Uproarious, irreverent and kinetic—all while remaining faithful to the source material.
There are so many adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers that one very frequently runs into another, failing to stand out with its own distinctive voice. Woefully underrated director Richard Lester, however, provided one of the most unique takes on the classic novel in his 1973 film, melding slapstick humor into the swashbuckling adventure. Lester’s film was infamously split into two: The Three Musketeers and its sequel, The Four Musketeers, prompting SAG amendments. The first installment, though, sees Lester blend his humorous mode, as seen in Beatles vehicles A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as The Knack…And How to Get It, with period dramatics. Not only was the film a valuable addition to his varied oeuvre, but The Three Musketeers stands out among its fellow adaptations, providing much more than fancy swordplay.
First and foremost, the film looks to mine humor from every action and situation. The minimalist intro is deceptively serious, as when d’Artagnan (Michael York) leaves home and, a few minutes later, takes offense at a guard; his challenge ignored, he ends up fabulously falling in the mud. Action sequences and sword fights frequently feature hilarious uses of surroundings, from wet clothes to chicken legs. It’s slapstick through and through. Adapted by George MacDonald Fraser, a comic author who only became a screenwriter because of his work here, The Three Musketeers was at one time intended to be yet another vehicle for the Beatles. Just imagine John Lennon as a sassy Porthos! But this humor-heavy version doesn’t veer wildly from the original novel for the sake of laughs. Dumas himself has his own comic ways, here amplified tenfold by Fraser.
And just as the valets have distinct characters in Dumas’ novel, Lester throws in insubordinate mumbling from servants and other minor figures throughout. On the one hand, it’s just funny; how many period films will feature servants complaining about aristocrats having put on weight as they carry them around in a sedan chair? But it also serves to paint a fuller picture of period France, with these military men—in service to royalty—supported by valets or even, in d’Artagnan’s case, in love with a seamstress to the Queen (who’s married to the owner of a rundown boarding house, as played by Spike Milligan). Through minor or even background characters, Lester is able to more fully portray the separate classes of French society.
It’s also not an exaggeration to call Lester’s film “star-studded.” Not only is d’Artagnan played by York, but Lester secured a brooding Oliver Reed as Athos, Richard Chamberlain as the dandy Aramis, Frank Finlay as the bombastic Porthos, Raquel Welch as the klutz Constance Bonacieux, an icy Faye Dunaway as Milady de Winter, Geraldine Chaplin as Queen Anne, Christopher Lee as Rochefort and Charlton Heston as the mastermind Cardinal Richelieu.
As a swashbuckling tale of adventure, The Three Musketeers is supposed to be fun. Lester’s adaption commits to that, crafting an action-packed film that makes the audience laugh riotously while watching the tale of missing royal jewels unfold. It’s uproarious, irreverent and kinetic—all while remaining faithful to the source material.