy that the film will become. Oh, sweetie. It’s all going to end in an undignified scragfight, you might as well surrender now.
So now we come to our Musketeers. The three inseperables are not really the focus of this film, generally appearing instead as a kind of support chorus to D’ork’s hijinks, and occasionally showing off their glorious skillz whenever the occasion calls for humour, violence or both. I hope they get more to do in 1974!
Porthos is extremely middle aged, played by Frank Finlay who was in his 50’s at the time – despite his age, there’s no denying he carries off all the necessary character notes based on the book. I had to work very hard not to dislike him for not being Howard Charles. Richard Chamberlain was an inspired casting choice for Aramis – famous at the time for being heartthrob Dr Kildare, he would later win even more hearts in The Thorn Birds. As it is, unfortunately, he is given almost nothing to do as an individual except look blond and pretty. Then we have Athos, played by Oliver Reed, who always looks like he had to be dragged out of a pub for to film every single scene and deeply resents it, but that’s basically perfect for Athos. More good casting, that director. He’s rumpled, sarcastic and worn down, and yet I can see the charisma that made him such a massive star of the era.
All three of them inhabit the roles beautifully, but this movie is not about them.
D’ork’s job interview with Treville was the moment at which I realised that I might actually love him. He’s utterly useless, tripping over things and being awkward, when suddenly he starts screaming out the window at a passing Rochefort, calling attention to his eyepatch. It’s brilliant. He’s actually yelling abuse at a disabled person in the street, without any sense of irony. He then throws himself out the window, lands on a window cleaning scaffold, and thoroughly embarrasses himself. Oh, D’Artagnan. You are adorbs and I can’t pretend I’m not enjoying it.
The classic Musketeer meet cute is done very nicely here – even better because the large and sprawling set means that it feels almost like D’ork’s successive tumbles into Athos, Porthos and Aramis are part of a single shot.
Fun fact: this film was originally pitched as a vehicle for The Beatles. I only hope that in the alternate universe in which this happened, they had the sense to cast Ringo as D’Artagnan. Obviously John would be Athos, Paul would be Aramis and George would be Porthos. Anyone want to argue those casting choices in the comments?
I only hope someone somewhere has made fanvids using footage of this film with the soundtrack from A Hard Day’s Night. Don’t let me down, 1960’s-1970’s fandom.
In the climax to the meet cute, with the four about to duel before the red guards come along (and D’ork charming the Three Musketeers into taking him on as a pet), we finally get our first proper fencing set piece. It’s fantastic.
The swordfighting not only looks good and is choreographed as street brawling with all kinds of different techniques and parrying weapons (Athos’ use of a cloak is marvellous), but best of all is shot so you can WATCH THE FIGHT CLEARLY. The shots from above are especially good. The combination of physical humour and serious swordage is there too, with the dramatic use of criss-crossing washing lines to undercut the earnestness of the fighting.
D’ork is an adorkable puppy. The glee he takes in fighting alongside the Musketeers is hilarious and charming. I will never hear another word against this version of D’Artagnan. I want to take him home and feed him cookies.
Athos, the undoubted leader, distributes the spoils at the end: coin to Aramis for his mistress, to Porthos for his wardrobe and to D’ork for lodging and a servant. Athos of course needs a drink. Oh, my boys, I love you all.
Once D’ork arrives at his lodgings, (in a fancy new outfit including a Real Hat because unlike his 2014 counterpart he knows priorities when he sees them), the story truly begins. Spike Milligan plays Bonancieux and Roy Kinnear plays Planchet. Comic royalty on a plate. Racquel Welsh turns up as Spike Milligan’s sexy wife Constance and D’ork starts unashamedly eye-fucking her in front of her husband. Bow chicka wow wow.
Constance cements her status as hottest lady in these parts by falling down the stairs in a glamorous heap of skirts and boobs. D’ork thinks that’s the sauciest chat up line ever. She’s vaguely pleased to meet him. This sums up their relationship for the rest of the movie.
THEY ARE SO CUTE I WANT THEM TO RUN AWAY AND HAVE BABIES TOGETHER, CLUMSY SWORDFIGHTING BABIES.
