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April 09, 2008

The Three Musketeers (1973)

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The Three Musketeers: The Queen's Diamonds
Richard Lester - 1973

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The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge
Richard Lester - 1974
both Anchor Bay Region 1 DVD

According to Charlton Heston and others connected with the making of the Musketeer films, Heston was first approached to play Athos. It was Richard Lester who recast Heston as Cardinal Richelieu. What makes the decision interesting is that Heston is the least physical actor in a set of films that emphasizes physical action. Heston brings to the role his history of being perhaps the most physically active star for the better part of the past twenty years. Additionally, Lester was playing with Heston's previous roles as the voice of moral or religious authority, and intermediary between man and God. It is almost as if Lester was saying if anyone had the right to speak on behalf of God, or play God on earth by manipulating people for his own amusement, the right was earned by Chuck Heston.

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I had not seen the Musketeer films in over thirty years. The films still hold up, a concern I had after the disappointment of finally seeing Royal Flash, Lester and writer George MacDonald Fraser's attempt to launch a series combining the action and humor that worked well before. The credit sequence that opens the first film is a lesson on the physical exertion of sword fighting, that there is a greater demand on the body than simply trying to wave a long piece of metal in the right direction. More amazing perhaps, especially in this day of wire work and CGI, is that the actors actually did their own stunts. One beneficiary was Frank Finlay, who switched places with the more accomplished equestrian Raquel Welch, with his holding on to her, while she held the reigns. One of the unanticipated results of time also is that the cast seems more legendary than it did at the time of the original release.

Casting aside, this version of Dumas' story could probably not be done today because the caustic view of Christianity. In addition to the machinations of Richelieu, part of The Four Musketeers is devoted to the war between Catholics and Protestants. The war is presented as being far less about faith than about political power.

What makes the Musketeer films continually entertaining is that Lester crams the films with visual gags, such as Roy Kinnear running around in a bear costume or vainly attempting to leap high enough to diffuse a bomb beyond his reach, Raquel Welch as the constantly clumsy Constance, Oliver Reed leaning too far back with his drink in hand - falling backwards into a well, or the close-up of Michael York's face, after a night of love with Faye Dunaway, framed with a limp orchid. With all the activity going on, sometimes literally around him, Charlton Heston's Richelieu is like the relatively calm, but potentially threatening eye, of one very wild hurricane. It is little wonder that Heston enjoyed playing this role. No bartering with an unseen deity or walking for years through a desert, no suicidal chariot race with the former BFF, no staying on your back for years get paint splattered on your face. We knew what Charlton Heston was capable of doing so as Cardinal Richelieu there are no doubts that he could have kicked the rest of the cast with both hands tied behind his back. Heston as Richelieu is not only a man of God, but in his joyously perverse way, he is God.

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Posted by peter at April 9, 2008 12:39 AM

Comments

My favorite Heston role. Thanks for the appreciation. I'm not sure I buy the statement that it couldn't be made today because of its caustic take on Christianity ... I don't think it's any more caustic than, say, "There Will Be Blood" ...

Posted by: Rick Olson at April 9, 2008 08:40 AM

hey JFK of filmlastige blogs - :-)

just put your rss-feed in the aggregator :)

greetz from berlin/germany and keep up the good work :)
thomas

Posted by: thomas at April 9, 2008 10:02 AM

Great description of Heston's character. I watched both of these for the first time just a couple of months ago and was impressed by how damn entertaining they are. Michael York's introduction to the musketeers is solid comedic writing and direction.

Posted by: Adam Ross at April 9, 2008 10:15 AM