12 July 2009 | Steffi_P
"When life was life and men were men"
What you see at this point in cinema's history is the maturing of various formulas once considered frivolous. Griffith had done it in the mid-teens with dramatic film-making as a whole. Chaplin's The Kid had shown how slapstick could be melded with powerful storytelling. And now it was the turn of Douglas Fairbanks to develop his unique brand of adventure comedies into the realm of grand mythmaking.
Fairbanks had already reinvented his screen persona with the groundbreaking Mark of Zorro, transferring his over-the-top athleticism and comic timing to the world of romantic adventure. Mark of Zorro is amazing, but it is also something of an experiment; not too extravagant and quite straightforward in storyline. After the success of Zorro, his confidence bolstered (not to mention his coffers a little fuller), Fairbanks made his follow-up The Three Musketeers a far more lavish production, as well as allowing more time for characterisation and subplot. In other words, this was an attempt to move beyond simple genre antics and present a swashbuckler that was also a sweeping historical epic.
The broader canvas of The Three Musketeers allows for greater freedom of expression for its director Fred Niblo, who had also filmed Zorro. Niblo was an expert at balancing rhythm and motion in crowd scenes, but was also a great dramatic director. Here he gets to show off both these abilities, providing a realistic and constantly moving backdrop with the masses of extras at his disposal, yet also allowing the more emotional scenes to play out at a steady pace, giving them dignity and bringing out naturalism in the performances. He still recognises however that this is first and foremost an action picture. He gives a unique look to every action shot, sometimes putting figures in the background, other times foregrounding them, sometimes having them move towards the camera, other times across the frame. A great shot is the one in which Fairbanks steals food from the cardinal troops. The guards are placed in the foreground at the right of the frame; Fairbanks appears on the left in the background. This arrangement focuses us on Fairbanks, and the depth of his position also allows him room to do his stunts without having to move the camera or change angle.
Like Chaplin, Fairbanks always ensured that he was the star of the show and centre of attention, but in this more generous production he does allow some room for great supporting players, confident that they will make the picture more enjoyable without stealing it. Of note here are George Siegmann (Porthos), who can mostly be seen playing villains for Griffith, but here gets to show off his comedy skills - check out the casual way he wipes his sword and saunters off after dispatching a guard - and Eugene Palette (Aramis), also a great comedy player, and worth mentioning simply because it's interesting to see him without the huge belly he had acquired by his 30s heyday. Other than that Adolphe Menjou is great as usual, although he expresses far too much confidence and smugness for the puppet monarch he portrays. Fairbanks's regular leading lady Marguerite De La Motte is not bad, getting a little more time and space to show her acting range than she did in Mark of Zorro.
Still, there is a problem with The Three Musketeers, one which arises from its larger scale and dramatic pretensions - it's a bit slow. The screenplay goes to lengths to allow Fairbanks's character to gradually emerge, and takes time to set the scene, which is all fair enough, except that this is done at the expense of pacing. The first ten minutes are used up establishing the political intrigue, and it's a full thirty-eight minutes before we get to the first real action sequence. While I agree it's a good idea to keep us in suspense before showing off D'Artagnan's fighting skills, the build-up would work much better if we were treated to a small burst of action at the beginning - a "hook", screenwriters call it. Also the best fight scenes are weighted to the middle of the story, robbing the picture of a satisfying finale. The Mark of Zorro, although it is far more simplistic, at least has a continuous frenetic pace that makes it extremely watchable. Nevertheless, The Three Musketeers did settle once and for all the character of Doug Fairbanks, a character that was the same no matter what name it went by - that of the mythical, ever-living hero.