Speaking of casting, HELLO CARDINAL WHO IS CHARLTON HESTON. In purple robes. Hello, chessboard played with live animals including monkeys and dogs. This movie is no longer even pretending not to be pure crack.
The Red Guards raid Bonancieux’s place, steal his wife in front of him, and give Spike Milligan as much airtime as he wants for another comedy turn. It is the slowest abduction in film history. D’ork, meanwhile, is sleeping mostly naked and does not notice. Some hero.
Constance rescues herself with a beautiful piece of slapstick involving a large pike, and throws herself at D’ork. He’s mostly interested in what’s under her voluminous nightgown, and she’s trying to explain the plot to him.
We then get an implied sex scene while the camera itself stares fixedly at a candle. I’m pretty sure this is the fastest that D’Artagnan and Constance have ever shagged in any version of the story ever. Well done, that D’ork! In the morning, she runs off to get on with the plot leaving him to follow her miserably and suspiciously in the rain.
UNEXPECTED POLE VAULT. Oh, D’ork, please don’t make me love you more than Luke Pasquilino, I don’t think my heart can take it.
Scheming Constance is scheming on behalf of the Queen (Geraldine Chaplin), as is only right and proper. D’ork is only thinking about himself and getting into Constance’s knickers, which is also very accurate to the book. I would like to point out at this point that Racquel Welsh won a Golden Globe for this performance, and she bloody deserves it.
The exchange between Buckingham (who looks a lot like Aramis, a nice canon-compliant point) and the Queen is also pretty much directly from the page – they’re a bit in love with each other, but she’s not willing to go all the way and disgrace the king. And oops, here come more guards to pick another fight!
The swordfight in the palace laundry that eventuates from the Queen’s secret meeting with Buckingham is a thing of beauty – a gorgeous set piece combining that classic combination of violence, parrying weapons and comedy. Our Musketeers all turn up with perfect timing to join the fight, almost as if they have D’ork microchipped in case he gets into trouble (well, you would). We get swords, ropes, dye vats, Planchet with a plank, and the kicker at the end is Buckingham politely thanking them all (“I probably could have managed, but thank you, gentlemen”) and running away, followed by Porthos saying “Who is that?” and Athos replying “I don’t know, but he sounds foreign.”
I love the fact that they are happy to get into a ruck with Palace Guards without even knowing or possibly caring about the political reason behind it. Oh, my boys.
Back in England, Milady De Winter plans to steal the diamonds from Buckingham, seducing him by way of a saucy white lace blindfold. You kind of had to be there. But oh, Faye Dunaway and her frocks. She’s given so little to do in this film, but the frocks almost make up for it. I bet she wouldn’t say no to a bit of Milla Jovovich cat-burglaring, though, if it was offered.
Nothing in the film so far compares to the glory of the next scene in which Porthos and Aramis stage a duel in order to steal wine and roast squab from a tavern because, well, Musketeers gotta eat. The calm expression on Athos’ face as he catches the discreetly flung squab and hides them under his coat is magnificent, and D’ork soon gets in on the action with youthful glee. Planchet steals wine with a discreet set of bellows and a straw, while D’ork actually throws his face under a leaky barrel to get his own drink.
Spike Milligan is a comic genius. So indeed is Racquel Welch. And, frankly Michael York isn’t half bad either. The adorable slapstick between the three of them over the matter of the letter to Buckingham culminates in Constance and D’ork not only hiding in a wardrobe, but falling over while still inside it. Their makeout antics are legendary.
Then we get a random scene in which Athos has far too much invested in Aramis and Porthos winning a game of real (royal) tennis, while D’ork tries to explain the plot to him. Seriously, this is the film that keeps giving. Musketeers, they screw around all the time, it’s wonderful. Sure, the three of them are almost extraneous to the plot, but they are having so much fun together. Did I say they didn’t have enough to do? I’m perfectly satisfied as long as there are scenes like this that add nothing but character, humour and adorbs.
I might be a little bit in love with Oliver Reed now. That’s a thing I never thought would ever happen in my lifetime.
