It’s not surprising The Three Musketeers has been filmed so often. Alexandre Dumas’ historical novel has it all: action, intrigue, romance, comedy, tragedy, colourful yet psychologically convincing characters, and a full complement of ready-made sequels, all wrapped up in a literary package that even today slips down as easily as an airport page-turner. It really is the definition of a thumping good read.
More surprising is how so many screenwriters have decided their own plotting and characterisation skills are superior to those of Dumas and his collaborator, August Maquet, even above and beyond the inevitable changes necessary for any screen adaptation. The current BBC series, for example, is not the first adaptation to kill off D’Artagnan’s father; this might give our hero more obvious Hollywood-style motivation than the one leading to the first skirmish in the book – Rochefort laughing at D’Artagnan’s horse – but it also sacrifices a wonderfully succinct way of establishing the protagonist’s background, pride and impulsiveness, not to mention his youth.
For D’Artagnan is just a teenager when the book begins, and while the musketeers in movies and serials tend to be played by middle-aged actors, in the book they’re barely older than D’Artagnan, with only Athos over 30. This, with a perennial student-like shortage of cash, goes a long way towards explaining – if not excusing – their preoccupation with brawling, boozing and womanising, often with other people’s wives.
I was lucky enough to be inculcated into musketeer-fandom by one of the best TV adaptations of The Three Musketeers. It was broadcast in 1966, the heyday of the BBC’s classic Sunday serial, and kicked off with a blast of Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold. A young Jeremy Brett played D’Artagnan, Brian Blessed was the perfect Porthos, and Mary Peach (an actress tragically underused by the British film industry) an unforgettable Milady de Winter.
I never forgot her, anyway; her vivid performance started me off on a lifelong obsession with one of literature’s most delicious femmes fatales, an angelic-looking blonde temptress whose summarily brutal treatment at the hands of her first husband (none other than Athos) must surely go a long way towards explaining – if not exactly excusing – her subsequent wickedness.
I was so taken with her that, when I was given a paper-knife for Christmas, I kept it at my bedside, just in case I ever needed to brandish it at some passing D’Artagnan who might have discovered my deepest darkest secrets (I was twelve and this was a more innocent age, so I had yet to form a clear idea of what those secrets might possibly be). I also practised ripping handkerchieves to pieces with my teeth; in Dumas’ book it was white cotton, but I wisely limited myself to the paper tissue variety.
Milady’s methodical five-day seduction of the Puritan jailer, John Felton, is a thrilling, chilling depiction of evil at its most manipulative. Little wonder there have been several attempts to tell the story from her perspective, including a 1952 Italian film called Milady and the Musketeers, and a 2004 French telefilm starring veteran exhibitionist Arielle Dombasle (this extract lacks subtitles, but does feature Milady and her fashion sense, plus a number of kittens).
Another Milady-centric spin-off is the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, in which an antiquarian book dealer is hired to authenticate a previously unknown draft of The Three Musketeers, finds himself up to his neck in an imbroglio of devil worshippers and murder, and incurs the emnity of a woman who is obsessed by the character of Milady. (The novel provided source material for the 1999 film The Ninth Gate, directed by Roman Polanksi, from which all references to Alexandre Dumas and his work were excised.)
By the time 38-year-old Douglas Fairbanks played D’Artagnan in Fred Niblo’s 1921 film, there had already been at least 10 silent adaptations of The Three Musketeers, including one by George Méliès that has since been lost. Niblo’s film covered only the first half of the book, a deficiency made good that same year in France, where Henri Diamant-Berger’s 14-episode adaptation stuck doggedly to the novel, albeit hampered (to my eyes at least) by Milady looking like a man in drag (and not, I suspect, a nod to one of the character’s real-life historical counterparts having been the transvestite diplomat and spy, the Chevalier d’Éon.
