It’s packed with swordplay, fast getaways, and heaving bosoms. By having young D’Artagnan form a bond of honor and camaraderie with suddenly unemployed king’s men Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, its author, Alexandre Dumas pere, anticipated the buddy-movie formula that frequently spells box office gold. The Three Musketeers couldn’t miss as a book, and for almost 80 years filmmakers have gambled that it couldn’t miss as a movie. Sometimes they’ve won.
Early word that a Disney version would star young hotshots Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris O’Donnell, and Oliver Platt had purists groaning. But the studio didn’t turn the Musketeers into Mouseketeers; rather, The Three Musketeers (1993, Walt Disney, PG) is a sound adaptation of the famous tale, hewing closely to the story and its buddy aspect. Sutherland is a suitably brooding Athos, Sheen a reliably dry Aramis, and Platt a predictably boisterous Porthos. As D’Artagnan, O’Donnell gives the most subtle performance, beginning as a boy and ending as a man. Rebecca De Mornay, as the treacherous Milady, has little more than a cameo, since the theme here is that guys will be guys.
Prior screen incarnations of The Three Musketeers took other tacks. The first silent version, by screen pioneer Thomas Ince (1916, Video Yesteryear), tried to play up the action but remained stiff. A 1921 silent (Grapevine), starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as a devil-may-care D’Artagnan, was basically a vehicle for the matinee idol’s legendary stunt work. The first talkie version (1935, RKO) cast the too-righteous Walter Abel as D’Artagnan. These latter two attempts fail because whenever the book’s camaraderie was sacrificed to showcase a star, the whole story got thrown out of whack.
Another element that can skew the story is apparent in the lavish 1948 Technicolor version (MGM/UA). Made by MGM, a studio that prided itself on providing something for everybody, it unsuccessfully delivered romance equal to the action. Lana Turner is a knockout as Milady, but while Gene Kelly brings his usual athletic grace to the role of D’Artagnan, he’s too urbane-and you half expect him to break into song.
While all these Musketeers were slashing away, a host of comic and Western pretenders hit the screen. Being one of the Three Mesquiteers, a cowboy team that starred in a series of featurettes, was a stepping stone to stardom for John Wayne. Their Frontier Horizon (1939, Republic) was a particularly entertaining, if slight, entry. An amusing musical pastiche, 1939’s The Three Musketeers (FoxVideo) had Don Ameche as a crooning D’Artagnan saddled with the Ritz Brothers, who play chefs he’s mistaken for his comrades. In this case, the buddies are too close.
The movie Musketeers most faithful to Dumas’ spirit didn’t arrive until director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) delivered The Three Musketeers (1974, I.V.E., PG) and The Four Musketeers (1975, I.V.E., PG). Overflowing with Lester’s trademark irreverence and slapstick, these films still retain a vivid and bawdy period flavor. The well-matched lead players – Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlain, and Faye Dunaway – seem to have stepped straight from Dumas’ pages. So the buddy movie is restored to balance, and all is well with the 17th century. That is, until Lester reassembled much of his original cast for Return of the Musketeers (1989, MCA/ Universal, PG), a rather messy effort that misses the spark of the first two.
In the meantime, Dumas continues to inspire: Ring of the Musketeers (1993, Columbia TriStar, PG-13), starring David Hasselhoff and Cheech Marin, is set in the present and centers on the Musketeers’ descendants, one of whom is a woman. Ring isn’t spoiled by this violation of the male-bonding principle so much as by the fact that it’s just plain lousy.
The Three Musketeers, 1993: B 1916: C+ 1921: B- 1935: C- 1948: B+ Frontier Horizon: C 1939: B- 1974: A- The Four Musketeers: A- Return of the Musketeers: C+ Ring of the Musketeers: D