20 December 2001 | Ron Oliver
Fairbanks Brings Classic Adventure To Life
In 1625 an ambitious youth joins forces with THE THREE MUSKETEERS to save the French Queen's honor from the machinations of the cruel Cardinal Richelieu.
Douglas Fairbanks had one of his most popular roles as the swashbuckling hero of Alexander Dumas' 1844 novel. Exulting in his sheer physical vitality, he never walks when he can run, never runs when he can leap. While a bit melodramatic & stagy, Fairbanks is obviously having a wonderful time and he wants his audience to enjoy themselves, too.
As producer, as well as star, Fairbanks ensured fine production values & large sets to backdrop his stunts. Notice particularly the Parisian street scenes, how detailed & exact they are, with the crowds of extras looking as if they had real purpose in what they were doing. Also be mindful of the architectural staging, whether it be walls, rooftops or monumental staircases; they were all built with Fairbanks' physical dimensions in mind, so that he could run, creep or climb along them effortlessly.
To such a degree does Doug dominate the drama, that the characters of the three Musketeers themselves remain largely undeliniated. Léon Bavy as Athos, George Siegmann as Porthos & Eugene Pallette as a most unlikely Aramis are mere window-dressing to showcase Fairbanks' exuberance. Coming off rather better are British actor Nigel de Brulier as the rapacious Richelieu, beautiful Barbara La Marr as the Cardinal's evil agent Milady de Winter & Lon Poff as the sepulchral Father Joseph. Here are three villains worth watching.
Lovely Marguerite De La Motte supplies Doug's love interest. Adolphe Menjou does well as the cold-hearted, vain Louis XIII.
Not surprisingly, the original story has been streamlined & altered in various ways and at least a couple of notable deaths have been omitted so as to provide a happier fadeout. Fairbanks would continue the tale - and reprise the role of D'Artagnan - eight years later in THE IRON MASK (1929).
What were the facts surrounding the historical Richelieu & Buckingham? Since the novel & films make much of their rivalry, a closer examination is in order.
Both men rose from semi-obscurity to positions of enormous power & influence in their respective kingdoms. Each found it necessary to dominate the weak sovereigns whose patronage they enjoyed. Both endured the utter contempt & hatred of powerful domestic factions allied against them. And were there ever a flirtation between the French Queen Anne of Austria and Buckingham, it was of a very mild nature. There certainly was nothing resembling The Adventure of the Queen's Diamonds and all the derring-do associated with it.
Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal and Duke de Richelieu (1585-1642), came from a minor gentry family which was saddled with enormous financial debt upon the death of his father. However, blessed with a very good brain & a manipulative mother, Richelieu used his intellectual charm to advance his ascent through the Byzantine levels of Church hierarchy. Once having caught the attention of Louis XIII Richelieu never looked back. Eventually wielding absolute authority, the Red Eminence took as his life's mission to thwart Spanish Habsburg hegemony in Europe and to crush all outbreaks of French Protestantism as they arose throughout the kingdom.
For his part, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), had his extreme physical attractiveness to thank for grabbing the eye of James I - who liked to dance both ends of the ballroom - and later became the favourite of Charles I as well. The son of a knight, Buckingham soon rose to a lofty pinnacle of power and angered the English nobles by his monopoly of the king's affections and his arrogant accruement of great wealth. As a diplomat & military strategist, Buckingham was hopelessly inept and he needed the king's protection to save him from trial in the Star Chamber. Having failed disastrously in an attempt to succor the Huguenot of La Rochelle, France, he returned to England where he was quickly assassinated by a disgruntled naval officer. When news of Buckingham's death reached London the people rejoiced in the streets.