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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Complete Musketeers
The Complete Musketeers
Starz / Anchor Bay // PG // February 4, 2003
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted February 8, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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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 the decade.

Synopsis:

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 and 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 nevertheless 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 second film.

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.  2 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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


Footnotes:

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.
Return

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.
Return

3. I guess this happened anyway, in eventual double billing.
Return


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