The Four Musketeers
Slightly tragic slapstick

by Russell E. Davis

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, p. 10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

When Richard Lester finished filming THE THREE MUSKETEERS in 1973, he found that he had accumulated enough footage for a four-hour show. The final cut did not fit the original plan of a traditional epic with an intermission. However, the venture did fall neatly into two separate parts, each telling a complete tale of high adventure: THE THREE MUSKETEERS, OR THE QUEEN'S NECKLACE, and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, OR MILADY'S REVENGE. The first part was released in 1974, and the second in 1975.

The connecting links are awkward. To introduce Part II, we have nonessential scenes of carnage, siege, and fire from the end of Part I. This confusing repetition adds nothing by way of explication. Part II, extending the action of the first with many shifts of emphasis, is self-contained to the extent that a newcomer to the scene will not feel entirely lost.

Reviewers of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS have, in general, been more kind to it than to its predecessor, evidently because the later release is more thoughtful, more mature. Director Lester and his scriptwriter (George MacDonald Fraser, of the Flashman novels) used their familiar mocking approach to history. But now the hilarious pace is somewhat tempered by the fact that much of the slapstick play has become comic in the classic sense of the word: with a touch of the tragic

Several times the characters on the screen (often personages lifted from history) go about their careless pastimes oblivious to the suffering around them. Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) and her courtiers have a picnic in a sunny meadow, with charming music played on a portable steam organ. On a hill in the background, poor peasants are hanged on the black, surrealistic branches of a tree. As Milady (Faye Dunaway) glides aristocratically up a grand staircase, her weary servants lean on her sedan-chair, remarking that she has put on weight and should buy a horse. Planchet (Roy Kinnear), formerly servant to D'Artagnan (Michael York) alone now must work for all four musketeers. These heroes thoughtlessly risk life and limb for the hell of it and the glory of their selfish masters, but the perils of the battlefield are very real to the loyal retainer.

Jokes are punctuated with sly touches, often truly bitter, which keep reminding us that the background is the horrible religious struggle of the 1620s. Casual shadows, like tiny clouds in a summer sky, hover over the action. The visual, pratfall brand of comedy works as well as ever. But the satirical jibes at history refuse to come off because that sad period of history simply cannot show a bright side even when prodded by the most expert jest.

When D'Artagnan remarks that a certain churchly belief does not make sense, he is put down by Aramis (Richard Chamberlain): “Even so, that’s what religious wars are all about.” The four friends are not too stupid to question the motives of their power-hungry employers; they simply never think of questioning the violence of which they are a natural part. However, the touches of black comedy are too subliminal to warn the average viewer of the grim ending to come. Audiences cannot help but share the musketeers’ shock at the needless murder of Constance (Raquel Welch), and the necessity of the grim judgment on Milady. It is most unusual for adventures in the grand manner to end with violent ends for its leading ladies.

Among the memorable, comic incidents is a side-splitting duel on ice. Battle is joined on the spur of the moment without giving the combatants a choice of site. The lethal whistling, whipping swords are combined with slippery footing. The duelists cannot stand up, much less fight in this encounter which could not possibly have been rehearsed. Only afterward do we wonder how an icy pond could be made to crack on cue.

In another moment of comic genius, a kind aide blindfolds the one good eye of Rochefort (Christopher Lee) in vertical fashion as the latter faces a firing squad. But the would-be executioners cannot hit the victim at a distance of ten feet with the latest in match-lock muskets. On the other hand, a marksman on the far side of the battlefield explodes the neck of a wine bottle in an obliging gesture when a thirsty musketeer has forgotten his corkscrew.

Several of the actors, who enjoyed generous footage in Part I, are now subjected to drastic editing. Here Simon Ward, Geraldine Chaplin, and Jean Pierre Cassel appear only briefly. Raquel Welch’s role is surprisingly short for one of her star status. But this is somewhat compensated for by one hilarious escape when she is carried from prison by a musketeer atop two-story stilts, while three ravenous dogs try to trip them up.

Director Lester’s attention is even divided regarding his four swashbucklers. All of them are together in a majority of their scenes, but Richard Chamberlain (Aramis) and Frank Finlay (Porthos) do not leave the lasting impression that they do in Part I. Michael York is again the very brash and active D'Artagnan, but he has gained some social graces. A sense that life is earnest and real backlights his characterization. However, his fans need not despair; he has his share of headlong, comic adventures, including a bedroom scene with Milady, which sees a lightning switch from seduction to mayhem. His hair-breadth escape, clutching a treacherous blanket about his nakedness, is almost truly revealing.

Oliver Reed (Athos) takes acting honors with his brooding face engaging our interest as he becomes increasingly aware that Milady is supposedly his dead wife, and also a branded felon. Reed dominates the scene when it is his force of personality and character that finally sends Milady to her death.

There is possible danger that the casual viewer will be confused by the complex Milady created by Faye Dunaway, by her expert welding of the serious and the comic. Like the actor who plays Iago successfully, Dunaway enacts the despicable Milady honestly, fully, and thereby gains our respect for her versatility, and our unwilling concern for her character’s fate.

The use made of Dunaway here is a great surprise because of its close approach to the old-time star treatment. Her fabulous wardrobe, glistening with jewels, is equal to the creations Adrian ran up for Garbo and Shearer in the vintage MGM costume dramas. She dominates much of the action and generates a fine mingling of comedy, menace, seductiveness, and fear. Under Lester’s direction, she carries all obstacles before her.

In the bedroom scene with D'Artagnan, her fetching negligee reveals much of her ravishing body and her branded arm. Her lovely smile, with its flicker of malice, refuses to be eclipsed by a garden hat made on the pattern of an inverted hoopskirt. Dunaway’s projection is equal to all problems. She curbs her hatred almost long enough to catch D'Artagnan completely off guard. She is properly terrified when, having failed to ambush Buckingham in a London park, she is in turn surrounded by a band of American Indians who are visiting her intended victim. She helps to dramatize the religious temper of the time when, pretending piety, she seduces a scowling Puritan lad and sends him off to stab Buckingham. There was never a more beautiful nun with unctuous voice than the disguised Milady as she prepares to strangle the unsuspecting Constance. And the sense of agony in her pleading eyes overwhelms the screen as she looks at her four judges when the executioner gathers her up in his arms.

This execution scene is so graphic that its sense of gloom is not wholly dispelled in the following scene in which Charlton Heston as Cardinal Richelieu reveals a quite unexpected comic gift. The devious churchman sits in judgment on D'Artagnan, but the boy has a pardon. A safe-conduct for Milady, ambiguously worded by the Cardinal, serves to rescue Richelieu’s hated enemy. With rare skill, Heston combines self-mockery, regret for the death of useful pawns, and perhaps a sneaking respect for D'Artagnan as he says: “One should be careful what one writes.”

The picture really ends with this subtle humor but unfortunately Lester tacks on a useless scene, the contents of which are lifted from the Epilogue to Dumas’ novel. Here the four friends, together for the last time, sum up their future plans. This was a customary ritual in nineteenth-century novels. But in this film it seems to say that director and script writer were very tired of the project and can think of no better way to end it.