Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The 1970s are now considered a golden age for moviemaking, in terms of originality, openness, and
experimentation, but they also represented a lean period for escapist entertainment. The average family
wasn't much interested in Dusty & Sweets McGee, The Devils, or Across 110th
Street, and preferred fare like The Sting. Far more people saw The Towering Inferno
than Godfather 2; and the audience dwindled with the not-entirely ignorant
words, 'where did all the old-fashioned movies go?'
There should be room for everything, and the duo of Richard Lester Musketeers films hit
when quality costume adventures were at low ebb. Action movies of the time ranged from cynical
(James Bond) to appalling (The Wrath of God), and fun swordplay had for years been
relegated to sarcastic spoofs.
The notorious Salkinds put together an impressive production, an all-name cast of appropriate
players, and a fresh director, and almost pulled off the cleverest production rip-off of
Young D'Artagnan (Michael York) comes to Paris hoping to join the Musketeers, and
falls in with three roguish members, Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay), and Aramis
(Richard Chamberlain). Their adventures center around the Queen, Anna of Austria (Geraldine Chaplin).
Bored by her silly husband, Louis XIII (Jean-Pierre Cassel), she's become infatuated with the Duke
of Buckingham (Simon Ward), an Englishman and technically an enemy. The scheming Cardinal Richelieu
(Charlton Heston) uses dastardly agents Rochefort (Christopher Lee) and Milady de Winter (Faye
Dunaway) to try and compromise her, as war threatens between Catholic France and Protestant rebels
backed by England. For D'Artagnan's part, his heart is taken by the Queen's dressmaker, Constance
de Bonancieux (Raquel Welch).
At a time when studios were putting together dull and predictable programmers, some of the best shows
began as wholly independent ventures. The Salkinds of Europe had made few successes in the 60s, being
responsible for some respectable flops like Orson Welles' The Trial, and had recently done
reasonably well with a modest pirate movie,
The Light at the Edge of the World. Frankly,
their business reputation had its own 'Yo Ho Ho' pirate quality. To everyone's surprise, they made
a bid for the bigtime with the Musketeers movie, a grandiose enterprise that might tax a Samuel
Bronston or Joseph E. Levine.
Their later Superman franchise was the big moneymaker, but for outright quality, the Musketeers
films can't be topped. The casting aimed for talent, not superstar names, so the show has a spirited
ensemble feel, instead of becoming any particular actor's vehicle. With the British industry in the pits,
there was a bounty of name talent hungry for prestigious parts. Most had risen in supporting roles
in big pictures, and leads in smaller ones; there are no Oliviers or Julie Christies here, just
solid performers like Frank Finlay and Michael York.
Everybody looks good! Handsome York gets to play a not-too-bright hero and shows himself fully capable
of carrying the nominal lead role. Reed suitably sulks and plays coy, Richard Chamberlain fusses
and quips, and the under-appreciated Frank Finlay (The Pianist) is a comic delight. Simon
Ward, after a disappointing Young Winston, gets more exposure. Because of career doldrums,
fading luminary Charlton Heston was available for a plum part, which he embraces like a trouper.
The same probably applies to Faye Dunaway, whose string of successes had momentarily cooled off.
It's possible that the only name they had to pay full price for was Racquel Welch. She'd
skillfully managed herself into the top brackets even though none of her pictures were really very
good. In what might be her best movie, Welch shows herself to be perfectly capable of underplaying
a good line of farce. She actually makes the cliché of the Sexy Klutz work, no mean feat.
In the bargain basement was genre favorite Christopher Lee, who at the time was a horror star but
was still a relative unknown as far as industry radar was concerned. He'd only recently broken
the barrier into top pictures, thanks to Billy Wilder and The Private Life of Sherlock
Holmes. As D'Artagnan's sidekick, Lester brought along faithful stalwart Roy Kinnear. A
blinkered producing decision might have signed up someone like Benny Hill, and thrown the picture
off balance. Even a 2nd string role was filled by Michael Gothard
Scream Again), another clever choice instead of a commercial one.
What makes the difference in the Musketeers movies is director Richard Lester, a funny man who
took his work seriously, and was held in high esteem for re-inventing the British comedy for the
Beatles generation. Sufficiently heavyweight to keep all the big personalities in check, Lester finally
found the outlet to exercise his joy in action and silly slapstick, which are expressed here in
comic setpieces that far outdid reigning king Blake Edwards, and compared well with the silent
comedy architects. There's a feeling about the proceedings of improvised looseness (thoroughly
rehearsed looseness, no doubt) and lighthearted fun, and even the villains maintain an appropriate
archness to their skulduggery .. even humorless Chris Lee manages a joke or two.
The quality that sets Lester's Musketeer movies apart from earlier versions is its low-key approach
to the bond between the four heroes. There's no big emphasis on 'all for one, one for all' sobriety,
as in the dreary 1998 The Man in the Iron Mask. The four are reasonably devoted, but more
from natural affection than any great effort of loyal determination. Thus the light-hearted treatment
is appropriate, and the feigned insults and jovial callousness between the nervy pack of
virtuous scoundrels, funny.
The production design paints a wonderful picture of Royalist France. It doesn't shirk from large-scale
assemblies at the palaces, but concentrates on clever street-smart details. Paris is shabby & dirty,
and the fights and rendezvous points are often placed in inns, laundries, and the like - places where
the locals are quite convincingly going about their business. There's a sense of humor to everything,
from the Crimson Pirate-like submersible demonstrated for Buckingham, to the restoration-era
pinball games, to the herd of sheep that finds itself in the middle of a pitched battle. A group of
red New England Indians plays games in the halls of a palace. Milady wears a corset with a hidden
compartment for a dagger, and threatens D'Artagnan with glass-bladed stilettos filled with acid.
