30 January 2004 | cariart
Best Dumas Adaptation is Spectacular Romp...
THE THREE MUSKETEERS, Richard Lester's comic take of the oft-filmed Dumas adventure story, is not only terrific escapist fare with a brilliant cast, but stands as the most faithful adaptation of the Musketeer saga.
The very length of the novel, with it's many plot twists, had resulted in various truncated adaptations over the years, with MGM's 1948 all-star production the only previous attempt to film more than the first half of the book. Lester, however, backed by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and Wolfdieter von Stein, and working from a unrepentantly bawdy script by legendary scribe George MacDonald Fraser, tackled the novel head-on, with extraordinary results.
The novel's hero, young master swordsman D'Artagnan (portrayed by Michael York at his most boyish), is clearly the product of an impoverished Gascon household, unable to read or write, but filled with dreams of heroism in the elite Musketeers, and "fighting frequent duels". Quickly embarrassed by the smoothly villainous Rochefort (Christopher Lee), and ridiculed by the mysterious Milady de Winter, the lad reaches Paris with a broken sword, but his idealism undimmed. With a borrowed sword, he then blunders into a series of challenges from the three title characters, emotionally scarred alcoholic Athos (Oliver Reed), comic buffoon Porthos (Frank Finlay), and dandified ladies' man/priest wannabe Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). When the Cardinal's Guard attempts to arrest the four as Athos and D'Artagnan begin their duel, the Gascon displays such extraordinary skill with a sword that he is happily welcomed into the band of rogues, who help him procure a servant (the wonderfully comic Roy Kinnear) and lodgings at the home of an old reprobate (Spike Milligan) and his beautiful, if klutzy young wife (Raquel Welch, in her finest comic role), who the boy immediately lusts after. The four friends then embark on a series of hilarious, swashbuckling escapades.
Meanwhile, intrigue runs rampant in the Court; the Queen (Geraldine Chaplin) carries on a clandestine affair with the British Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward), under the oblivious eye of her husband, Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel), while evil Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston, who is marvelous, 'against type') plots to publicly embarrass her, and reveal her involvement, thus provoking a war with England, and the elimination of France's Protestant faction. The object of betrayal is a multi-jeweled necklace, a gift from Louis, given by the Queen to Buckingham, with two jewels stolen during a tryst by the Cardinal's agent, Milady de Winter. The task of recovering of the necklace, and replacing the missing jewels, is given to D'Artagnan and his Musketeer allies, who 'sacrifice' themselves to help the Gascon reach England.
Climaxing in a wild free-for-all at a Royal Ball, love triumphs, Richelieu is temporarily thwarted, Milady swears revenge against D'Artagnan, and he becomes a full-fledged Musketeer, joining his love and three recovered friends to celebrate.
This constitutes only the FIRST half of the novel and movie, and the filmmakers decided to end the picture at this point, releasing a sequel, THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, a year later, which would cover the darker remainder of the story. While it was a wise decision, no one had informed the cast that they were, in fact, making two movies, and not one, at the time of filming, and the stars quickly filed suit against the Salkinds. After a brief but highly publicized court case, the cast were compensated, and the second, equally enjoyable MUSKETEER film was released.
THE THREE MUSKETEERS (and it's sequel, THE FOUR MUSKETEERS) were triumphs for Lester, the Salkinds, and the matchless ensemble of actors. The films have achieved legendary status, over the years, and taken together, stand, today, as one of the finest comic adventures ever made.
If your experience of the tale is only the more recent Disney version, do yourself a favor, and catch the Lester films. You won't be disappointed!