Three Dozen Musketeers

The recent DVD release of yet another Three Musketeers movie and research for my Adah Isaacs Menken play have recently placed Dumas pere foursquare on my radar of late. The former development represents a perfect occasion for an exercise in the “vertical analysis” I describe here,  As you will soon see, t’s turned out to be a rather obsessive little project.

Dumas’ novel, despite its 750 some odd pages, is a swift and pleasurable read full of vivid  characters, colorful events, humor, sex, adventure, political intrigue, and even historical facts. There’s something for everybody, explaining its popularity both then and now. Although the plot is beyond convoluted, it’s easy to see why it’s been adapted so many times for film.

While there are plenty of foreign versions; I decided to concentrate on American ones. Silent versions made in 1911, 1914 and 1916 being unavailable, we leaped straight for this:

The 1921 silent version starring Douglas Fairbanks, directed by Fred Niblo. It also features Adolph Menjou as Louis XIII, and a downright slim Eugene Pallette as Aramis. This is only the second of Doug’s swashbucking features (after having first achieved stardom with a series of successful comedies). Casting himself as D’artagnagn is brilliant as it plays on the early image, a bumpkin or naif with ambitions of heroism, still awkward but an awesome swordsman. (He’d done a sort of jokey version six years earlier in A Modern Musketeer).

Of all the various versions this one (still) has the best D’artagnan, in fact the best Musketeer, in the person of Fairbanks. After all, tongue in cheek swordplay heroics is what he DID. In one scene, he fights about ten guys at the same time, then carries the fainting heroine Constance upstairs, onto the roof, and across housetops to safety.  At two hours, this version is mighty long for a silent film, however. In fact court intrigue fills the entire first half hour; it’s a quarter way through the film before D’artagnan even calls on Treveille to join the Musketeers. That’s a lot of subtitles for some of you to have to move your lips to.

The following year, French comedian Max Linder released his own lampoon version, The Three Must-Get-Theirs. Most of the wordplay in the titles are roughly as painful as that. Max, for example plays the hero, Dart-in-Again. (Good lord, what is the point of stretching a joke that far and it still isn’t funny?) The Musketeers themselves are named Walrus, Octopus and Porpoise.  My favorite was “Li’l Cardinal Richie-Loo”– played by a dwarf! The film also stars pro-wrestler turned actor Bull Montana, and Harold Lloyd‘s later leading lady Jobyna Ralston. It hews surprisingly closely to the usual plot points, and actually does have some funny gags in it once it gets cooking.

A shame it didn’t make the film version, but the 1928 stage version of  the Marx Bros.’ Animal Crackers featured the foursome singing this Kalmar and Ruby song:

We’re four of the three musketeers.
We’ve been together for years.
Athos, Pathos, Mathos, (horn),
Four of the three musketeers.

In the 30s, there were a couple of serial versions: a 1933 one re-set in the modern day French Foreign Legion and featuring John Wayne, Lon Chaney Jr, and Noah Beery Jr., and a 1936 Western one featuring Crash Corrigan, called The Three Mesquiteers (word-play almost as bad as Max Linder’s, but he has the excuse of being French). It was very popular and became an entire film series lasting for years. I’ve seen both of these. They’re about what you would expect and have little to do with the original book except the number three.

In 1935 RKO released their own version with so much trust in the selling power of the title apparently that they felt free to fill the cast with their least distinguished stars. For some reason this one is hard to get ahold of (Amazon only has a laser disc, for example.) But I finally caught it on TCM. Walter Abel (a familiar character actor in later decades who’s normally about fifth in the billing) is d’Artagnan. Paul Lukas plays Athos. They are the only remotely recognizable names in the cast.  Despite a certain B movie flavor, this is a solid adaptation and one of my favorites.  The scene where d’Artagnan first beholds the King’s Musketeers in an elaborately (musically) choreographed fencing exercise is sheer Hollywood magic. Unfortunately, the guys who play the all-important THREE musketeers are barely indistinguishable one from the other. But the overall cinematic vehicle they move through has lots of old fashioned charm. TCM’s web site shows several clips from the film here.

