The Three Musketeers is so much fun, you barely notice when the film takes a turn in the last thirty or so minutes. The Musketeers are on a mission—they’ve got to deliver a letter to England to save at least one lady’s honor, possibly two—and just as the film reunites them all with the promise of action… it starts shedding them. They get in individual fights or duels, leaving Michael York to go on alone. Well, he brings faithful servant Roy Kinnear along, but Kinnear’s just there for the (very good) laughs. It’s not like he’s going to tell York the important things, like how to get off England since it’s an island.
York’s the film’s protagonist, though George MacDonald Fraser’s script isn’t great about treating him like it once all the “guest stars,” not to mention Raquel Welch’s cleavage (once Welch’s cleavage arrives, it’s all anyone present gives any attention, cast and crew alike), come into the film. York’s D’Artagnan, would-be Musketeer, who happens across a trio of real Musketeers who could always use another partner in literal crime. See, the Musketeers work for the King, meaning they brawl (sword brawl) with the Cardinal’s guards. The film never bothers explaining why there’s the animosity between the groups or why, although loyal to the King (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his Musketeers fight with the Cardinal’s men, even though the King is allied with the Cardinal. Charlton Heston, with what appears to be a fake goatee, is the Cardinal.
Doesn’t matter, the guys in red are bad, the guys in (mostly) black are good. The good guys are Oliver Reed (Athos), Frank Finlay (Porthos), and Richard Chamberlain (Aramis). Reed’s the drunk pensive but heroic one, Finlay’s the vaguely inept dandy, Chamberlain’s the adept dandy as well as the trio’s Don Juan. Chamberlain, we’re told, likes the married ladies. So does York, as Welch is married, and the film gets a lot of laughs out of mocking her cuckold (a fantastic Spike Milligan).
The first half of the film introduces York, the Musketeers, evil (he’s eye-patched so there’s no mistaking it) Christopher Lee, and the political ground situation. See, Cassel is useless fop who’s going to let Heston do whatever Heston wants to do, so long as Heston at least pretends Cassel isn’t a useless fop. The film shot on location—in Spain, not France, but still in palaces and such—so you’re seeing the intrigue play out with these impeccably costumed (Yvonne Blake’s costuming is magnificent) “royals” lounge around palaces and deserve a Revolution more by the minute. It adds a wonderful subtext to the film, which showcases and romances the grand opulence of historical royalty without being able to not show it also as, you know, utterly pointless and a really bad way for society to function. Because the Musketeers are alcoholic gambling addicts who end up stealing from the commoners. Arguably, the Cardinal’s guards are “better” civil servants. Though—again, Fraser doesn’t dwell—the Musketeers are mercenaries between wars; adventurers in the sense drunken carousing is adventuring.
And, arguably, the big mission at the end is against the King, though arguably for France. Musketeers is lightly bawdy adventure comedy for the whole family—though, unless she really, really, really likes Michael York, there’s nothing anywhere near approaching the male gaze equivalent of Raquel Welch—so no dwelling on politics, infidelity (klutzy Welch doesn’t even seem aware her husband might mind being cuckolded), or even its characters. See, one of the things you realize in the finale—besides how, outside a cat fight between Welch and bad lady Faye Dunaway in ball gowns (and what glorious gowns they are), the ball Welch and Dunaway are dressed for, and some solid sight gags, the finale’s action is rather uninspired and unenthusiastic—you also realize the titular Three Musketeers are totally unimportant to the film at this point. York getting the most to do makes sense, but the film goes so far as the make the other Musketeers comic relief. Brief comic relief.
It’d be fine if the sword fights were better, but they’re not. Three Musketeers starts with a gymnastic training sword fight scene between York and his father and then some more nonsense with York (he’s naive to the point of buffoonery, which is rather endearing as York plays it completely—and very Britishly—straight); it takes the film awhile to deliver a great sword fight, but then it does deliver a great one, with Lester’s best action direction, John Victor Smith’s best cuts, but also Dons Challis and Sharpe’s sound editing. Three Musketeers goes from being a “handsome” period piece to a considerable period action picture. And then the fight’s over and it’s back to handsome period piece, funny, active. But once Welch’s cleavage enters the literal frame, Lester and the film’s ambitions for an action picture disappear.
There’s a decent night time sword fight with the opponents using hand lanterns to see, but the finale’s fireworks-lighted long shot swordplay brawl isn’t anything special. The most impressive thing about a grand action picture’s third act shouldn’t be the awesomely ostentatious costume ball costumes but then you also wouldn’t think David Watkin’s photography would be so much better on the ball than the action sequences either. Three Musketeers goes into the third act somewhat soft and never really recovers.
At least solid performances from everyone. It’s hard with Welch because she’s got a lousy role and you almost wish she was bad so she wouldn’t work in the lousy role. But she’s not. She’s not a comedic genius but Lester’s not interested in her performance, he’s interested in her anatomy. York’s a good lead. Reed’s awesome. Chamberlain’s got like six lines. Finlay’s good. Supporting cast… Milligan and Kinnear are great, Cassel’s fine, Lee’s great, Dunaway’s okay (again, crappy part), Heston’s tolerable.
Of course, I’ve skipped mentioning the subplot about French Queen Geraldine Chaplin and British prime minister Simon Ward, somewhat unintentionally, but suffice to say, it’s an important subplot and both actors are good. Even if theirs is the far more interesting story than anything else going on in the picture. Especially the Welch cuckolding Milligan subplot, which is sometimes hilarious, usually funny, but not interesting. It’s cheap laughs. Chaplin and Ward… Fraser and Lester could’ve done something. They do not. Nice roles for both actors though. Thin but nice.
The Three Musketeers is glorious, gorgeous adventure. It has the pieces to be better but not the ambition. It’s easy; sometimes easy is good enough.