1 June 2003 | Igenlode Wordsmith
Surprisingly successful Dumas rewrite
The true test of a filmed version of a famous novel is not how close the action is to the plot of the book - it's whether it's faithful to the spirit of the original, and above all, whether it *works*. I didn't think casting Gene Kelly as a non-singing, non-dancing D'Artagnan would work: it does. I didn't think censoring the religious references to suit the US market would work - it does. I didn't think this could possibly rival the 1974 Lester/Macdonald Fraser version... well, I'm still not sure about that one, but it's an unexpectedly close call.
Without any question, the outstanding performance in this film is that of Gene Kelly. His athleticism, unsurprisingly, is marvellous, his swordplay is dazzling - but most importantly, as an actor his characterization of the impetuous, susceptible, hot-headed but good-hearted young Gascon is spot on the mark. He plays the part with a humour and charm that leave us likewise loving and laughing in his wake, and the only character with a chance of upstaging him is that truly preposterous yellow horse... a piece of type-casting if ever I saw one!
Perhaps the most disappointing performance, in contrast, is Van Heflin as Athos, the high-minded musketeer who drinks to find oblivion from a dark secret in his past. This Athos is a sullen peasant rather than a tragic nobleman, perhaps because the scriptwriters chose to demote him from Comte to Baron de la Fere. He has none of the charisma that should have been brought to the part, and it's often hard to understand why his three companions put up with him.
The fight scenes are excellently staged, as is to be expected in a precursor of 'Scaramouche', but I personally did feel that they went on for a little too long. Likewise, Anne of Austria was wonderfully imperious, but not as beautiful as the legend would have her. Constance Bonancieux, by contrast, gets a much larger part in this version than in Dumas' novel - and a somewhat less sleazy relationship with the young lodger - and makes the most of it.
The pivotal change in the plot during Milady's stay in England features Constance to a large extent, and is in my opinion actually very effective. The fact that even those of us who know the source material inside out have no idea *how* the inevitable is going to happen increases the tension enormously, and the change of emphasis to the relationship between the two women, rather than the seductive act we have seen several times before, gives both actresses a fresh chance to shine.
Richelieu, shorn of his Cardinal's title to avoid Church offence, has relatively little to do in this version, and D'Artagnan's nemesis Rochefort barely appears at all, though both actors make the most of what screen time they have. There is an effective scene at the end (again, owing nothing to Dumas) where Richelieu reminds the King of his dominion as the power behind the throne, only to save face in a graceful manoeuvre as Louis XIII temporarily asserts himself: we are quite certain that the King will soon be back under his thumb.
Overall, I was very impressed by the way in which this film captured the roistering, sometimes raucous, sometimes melodramatic spirit of its source material. Reading other people's comments about the silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks, I only wish I were likely to get the chance to see that as well!