This is the 1939 musical by 20th Century Fox. One can’t help but be distressed when one learns that the Ritz Brothers are playing the Three Musketeers. Sure, on the one hand it makes perfect sense  — after all, how many scripts are there that call for three identical guys? On the other hand, they’re all spastic! Have no fear, in this story their characters are only masquerading as Athos, Porthos and Aramis, stealing their Musketeer outfits following a drinking contest at the inn where the three men are cooks (when we first meet them they are performing a mortifying chicken plucking number, the lyrics to which include “We pluck! We pluck! We pluck, pluck, pluck!”) At any rate, they get drawn into an adventure by the ambitious D’Artagnan (a very young Don Ameche).

Casting directors should never get “creative”. For example, this movie includes John Carradine, Lionel Atwill and Douglas Dumbrille and NONE of them play the evil villain Richelieu. Indeed, the dumpy, beady-eyed Dumbrille is cast as Athos! The plot has some rough similarity to the book, and the sets are those charming studio one-size-fits-all storybook settings that I consider just fine for a story like this. In the end, not only D’Artagnan but the Ritz Bros. are made full fledged musketeers. That’s too much to swallow!

The 1948 MGM Technicolor version. This movie is absolutely gorgeous to look at, and during the first half you suspect it may be definitive, wondering why no one’s ever heard about this cinematic classic. The cinematography and costume design combine to dazzle the viewer into a scopophiliac bliss. During the second half, though, the “Milady’s Revenge” half, it grows dull and unfocused and one starts looking at the clock.

Some inspired casting here: Gene Kelly is in his acrobatic glory as D’Artagnan. He is natural as a swashbuckler. As the Countess pointed out, many of the scenes look like dry runs for the “silent” scenes in Singing in the Rain.  Vincent Price is Richelieu, one of his first bona fide “Pricean” villains; Frank Morgan, the doddering, kindly King, and the sultry, seductive Lana Turner is Milady de Winter. Rounding out the cast many other familiar faces: Angela Lansbury, June Allyson, Van Heflin, Gig Young. The one casting misstep is Keenan Wynn as a broadly comical servant; he is clearly embarrassed in the role and his discomfort takes us out of it.

One strange aspect: for some reason, this version strips all religion out. Here, Richelieu is not Cardinal but merely Prime Minister, and his men don’t sport the vivid crucifix insignia that make them so recognizable in other versions. At any rate, like I said, this version overstays its welcome about an hour into it.

Fortunately, MGM also produced the 1952 Tom and Jerry version above.

The 1973/4 version, the double movie Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers. For someone of my age, this is unavoidably the version all others are measured by. Directed by Richard Lester and originally conceived for The Beatles. (The idea makes me salivate. They would have been great. It’s perfect for them. Sex, cheeky humor and not too much acting required….with Ringo as the natural D’artagnan. They really should have done it. That is, it would have been perfect for the 1964 era Beatles, when they were still running and jumping around. By the time this film came out of course they had not only broken up, but fancied themselves sages, poets, revolutionaries and farmers…anything but a cheerful quartet of moptops). Here’s how they might have looked (from a tv comedy sketch they did lampooning Shakespeare in 1964):

At any rate, the consolation cast is nothing to sneeze at: Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain,  Michael York, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Geraldine Chaplin, Spike Milligan, Roy Kinnear…

I think this just may be the definitive version. The tone is just right…full of slapstick humor, and innocent joy in both the sex and the violence that reminds me a lot of one of my favorite movies, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones. Unlike previous versions, these musketeers frankly use dirty tricks as part of their scrapping arsenal, which is only fair when they are outnumbered. Lots of location shooting makes it an antidote to the stage-bound previous editions. It feels well researched, but it’s not without its well-placed humorous anachronisms. It even has a Nixon joke!