You might have expected Hollywood to make a pig’s ear out of the Dumas classic, but George Sidney’s colourful MGM romp (1948) is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the book. Gene Kelly bounces all over the place as D’Artagnan, and the initially odd-seeming conflation of his lady love (June Allyson) with the jailer Felton ultimately kills two birds with one stone. Vincent Price plays that well-known ailurophile, Cardinal Richelieu, with a cat in his lap (at the time of the Cardinal’s death in 1642, he reportedly had 14 of them) and Lana Turner is absolutely luscious as Milady.
The best film version, most musketeer-completists agree, is Richard Lester’s diptych The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), adapted by George MacDonald Fraser, and originally conceived as a vehicle for The Beatles. It was shot as a single film but released as two separate features by producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, which came as a surprise to actors who has signed up (and presumably been paid) for just the one movie, triggering lawsuits and adding a “Salkind Clause” to SAG contracts so that trick couldn’t be played again.
There’s not a weak link in the all-star cast, with Charlton Heston a wily Richelieu, Faye Dunaway on top icy form as Milady, Oliver Reed as a brooding Athos, and Raquel Welch, in a career-best turn, as a comically bumbling Constance Bonacieux. Lester stuffed it full of terrific slapstick set-pieces (critics who complained about the humour had evidently not read the book) and fight scenes brilliantly choreographed by the great William Hobbs, culminating in an extraordinary duel to the death between D’Artagnan (Michael York, never better) and his archenemy Rochefort (Christopher Lee).
Also contributing, to hilarious effect, was Roy Kinnear as D’Artagnan’s servant Planchet. Fifteen years later, the actor’s tragic death after a riding accident on the set of The Return of the Musketeers, the same creative team’s adaptation of Twenty Years After, would cast a sad pall over that production, though the movie is still worth seeking out. The BBC, incidentally, had already adapted Dumas’ sequel for television in 1967 as The Further Adventures of the Musketeers, with Jeremy Brett replaced as D’Artagnan by Joss Ackland, and Milady’s vengeful son Mordaunt played by Michael Gothard – who would go on to play John Felton in Lester’s The Four Musketeers. (In another, almost certainly inadvertent nod to the Chevalier d’Éon, the gender of Milady’s vengeful offspring in The Return of the Musketeers was changed to female, with the role of “Justine de Winter” filled by a pre-Sex and the City – but post-Mannequin – Kim Cattrall.)
One of the most delightful features of Lester’s musketeer films is the constant muttering by servants (for example, grumbling that the occupant of the sedan chair they’re carrying has put on weight), reminding us that these aristocrats and warriors to whose stories we thrill are supported by a vast but usually invisible network of abused underlings. In the book, the musketeers’ valets are almost as well characterised as their masters, and provide many a comic subplot; French director André Hunebelle directed two adaptations in which the servants took centre stage – the celebrated French comic actor Bourvil played Planchet in 1953, while 20 years later comic troupe Les Quatre Charlots, as the valets, propped up a quartet of deadbeat musketeers in a slapstick parody of the tale.
More recent versions (both English and French) have been marred by a tendency to meddle too much with Dumas’ winning formula, miscasting (Charlie Sheen as Aramis!), the maddening American insistence in pronouncing the “h” in Athos, and trendy directing tics that rapidly look dated. But the story is evergreen, and can take repeated pummelling. It has survived recycling as the splendid kids’ cartoon Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (in which Milady is a black cat!) and being repurposed for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. It has even survived being pillaged for an ugly computer-animated Barbie film.
In the meantime, I’m still dreaming of Garth Marenghi’s Three Musketeers, with Richard Ayoade, Matt Berry and Matthew Holness in the title roles, and Alice Lowe as Milady. Please please please make it so.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in February 2014, to tie in with the first season of the BBC’s The Musketeers. It has since been comprehensively rewritten and added to.
The second season of The Musketeers, incidentally, was a vast improvement on the first – chiefly thanks to the addition to the cast of Marc Warren as a splendidly louche Rochefort.
Some of these screengrabs were found in posts tagged “musketeer media monday”on this excellent blog by Tansy Rayner Roberts, who seems to be working her way every musketeer movie ever made, including a Russian version and one set on Mars. Highly recommended for musketeer completists.