The Three Musketeers (1844) by French author Alexandre Dumas is one of the most filmed novels of all time. We’ve had kids animations (Dogtanian, 1981, Disney, 2004), Steam Punk (2011), Brat Pack (1993), TV series (2014-16, BBC1), a modern day update (2011) and many others, including spin-offs featuring the Musketeer offspring such as Revenge of the Musketeers (1994) and La Femme Muskeeter a decade later.
But NONE have come anywhere close to Richard Lester’s two movies (really one lengthy picture split into two) of the mid-70s, 1973’s The Three Musketeers and the following year’s Four Musketeers.
Lester, still with us at age 88, was an expat American director who rose to prominence in the 1960’s directing A Hard Day’s Night with the Beatles and the cult classic Petulia (1968), which starred Julie Christie and the great George C Scott.
The splitting of Lester’s one movie into two was not without controversy; during production, it was determined the film could not make its announced release date in that form – but the cast only became aware that they had made two films when they attended an advanced screening. After the picture ended a trailer for The Four Musketeers was shown, which none of them knew about until then…
Naturally enough, this pissed off the actors and crew mightily, since they were being paid for just one film, resulting in lawsuits being filed. Which led to the Screen Actor’s Guild requiring all future actors’ contracts to include what become known as the “Salkind clause” (named after producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind), mandating that single productions cannot be split into film instalments without prior contractual agreement.
This could leave a sour taste in the mouth when watching the movies, but fortunately this is soon forgotten due to the sheer quality of Lester’s work.
The movies boast a cast that’s perfectly suited to their roles, particularly Oliver Reed as the noble but deeply troubled Athos.
Even normally so-so actors such as Michael York (d’Artagnan), Raquel Welch (Constance Bonacieux the Queen’s seamstress) and especially Charlton Heston as the scheming Cardinal Richelieu shine in the two pictures.
Comedian Spike Milligan (The Goons) starred as Welch’s cuckolded husband M. Bonacieux:
The usually humorless Christopher Lee managed to bring some wit to the part of bad guy The Count de Rochefort.
A shame that the voice of the fine (and bi-lingual) actor Jean-Pierre Cassel (as King Louis XIII) was dubbed for no apparent reason by the English sitcom star Richard Briers (The Good Life/Ever Decreasing Circles).
Faye Dunaway is pretty good as the thoroughly nasty Milady, but (at least to my mind) isn’t half as sexy as Welch or Nicole Calfan as Milady’s naughty gap-toothed maid Kitty.
The attention to detail, superb location work (shot in Franco’s Spain) and Lester’s trademark verité style of having an undercurrent of ‘voices-off’ from minor characters commenting on the action and their own concerns all contribute to a timeless evocation of the period, which remains remarkably similar Dumas’ original novel.
Two very enjoyable scores from Michel Legrand (Three) and Lalo Schifrin (Four), plus superb cinematography from regular Lester collaborator David Watkin (Catch-22/Out of Africa).
Unfortunately, despite the presence of many of the original cast (even Cassel returned in a different role), Richard Lester couldn’t catch lightning in a bottle a second time, as his 1989 picture The Return of The Musketeers was blighted by the accidental death of beloved character actor Roy Kinnear (who played comical manservant Planchet), an uneven script and two very out-of-place US co-stars, Kim Cattrall and C. Thomas Howell.
Lester has not directed a motion picture since.
I spoke with Ilya Salkind and his partner Deborah Moore by email on 28th March, and expressed my genuine admiration for the two movies (legal issues not mentioned, obviously); he’s incredibly proud of them.
The couple are safe and well.