The 1993 Disney version. This is a missed opportunity if ever there was one. With Disney’s mission, resources and track record, they certainly had it within their power and purview to create the definitive family version (apart from the Mickey, Goofy and Donald one they had also previously done). Instead, they cynically and rather weakly crafted a version that attempts to be sort of au courant, hip and modern (without, unlike the 70s version, comprehending the SOUL of the thing), and so, in short, it’s just another crappy movie. Moronic cookie-cutter dialogue, ironically less sophisticated than movies made 50 and 60 years earlier; gratuitous sexual innuendo by Tim Curry as Richelieu is a dubious tradeoff.

Of the three stars playing Musketeers, only Keifer Sutherland roughly hits the mark, possessing the machismo, the looks and the intelligence for his role. Charlie Sheen is, and always was, a cypher; it took nothing short of a crack frenzy to make him briefly interesting a few months ago. And Oliver Platt is woefully miscast. I’d gladly take him as a villain, bumbling servant or cuckolded innkeep. His instinct to stretch here may have been enjoyable for him personally, but it doesn’t help the movie any. Worst of all, and this is the fatal element, Chris O’Donnell as D’Artagnan is an absolute black hole. He looks and acts like the high school football star who has been drafted to act in the school play because they needed a male ingenue. Beyond not-up-to-the-task. Since the character is at the center of the movie, it made the film virtually unwatchable for me.

2001 The Musketeer. Director Peter Hyams. international production and cast. Extremely excellent. Strictly speaking it’s not The Three Musketeers. It uses Dumas’ characters and overall situation, but makes the journey entirely different. The script is terrific and witty. Spectacular fights by Xin-Xin Siong is one of the main selling points. Some changes–Tim Roth, in one of his best performances is a psychopathic villain named Febre who works for Richeleiu (Stephen Rea). Rea is a sort of laissez-faire villain. He doesn’t mind if some calumnies are done in the name of achieving his aim but it isn’t the POINT for him, and he’d rather avoid bloodshed if possible. Febre’s misdeeds become too much for him, so in the end even he sides with the Musketeers in trying to thwart this monster he has created. The Milady character (many critics’ least favorite element) has been stricken from this version, but the Queen (Catherine Deneuve, still mighty handsome here in her late 50s) is still at the crux of the plot. Mena Suvani plays a character named Francesca (clearly based on the Constance of earlier versions). It is an extremely enjoyable film from start to finish. I’d watch it again!


The 2011 version was the ostensible reason for this post. When I was finally ready to see it at the one theatre in New York where it was playing, it had closed the day before. The DVD was finally available to rent a couple of days ago, and let me be among the first to say that its quick oblivion was deserved. In its favor: terrific set and costume design, fine casting and acting. Any film that has Christopher Waltz as Richelieu can’t be all bad. The performers do a fine job with what they’re given. But the script is the pits: full of the usual inappropriately contemporary dialogue that is not only not funny, but is just generally degrading. many changes to the trunk story. One of the main missteps is having Milady (Milla Jovovich) also be a female action hero in the Tarantino/ Joss Whedon mold. It’s fine to have such a character, but here, she’s redundant. Another flavor of villainy, more wiles-based, would not only be  more welcome but is necessary. And — worst — the whole heart of the picture, it’s star really, is a large steampunk dirigible.  It is so much the star of this film, that that’s what the film should be called” Steampunk Dirigible, sort of like Herbie, the Love Bug. And the direction is riddled with the sort of Hong Kong martial arts cliches (slow mo, etc) that have become so trendy. Trends are great when you set them. When you follow them, not so much.

Now. This is hardly all the versions of Three Musketeers out there. There are countless French versions, as might be expected. I’ve also left out the hilarious 1973 spaghetti western The Three Musketeers of the West. I have also yet to see something called The Erotic Three Musketeers (wait! wait! judge it on its merits!)

And I was tempted to do all the Man in the Iron Mask versions, but then why not do all the Count of Monte Cristos, and then you’d never see me again, and come to think of it, you’d probably like that wouldn’t you? Nevertheless, after all that work I feel like I need a reward. How about…

Aah hah! Faked you out!

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