Finally they’re on the road in the quest for the Queen’s diamonds. Porthos is lost when he duels a drunkard, Aramis with a bullet to the shoulder, and Athos to a duel in the river. Nice if brief moments for each of the characters to shine, especially the wet and furious Athos in his big black cloak who is foiled by a pesky water wheel. The look on his face does rather give the impression that no one warned Oliver Reed what was going to happen with the the water wheel. Head canon accepted!
Poor D’ork is left on his own except for the trusty Planchet! What is he to do? RIDE, D’ARTAGNAN, RIDE LIKE THE WIND!
And then there’s the duel in the dark fought between D’ork and Rochefort with blinding lanterns in which Planchet DIGS UP A TREE, runs across half the forest holding it, and uses it to knock Rochefort out.
“We’ll give him the chance of bleeding to death, but we’ll not murder him.”
D’Artagnan has this much morality left.
I love Rochefort but I almost wish they had killed him by Planchet with a tree because – what a way to go.
It was a very big tree.
What I love is that whenever D’ork has to ride somewhere quickly, random slapstick people walk into his path with breakable or otherwise inconvenient props. In this case, a man with an enormous basket of eggs. I half expected someone to turn up walking a pane of glass across the road, and then a couple of workmen with a large plank.
On to England and the plot!
I think we’ve actually been doing Orlando Bloom a disservice back in 2011 – this Duke of Buckingham is only slightly less camp. He says things like: “Then sir we must bustle!” and randomly changes his clothes between scenes. Seriously. At one point he’s walking down a corridor, peeling off his shirt, and in the next room he’s wearing a completely different outfit.
He also has a creepy shrine set up to Queen Anne. With candles. I feel someone needs to stage an intervention about appropriate romance techniques.
Upon taking his leave with the diamonds firmly secured, D’ork gives a beautiful exit speech about how he needs no reward, only to undercut it by awkwardly coming back 5 seconds later to ask the Duke how to get off the island.
We then get two brilliant comedy stunts that are entirely gratuitous but cleverly done – one is Planchet clumsily riding into solid objects, and then Athos falls down a well and almost drags Aramis and Porthos down with him.
“All for one and one for all!”
Athos’ voice heard cheerfully from within the well. The only use of that phrase in this film.
So now it’s all about the King’s ball. Planchet dresses up as a polar bear to enter secretly. A polar bear. It suits him. Meanwhile, D’ork sneaks into the Palace gardens by getting his horse to kick a hole in the back wall. D’ork then recognises which room has Constance in it purely because she broke a vase and that’s a thing she does.
After some more fun fighting and scrambling, D’ork accidentally hurls the diamonds up to the wrong window (OH D’Artagnan, no) and then it all comes down to a vicious scrag fight between Constance and Milady, the latter armed with sharpened headwear. And the former armed with grapes. And they both have mighty bosoms which should be classified as lethal weapons. It’s on, baby.
Once again the Three Musketeers turn up to help D’Artagnan when he most needs them in a fight. Either they totally microchipped him, or all three of them are his Tyler Durdens, Fight Club style. They’re so awesome and yet convenient in the not asking questions about anything.
D’Artagnan climbs into the wrong window AGAIN, but swings across just in time to kick Milady literally in the arse, and allow Constance to get the diamonds.
The day is won.
The movie is full of win.
I love everything.
The King and Queen are adorkable, as he tries to count her diamonds in the middle of a complicated dance, and she out-smugs him and then the Cardinal by having the correct number of diamonds. Sucks to you, suspicious blokes!
Everyone is happy and oh so colour-co-ordinated. The silver headgear at this ball is spectacular. D’ork and Constance celebrate with one of the most ungainly snogging sessions of all time.
The next morning, in a ceremonial flourish, the Three Musketeers place a great tunic on their fourth, welcoming him into their club. The queen discreetly passes him a valuable ring as his extra reward.
It’s happy ever after, until the next time… and ominous looks all around from the cranky Milady and the Cardinal as our friends skip merrily off into the sunset, pausing only to pick Constance up off the ground when she is knocked over by a fairground attractions.
AND THERE’s A WHOLE OTHER MOVIE TO GO.
AND THEY MADE ANOTHER SEQUEL IN THE 80’s WITH THE SAME CAST BASED ON 20 YEARS LATER.
All is glee. You are welcome.