Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Musketeers (originally published 9/01)

Times change, and our tastes change with them, but some stories are just too good to be forgotten. "The Musketeer," currently playing nationwide, extends by one the remarkably long list of movie adaptations of Alexandre Dumas's "The Three Musketeers." Some of the most talented people ever to work in motion pictures have taken a crack at this story, and most of them have succeeded in turning it into entertaining cinema. So why bother to do another adaptation?

Because it's a rattling good story, that's why. It has everything: laughs, thrills, romance, intrigue, an appealing hero in the person of D'Artagnan, and a world-class villain in the person of Cardinal Richelieu. The fact that it's been done before hardly makes it easier to resist. And if perchance "The Musketeer" is your first exposure to D'Artagnan and his companions in the movies, you should know that some of the best of the earlier film adaptations are available on home video. Here are three that you can't go wrong with.

"The Three Musketeers" (1921). Without question, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was the preeminent action/adventure star of the silent era. He practically invented the genre of the swashbuckler movie with "The Mark of Zorro" in 1920. Having proved that this type of film could be a success, there was little question what his follow-up film would be. His favorite character in literature was D'Artagnan, and had been since he was a kid. Now he seized the opportunity to be D'Artagnan on the big screen. He spared no trouble or expense to mount a first class production, obviously a labor of love. The Fairbanks formula was simplicity itself - he had such a good time in front of the camera that audiences couldn't help having a good time too. He never had a better time, though, than in this film, portraying his childhood hero.

Fairbanks would return to the role of D'Artagnan eight years later in "The Iron Mask" (1929). It was among the last of the epic silent pictures, released two years after "The Jazz Singer" had sounded the death knell of the silent cinema. At the end of the film, Fairbanks as D'Artagnan dies, a melancholy acknowledgement of the passing of his beloved silent screen.

"The Three Musketeers" (1948). If Douglas Fairbanks grew up wanting to be D'Artagnan, Gene Kelly grew up wanting to be Douglas Fairbanks. When MGM weighed in with its version of the story, its most athletic young song and dance man jumped at the chance to take on the role that Fairbanks had poured his heart into. In the grand MGM manner, the production was marked by a lavishness bordering on the prodigal. In addition to being the first "Three Musketeers" film version in full color, it was the first to attempt to tell the whole story. The Fairbanks version covered only the first third of the novel, ending with the foiling of Richelieu's plot to discredit the queen.

Also, Kelly was surrounded by an amazing supporting cast. The MGM publicity department boasted that the studio had under contract "more stars than there are in the heavens." One could hardly doubt them based on the constellation of talent assembled for this picture, including Lana Turner as Milady de Winter, Vincent Price as Richelieu, Angela Lansbury as Queen Anne, and June Allyson as Constance. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"The Three Musketeers" (1974) and "The Four Musketeers" (1975). Director Richard Lester came up with a rather crafty solution to the problem of filming Dumas's lengthy novel without leaving out most of the good stuff. He simply shot a 3 1/2 hour movie and released it as two separate films. Lester comes from the same kind of way-out British comedy tradition that produced "Monty Python's Flying Circus," so he naturally approached the story with a certain amount of comic flair. The great British comic Spike Milligan, of the legendary BBC "Goon Show," is riotously funny as the hapless husband of Constance. Still, this adaptation is by no means given over entirely to comedy. The swordplay is appropriately rousing and the derring-do appropriately suspenseful, making for the satisfying mix of elements that Dumas demands.

With all this rich variety of interpretation available, why limit yourself to just one movie adaptation? Dumas's story blends well with a wide range of visions without losing its power to engage and entertain. If there's a better definition of a classic, I don't know what it would be.

No comments: