Sunday, May 12, 2024

Swashbuckle Watch: The Three Musketeers (1973)

we're literally missing a whole Musketeer here - D'artagnan isn't a Musketeer

Watched:  05/11/2024
Format:  Prime
Viewing:  First
Director:  Richard Lester


So, I'm kind of surprised this movie isn't more of a thing here in the US.  Or hasn't had a longer shelf life.  But I have thoughts on that.  

I've not ever read Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and my knowledge of the material comes primarily from having seen the 1993 Disney version with Oliver Platt, Keifer Sutherland, (checks notes) Charlie Sheen (?) and Chris O'Donnell looking incredibly out of place.  If a 31 year old memory serves, that movie was not at all about the same things as this movie.

If that movie were a star-studded affair, it barely holds a candle to the cast of this film.  Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, Frank Finlay, Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Geraldine Chaplin, Roy Kinnear, Simon Ward - and, apparently, Sybil Danning?

I assume this movie has greater fidelity to the source material than the Disney movie, and my understanding is that it was a critical and commercial win at its release.  It was also produced by The Salkinds, which is a name you will know if you've lurked about this site and are familiar with any of my ramblings about Superman: The Movie.  

The Salkinds were a father/son pair of European gentlemen of indeterminate nationality and flexible scruples who somehow wound up in the movie business and generally tried to scram and screw-over everyone they worked with, and occasionally stumbled into a hit along the way.  In the case of this movie, they did the same thing they did to Superman: The Movie just a few years later - they planned on a 3 hour movie with every intention of actually making it two movies and doubling box office on their expenses.

I think what's weirdest about watching this movie is that it feels less like a movie adaptation and more like a rough bullet point of what I assume is in the book - like it assumes the viewer has familiarity with the story, and we're just going to show you a take on it.  It's also got some of what I'd call Richard Lesterisms scattered through the movie, some of which work, and some of which don't - but if you wanted very, very broad comedy in your Three Musketeers movie, this is the place.  And that's not actually a complaint, it's more of an observation.  It will remind you Raquel Welch can be zany.

But it also means, oddly, that the actual Three Musketeers of the film's title are barely in the movie, have zero explanation of who they are and why we should care about them as a unit or as individuals, and how they fit into the overall world.  At least American movies assume the audience is illiterate and ignorant and would stop to catch us up, instead of saying "well, we cast Oliver Reed, so you get it.  Athos is him."  Which would work in 1973, but in 2024?

So, in pondering why this movie hasn't endured, exactly, I'd say "well, most Americans born after the release of this movie can't pick Reed out of a line-up".  They sure don't know anything about Frank Finlay, and to most folks my age, Richard Chamberlain was that dude from The Thornbirds.   And if you're going to pick a Raquel Welch movie, she's not the lead here.  

But that lack of time spent on the Musketeers means there really isn't much to hang onto.  

The movie isn't exactly camp - they aren't winking at the *idea* of a chivalrous period piece.  Lester is inserting comedy over the top.  As I say, the movie is funny, like a decent action-comedy.  It's horny in a way that isn't off-putting and can get laughs.  But Lester seems far more interested in the laughs than putting together fight choreography that dazzles in the manner of American swashbuckling movies (and Lester was an American working in the UK.  One would assume he'd seen some things) which, I'll argue, would probably be merged in a US studio film.  It's more like awkward brawling by people who'd never seen a rapier before than Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone and flashing blades.  

I assume the style is intended to be comedic, and it often is.  But as the fight scenes carry on, you start wondering where all of this is going. 

And, after spending innumerable hours pondering Superman movies, it also has the patented look of a Lester film where "we're going to just dump light everywhere so we don't need to worry about shadows and can shoot this as quickly as possible.  Cinematography is for chumps.".  Which in American viewing, makes it looks like something intended for TV, which is wild when you look at the locations, the costumes and talent assembled.  But lighting *takes time* - and that's how movies fall behind.

I didn't dislike the movie, but it just feels like a C+ effort by everyone involved, including those legendary names.  It's like Lester and the Salkinds thought just having those people around was enough - and it weighs on me a bit how, on Superman, Donner likely fell out with the Salkinds by trying to make something special and an understanding of a craft that didn't have its best moment with a throwaway gag of Oliver Reed falling down a well.  

At the time, this movie got really solid reviews, so I'm more than open to the idea that it was a real "you had to be there" event.  But it seems like critics continue to say nice things about it.  And, again, I didn't hate it.  It has some great bits.  But I was also looking for a reason for the actual Three Musketeers to be in this movie and for it to not be just about D'artagnan.  

One odd bit:  the last Oliver Reed movie I watched was The Devils where the real-life Cardinal Richelieu was also present as a malevolent force, meaning this story was happening, fictionally, nearly contemporaneously with The Devils.  

But as per spectacles, star-studded casts, pretty solid gags, it's probably worth a spin.  

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