Film Stuff

Day 4: The Four Musketeers (1974)

Here’s where I invoke Rule 4 for the first time, due to Netflix being a bit hopeless. I have seen this film (a few times) before, but there have been so many Dumas-inspired adaptations made since that I figure it’s worth another look. It was either that or a documentary on Queen’s Park Rangers football club. I’m not that desperate yet. Give it time.

Of course, you can’t really see The Four Musketeers without watching The Three Musketeers first. It’s not so much a sequel as part 2 of the same story. The film-makers even tried to pull a fast one by shooting the two films back to back and pretending they were one and the same, sneakily contracting (and, more importantly, paying) the actors for only one film. The actors sued, and won, but still didn’t recoup the money they would have earned if they had been paid properly in the first place.

The Four Musketeers picks up where the previous film left off. Unusually for this kind of adaptation, the story sticks pretty closely to the book. In the first film, D’Artagnan travels to Paris to join the King’s Musketeers and is swiftly embroiled in a plot to discredit and dishonour the Queen by revealing her love affair with the Duke of Buckingham. Having saved the day, he is inducted into the Musketeers, but with the result of having majorly narked the trio of villains: Cardinal Richelieu (a Machiavellian Charlton Heston), Milady de Winter (Faye Dunaway) and Comte de Rochefort (Christopher Lee).

The second film focuses on Milady’s revenge, aided by Rochefort’s personal grudge-match and Richelieu’s supercilious eye on political expediency. They kidnap D’Artagnan’s lover Constance (who is also the messenger between the Queen and the Duke of Buckingham), and plot to kill the Duke before he sends aid to Protestant rebels at La Rochelle. Determined to thwart their plans, the Musketeers send a messenger to England and rescue Constance, only to get caught up in the battle at La Rochelle, giving Milady and Rochefort virtually free reign to conduct their mission.

The resulting fall-out leaves both the Duke of Buckingham and Constance dead, rendering the main purpose of the exercise a bit pointless. It reminds me of Tom Harris’ excellent analysis of the recent Bond film. All that effort and the villains STILL manage to achieve their goal. Mind you, it’s only Richelieu that’s left standing in this one, cleverly setting himself above the fray as he writes off the losses and prepares for the next of his dastardly schemes.

It’s all rollicking fun, really. Admittedly, the film is dated – the slapstick tone sits slightly uneasily with the shock death of the main love interest. Michael York is spectacularly annoying as D’Artagnan, but still far better than Chris O’Donnell in the brat pack version (which also has Charlie Sheen as the saintly Aramis – eek!). However, the whole thing is lifted by the casting of Oliver Reed as Athos – with all the swagger of a bull-fighter, he launches himself into the fight sequences with such animalistic aggression that you don’t blame the Cardinal’s guards for dropping swords and running at the first given opportunity.

Christopher Lee, as always, makes a worthy villain – his disdain for D’Artagnan’s puppyish enthusiasm might be speaking for the audience. It’s a shame (although understandable) that the film-makers choose to divert from the book by killing him off at the end. Especially as he’s inexplicably resurrected in the sequel 15 years later.

The icing on the cake is Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu. Constantly scheming, but always with an eye on the bigger picture, he is ruthless, calculating and pragmatic. When the incriminating get-out-of-jail-free card “what the bearer has done has been done” is cleverly turned against his own agents, he is wise enough to accept his losses and congratulate D’Artagnan on a fight well fought. His actions are ruled by his head rather than his heart, which makes him a far more dangerous (and realistic) enemy than, for example, Tim Curry’s cackling buffoon.

With landscapes that look more Spanish than French, cannons that don’t recoil, and battles fought on polystyrene ice, The Four Musketeers is not an advert for cinematic realism. But that’s not the point. The audible grumblings of Pythonesque plebs set the tone for a film that is fun, enjoyable and perfect for a Saturday afternoon’s entertainment.

What I would have seen (if Netflix had the range): Four Lions

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