“ Genre: Action & Adventure / Parental Guidance / Director: Richard Lester / Actors: Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Frank Finlay ... / Blu-ray released 2011-10-03 at Optimum Home Entertainment / Features of the Blu-ray: Import, Blu-ray, Widescreen „
* Prices may differ from that shown
This two-disk Blu-ray set is £16 on amazon. You can also buy each film separately for £13 each - clearly, you would be a fool to do that rather than just buy both.
These are two of the greatest swashbuckling adventure movies ever made (released in 1973 and 1974). Based on Alexandre Dumas' ever-popular novel, these films offer fantastic performances, amazing period detail, and more than enough humour to keep things from getting bogged down. They're actually one long film split in two - the cast was apparently unaware during filming that this was the plan, and had to sue the producers to get paid for both films. As such, there's not much point discussing them separately.
As per the book, a young man from Gascony, D'Artagnan, makes his way to Paris to join the king's musketeers (who fight more with swords than muskets, for some reason). He quickly befriends Athos, Porthos and Aramis, the 'Three Musketeers', and becomes their inseparable companion. He romances Constance, one of the Queen's servants, and gets drawn into the intrigues of the villainous Cardinal Richelieu, France's first minister, and his associates, the evil but seductive Milady de Winter, and the villainous Rochefort.
The films look stunning. This is one of the most charming and persuasive recreations of the past I've ever seen (the story is set in the seventeenth century). It's up there with Kubrick's celebrated Barry Lyndon in terms of looking like the past should look, but perhaps is closer to what Terry Gilliam did in Jabberwocky. The sight gags and humorous asides are far more Gilliam than Kubrick, and the film has a nice line in grumbling servants that's often Pythonesque.
But it often looks like a painting, with amazing set-pieces set in, say, a laundry, or an army camp that look like they might have been inspired by specific paintings (although my knowledge of art history isn't up to knowing for sure). There's perhaps a bit too much business in the backgrounds - we see a remarkable number of old fashioned leisure pursuits, and it's a very 'busy' film. But if it's sometimes a bit much, the overall effect is generally very endearing. I especially love that Louis XIII uses trained dogs as chess pieces, although I'm doubtful that that really happened.
The script is extremely witty while staying true enough to the original. It was written by George Macdonald Fraser, who also wrote the Flashman series of novels, so knew a thing or two about doing comedy swashbucklers, It nicely pricks the pomposity of duels and honour and all that guff while still letting us enjoy watching them.
There's a lot of slapstick - people frequently swing on ropes or drop out of trees in ambush a second too late, ending up flat on their arses. This jokiness perhaps causes a slight problem with the darker story elements which come to the fore in The Four Musketeers, including an ending that Hollywood would never permit now (even though it's true to the novel).
The direction is in keeping with the script. Most of the many action scenes are largely comic - the sword fights are funny and generally bloodless. The fighting is very physical, though - it's not just the polite tapping together of swords you get in older films. You get a good sense of how physically exhausting having a long sword fight must be, and much as I love Errol Flynn, I don't think he ever gave us a duel as good as the one that forms the climax of the Four Musketeers.
The music is the only major thing that changed between the two films - the first film's score by Michel Legrand is classy but a bit too serious sounding. The ever-versatile Lalo Schifrin provides more boisterous and appropriate music for the second film.
There are a few faults. Some of the comic relief scenes are a bit too much, especially where Spike Milligan's character is concerned (he's cut out of the second film, luckily). Both films feel maybe ten minutes too long (each is 107 minutes), with the zany climax of Three outstaying its welcome, and a lengthy sequence featuring Milady in England in Four being tedious and rather unnecessary (in fact it would have been more subtle and shocking without it).
The greatest strength of the films is their cast. This is pretty much the definition of 'all star', and most everyone is pitch perfect. Michael York is superb as D'Artagnan, the hot tempered, clumsy and immensely likeable hero. I'm not sure what happened to York, who looked like becoming a huge star in the early 70s, but just kind of vanished. Was it all down to Logan's Run? Anyway, he's dashing and energetic and funny and everything he should be.
The other three musketeers are just as good, and the four actors play off one another very well. Oliver Reed gives what might be his greatest performance as Athos, charming and humane but also sad, emotionally wounded, and frequently drunk. He is incredibly convincing in the fight scenes, having a real pub brawler attitude to him. The buffoonish Porthos and refined Aramis are played more for laughs, and Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain are excellent in the roles (Finlay especially).
The villains are just as good. Christopher Lee gives one of his best performances as the eye-patched cad Rochefort, making him almost sympathetic and wringing a fair bit of humour out of the role. Charlton Heston is surprisingly great as Richelieu, although his false nose doesn't do him any favours. But he plays the part with a lightness of touch you don't normally associate with him. Faye Dunaway also excels as Milady, although hers is probably the least comedic performance.
Except perhaps that of Geraldine Chaplin as Queen Anne, who plays the whole thing as though it were high tragedy - this actually works pretty well, as if she's the only one taking things remotely seriously because she has most to lose (for some reason Richelieu keeps trying to ruin her. Why he might want to do so is anyone's guess). Jean-Pierre Cassel is very funny as King Louis XIII |(with dubbed voice provided by Richard Briers), and Simon Ward very dashing as the Queen's lover, the Duke of Buckingham.
Even Raquel Welch, as Constance, is immensely endearing, not something I'd normally say about her. She shows an unexpected flair for slapstick comedy, and of course looks very fetching. More comic relief is provided by the brilliant Roy Kinnear. Only Spike Milligan lets the side down, giving an overly broad comic performance, and as always, feeling too much like Spike Milligan. The rest of the cast is full of classy British actors like Joss Ackland, Jack Watson and Michael Gothard. Rodney Bewes, of Likely Lads fame, has a nice comic scene, too.
The main problem with splitting the films is that some actors get a bit mislaid. Dunaway, possibly the films' biggest star when they were released, is hardly in the first one, while second-billed Welch only gets about four scenes in the second. The films also end with a few things seemingly left unresolved, which is a shame.
A third film was made in 1989, but sadly Roy Kinnear died as a result of an accident during a horse chase. The film itself is nowhere near as good as the originals anyway, but will always be remembered as the film that killed a much-loved comic actor. Director Richard Lester quit directing as a result. That film isn't included here.
These are basic disks with no extras at all (and they spell Lalo Schifrin's name wrong on the credits on the back). The picture quality on these is great, and the level of detail and richness of colour add to the painterly feel of some of the scenes.
This is a very classy and most welcome release of films that have got a bit lost (perhaps overshadowed by the ill-fated third film). I don't understand why these are hailed as classics on a par with Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. If you're going to get these films - and I can think of no reason why you shouldn't - then this is the release to go for.