All of this is capped by appropriately regal music, which in the first film is credited to Michel
Legrand, and the second, Lalo Shifrin. It's almost the only credit that doesn't carry over to the
Which brings us to the one-film-into-two issue. The Three Musketeers was scripted, contracted
and filmed as one enormous movie, but was divided into two features to be released 8 months apart. In
these days, with the gargantuan Lord of the Rings trilogy planned and shot over six years
or so of effort, the brouhaha in 1973 over the Salkind's flippant decision to split their show
into two features may no longer seem very reasonable. Back then it was big news.
For the below-the-line talent, nothing changed when one movie became two. They did their work, got
paid off, and that was that.
But the stars and main contributors were shocked to find out that instead of a single three hour
Roadshow attraction, they were going to appear in two separate releases. Those with the most to gain
sued first, but many of the actors had no recourse - few contracts of the time specified that
angle. There were of course movie series, but they were done one at a time, and with few exceptions
(the Western release of the Russian War and Peace, the obscure German film Mistress of
the World) there hadn't been major two part releases since Fritz Lang and the silent era.
The split works well. The two halves of the story have different tones, with the meet'n greet fun
of the first giving way to more serious plot developments in the second. The second suffers only the
slightest from the contrast of leading characters dying, in a tale where killing people was
previously funny both for us and the heroes. Faye Dunaway's presence is the most lopsided, hardly
showing up in the first act and dominating the second.
The best argument for making two films are the swordfights, which when taken in two separate doses, stay
fresh. The overall glut of swordplay and battle scenes would, I think, grow repetitious if one
had to sit through both shows in one go. 3
The fact that the Salkinds made the right choice doesn't take away from their basic sneakiness.
Roadshows were indeed dead by 1973, and it was a much better idea to release the show this way.
I've always suspected that the surprise decision was planned so that the uproar would provide
hard-to-get publicity for the film, publicity that would serve notice that the Salkinds were
the cleverest dogs in the showbiz dogfight. 1
Now, 30 years later, the pictures play together on this DVD set as if none of the
fracas had occurred, at least until the producers open their mouths in the accompanying docus.
Anchor Bay's double-disc DVD of The Complete Musketeers is a fancy delight that again proves them
equal to and often better than the top DVD labels. The transfers are truly good, and the two
disc set offers both enhanced widescreen encodings, and pan'scans to make everyone happy.
The image quality is superb. I've seen both of these features on a screen and many times on
television, and the prints were always greenish and unappetizing - typical of cheapo lab work in
1973. The image snaps, and when the colors are dusty or subdued, it's because they're meant to be that way.
The sound is the good mono original. This AB disc has Closed Captions, a happy addition that should
be standard practice, and not just for the deaf: try understanding all of Oliver Reed's
mumbled lines and they suddenly become indispensible.
Extras include generous servings of graphic art and stills, trailers, tv spots, a featurette, and
those extra-long bio essays by Avie Hern. A lengthy docu is split in two across the two discs, and
it features new interviews with many cast members (Welch, York, Finlay, Lee) and an odd-man-out,
re-formatted interview with Charlton Heston, who this year must be the hardest man in America
to interview, after Bowling for Belligerence. All are charming, and Heston no less so than
anyone else. Raquel looks astonishingly well-preserved as she proudly explains
how her lawyers descended on the Salkinds faster than anyone else's. All give hearty eulogies to
Oliver Reed that avoid cheap sentiment. Only Christopher Lee, always his own worst enemy in
interviews, comes off in a bad light. He grouses about his relatively modest fee, tries to hype
the danger of all the stunts, and more or less demonstrates a lack of control when it comes to
talking about his career. It's a shame, for he has nothing to ashamed of and nothing to be incensed about:
his fans were always loyal and his recent career triumphs speak for themselves. Is he bitter for
not being in the same sainted company as Alec Guiness? We love him just the same.
In his interviews, Salkind fils meets the expectations of the Jolly Roger school of moguldom,
with Pierre Spengler unfortunately looking like (stress, 'looking'), like a real crook.
Salkind's reaction to the general finger-pointing about the two-movie split is an amusing squirm, and
the very good argument that by doing so, the producers took a not-insubtantial risk: if the first
film tanked, how could the second stand a chance of being successful?
The Musketeers films are fine entertainments that play as if they were brand new. This new disc set
presents them beautifully.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Complete Musketeers rates:
Supplements: The Three Musketeers: The Queen's Diamonds: Production docu.,
1973 making of featurette, trailer, tv & radio spots, poster and still gallery /The Four
Musketeers: Milady's Revenge: Production docu, trailer, tv & radio spots, poster
and still gallery
Packaging: Card and plastic case
Reviewed: February 7, 2003
1. The same gambit backfired four years later on Superman, even with the stars perfectly aware
upfront of the Salkind's tricks. Problems with both Marlon Brando and director Richard Donner
resulted in the second half of the original first script being rethought and reshot, with the
original's grace muted in character-defeating subplots and crass details.
2. I saw first-hand real international crook producers at their craft
while working at Cannon - the Salkinds and Spengler may be sharpies, but they never attracted
the investigations and international banking indictments that did Cannon's financiers.
3. I guess this happened anyway, in eventual double billing.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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