Conceived as a single film, but split into two parts by the producers, The Three and Four Musketeers are as entertaining today as when they were released forty years ago. While the split may have been made for commercial reasons, it is not exactly arbitrary. Beginning as non-stop, devil-may-care hi-jinks, the tone shifts in the second film, “The Revenge of Milady,” as the musketeers confront the consequences of their earlier derring-do. Which does not make Four more “serious.” Its darker goings-on still combine romance and melodrama, so that while the contrast between the two films is immediately apparent, they remain unmistakably of a piece.
I only read Dumas’s novel as an adult, and it was painfully obvious that despite the book’s “classic” status, it is the kind of thing that movies took over to do better. I would argue that this version, at least, is superior to the book in just about every way, compensating for whatever might be lost of the story with the tantalizing effervescence of the cinematic image. George Macdonald Fraser’s screenplay eliminates the gratuitous filler in the novel. A handsome, all-star cast gives life to the characters’ desiccated ink and paper origins. Lapidary production design, the opalescent work of a great cinematographer (David Watkin) and the restless invention of a man who made his reputation putting the Beatles through their paces (Richard Lester), combine to give the fictional world an intense tangibility that print cannot approach.
For that very reason, contemporary viewers might be put off, despite the films’ kinetic energy and engrossing story. 17th century France is expensively recreated, but there is also plenty of dirt, and everything is shot and cut with the spontaneity and rough edges of documentary. Anyone who measures film by the impersonally slick, cellophane-wrapped digital image may have a hard time accepting such a lack of concern for technical perfection.
And then there is the violence. Made in the ’70s, when explicit violence was almost a given, both films are filled with crude, often vicious action. Swordplay that is more brawling than balletic, blows to the head with whatever is at hand, kicks in the groin, the back, the rear and plenty of blood are liberally dispersed throughout. People do not just fall over—they experience pain and the actors make us feel it. Treating suffering as a lighthearted romp is bound to make viewers who prefer their violence anesthetized with equal parts hypocritical sanctimony and cheap psychology feel at best uncomfortable, at worst hostile. Put simply, as these characters cavort through jewelry-box settings, they are decidedly not nice or good, but they demonstrate the sensational appeal of high spirits, beauty and smarts.
Nonetheless, an absence of moralizing need not imply an absence of morality. It is not immoral to combine literary cachet, lavish production, name talent and cinematic sophistication. It is a demonstration of the morality of art: not to do right, but to get it right.