Rapier in hand, sweating through his blue cape and tight brown breeches, Kiefer Sutherland feints and parries with athletic precision. In the marbled throne room of Vienna's majestic Hofburg Palace, a Steadicam swoops around the actor and his foe, Michael Wincott. As Wincott's black-eye-patched Count de Rochefort lunges forward, he skewers Sutherland's Athos in the shoulder, and Sutherland, on cue, falls to the floor and utters his line of dialogue, as follows: ''Aaargh.''
No cardinals, counts, or courtiers ever met musketeers even remotely resembling the ones that were set loose in Austria this summer to film Disney's big-budget, youth-appeal, all-American version of The Three Musketeers. The fifth big-screen adaptation of the 1844 Alexandre Dumas tale is doubtless the first to feature a gang of twentysomething party guysSutherland as brooding Athos, Charlie Sheen as romantic Aramis, Oliver Platt as comic Porthos, and Chris O'Donnell as musketeer-in-the-making D'Artagnanwho would feel more at home in Venice Beach, Calif., than Vienna. ''These are Armani, macho, minimalist musketeers,'' says costume designer John Mollo. ''We've simplified the period. Less lace and feathers. This is almost more a science-fiction film than a period film.''
So perhaps it's no accident that the scene unfolding inside the palace seems more a feat of late-20th-century technology than of early-17th-century derring-do. The tale, as everyone involved will tell you, is timeless. As Sutherland's fencing continues, Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry, who plays the evil Cardinal Richelieu, does his best to ignore the action while sitting on a throne away from the camera's eye, benignly eating a sandwich and reading Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. ''Swordplay is sexy,'' he observes, surveying the mayhem. ''Isn't that why they keep making this story?''
That, and of course, the money. The Musketeers revival actually started two years ago as envious studio executives eyed the $165 million gross of Warner Brothers' Robin HoodPrince of Thieves and realized that moviegoers were scarfing up the period adventure despite an uneven tone, lousy accents, and over-the-top acting. So Disney quickly purchased a spec adaptation of The Three Musketeers by Passenger 57 writer David Loughery. Loughery's script nodded to Dumas by correctly placing D'Artagnan and the musketeers in their 20s (most film versions have made them older), but ''jazzed it up a little bit'' in other respects. ''I saw it as a coming-of-age story of a boy who wants more than anything to become a musketeer like his late father,'' says Loughery. ''Hollywood has been remaking this movie for years. It's Star Wars. They're just dressed differently.''
By last fall, Disney had competition: Columbia and TriStar were working frantically on their own versions of The Three Musketeers. Their scripts, recalls Disney executive vice president David Vogel, were ''darker, more serious, and intense. We tried to make ours less political and more emotional.''
As a result of this sudden demand for nine musketeers, the battle for actors became rabid. Columbia tried to entice Sheen but didn't have a polished script to show him. Director Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon) worked to line up Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., and Indecent Proposal's Oliver Platt at TriStar, while Brad Pitt rejected offers from every side. Keenly aware that the first film to be cast would knock the other two off the fast track, Disney decided to switch producers. Out went Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and Jordan Kerner; in came Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum, who had just left Twentieth Century Fox to found Disney's Caravan Pictures, a virtual studio- within-the-studio that had an astounding 25-picture deal.
Roth wasted no time making his first call. ''The script's not there yet,'' he bluntly told his Young Guns star Sutherland before giving him a two-word sales pitch: ''Trust me.''
''Fine, I'm in,'' Sutherland replied.
Next, Roth sought Sheen for the comic-relief role of Porthos. ''We're 4 and 0,'' he told the actor, who had worked with him on Major League, Young Guns, and both Hot Shots! ''Let's keep the streak alive.'' After perusing the script on the set of Hot Shots! Part Deux, Sheen agreed to sign onprovided he could play Aramis, the poetry-spouting ladies' man.
''Casting Kiefer and Charlie was exactly the event we needed to stop the other pictures' getting made,'' says Roth. Indeed, Columbia's Musketeers never got past the script stage, and by late January, TriStar had shut down its Musketeers as well, allowing Disney to sign the now-available Platt as Porthos. Casting D'Artagnan was trickier. ''He had to come off as younger than the musketeers,'' explains Roth, ''but not helpless.'' What got 23-year-old Chris O'Donnell the job? ''He held his own face-to-face with Pacino for two and a half hours in Scent of a Woman.''
Roth convinced Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to open the picture in the pre-Thanksgiving slot that made Dracula a hit for Columbia. ''The early guys steal the thunder,'' says Roth. ''We had a teaser by the Fourth of July, a trailer on The Fugitive, and our outdoor campaign was up by October first. We did everything early.''