THE THREE MUSKETEERS: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Pictures, 1993) Disney Club Exclusive
Ever since it was first published in 1844, the title of Alexander Dumas’ renown novel, The Three Musketeers has always baffled me, since its ‘all for one and one for all’ tale of heroism is actually about a trio from this elite corps, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, and one lionheart wanna-be, d’Artagnan, well on his way to achieving ever-lasting fame as the latest star in their hallowed sect. The fiery exploits of this lusty troop has been told and retold many times; Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s superb silent epic, made in 1921, eclipsing a previous effort from 1916; The Three Musketeers remade thereafter as everything from MGM’s 1948 glossy Technicolor escapist fantasy, starring Gene Kelly as the dashing d’Artagnan and Lana Turner as the sultry Milady de Winter, with Vincent Price, a thoroughly unscrupulous Cardinal Richelieu, to 2004’s Disney-fied animated effort, costarring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. Indeed, Dumas’ spirited exploits are malleable to virtually any artistic milieu or bastardization, as having a chocolate bar named after it, and, 2009’s Barbie and the Three Musketeers attests. But the real virtue of Dumas’ story is best exemplified in the company of men, lusty, vital and singularly pure of heart, united in noble defense of France’s teenage monarch, Louis XIV, whose 72-year reign in real life remains the longest tenure of any king in history.
Dumas is usually ascribed exclusivity on the creation of this literary masterpiece. But actually, The Three Musketeers was co-authored by Auguste Maquet, who toiled alongside Dumas on two sequels (Twenty Years After, published in 1845, and, The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, 1847). Maquet also suggested plot devices and did historical research on that ‘other’ Dumas’ classic that preceded everything, The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). Even the inspiration for The Three Musketeers was not Dumas’ own; the author, gleaning from Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras’ historical novel, Mémoires de Monsieur d'Artagnan (1700). This novel not only introduced the character of d'Artagnan, but basically mirrored Dumas’ later reincarnation, as our hero first meets M. de Tréville, Captain of the Musketeers, as well as a trio of youthful Béarnese - Athos, Porthos, and Aramis on his road to fame and fortune. Intrigued, Dumas further encountered the musketeers in a manuscript, Mémoire de M. le comte de la Fère, and, after some finagling, was granted permission to reprint it. All this is a history of sorts, or, at the very least, flattery of the highest order and plagiarism of the lowest kind. But ever since, Hollywood has reaped the benefits of Dumas’ reconstitution of these materials. And, distilled in the vein of a good swashbuckler, it has served American cinema particularly well.
Not entirely so with Stephen Herek’s extremely loose 1993 adaptation; an Austrian/American co-production funded by the Walt Disney Co., Caravan Pictures and The Kerner Entertainment Co. David Loughery’s screenplay jettisons much of the political intrigue and backstory; also, far too much of the characterizations, in what is essentially a plug-n’-play, rollicking comedy/adventure, ever so miscast with American actors who lack the presence of mind to approach the material with even an affected French accent. Watching Charlie Sheen’s devotedly religious Aramis profess limpid pools of whispered eroticism to a buxom bar wench, one gets the distinct impression of a fowled clergyman trying to seduce the night hostess at Denny’s. Kiefer Sutherland’s sullen Athos is too embittered and solitary to penetrate with any great depth of empathy. Chris O’Donnell, prepubescent to a fault (does this d’Artagnan even shave?) ne’er invigorates the manly grace of this cock-sure young upstart. Ironically, this leaves the heavy lifting to Oliver Platt’s Porthos (originally slated for Sheen); the actor, undeniably, having the best time embodying the most pleasure-seeking and spirited of the bunch. On the flipside, Rebecca DeMornay’s treacherous, Milady de Winter, is given far too little to do. However, the best performance in the picture goes to Tim Curry, as the beady-eyed and glowering Cardinal Richelieu.
I have a soft spot for Curry; an actor who, apart from his starring role as the split-crotch panty-wearing transvestite in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) has been tragically passed over for more distinguished roles he undoubtedly deserves and could tackle without so much as breaking a sweat. Around the eyes, dark and descriptive, Curry is vaguely reminiscent of the late Raúl Juliá. Yet, Curry’s uncanny ability to play cruel and calculating is, I suspect, what has typecast him mostly, and, coupled with unconventional looks, has prevented his star from rising to the top. This does not negate the fact Curry is a consummate actor and his Richelieu, a fabulous deviant; barbaric in his poisonous venom for the musketeers and cunningly malevolent in his unrelenting ambition to conquer the throne. Despite this wickedness, Curry also manages to infuse Richelieu with a sickly disturbing air of humor; his delight in watching an elderly prisoner skewered after promising to release him from all responsibilities for a crime he did not commit ‘in the name of God’ is counterbalanced by his veiled threats against Louis, explaining that while kings come and go, he has remained – and will likely continue to do so. Curry ought to have had a more illustrious Hollywood career. At 72, and with his actor’s acumen and faculties none diminished, he is still waiting for that role of a lifetime.
This Three Musketeers is set in 1625. Perhaps recognizing there are cracks in the picture’s casting, director Herek opens his story with a pre-credit sequence in the torch-lit bowels of the Bastille where prisoners loyal to the king are being mercilessly tortured under Richelieu’s watchful eye. From this ominous prelude, we segue to greener pastures in the French countryside as d'Artagnan prepares to depart for Paris, hoping to reestablish the good name of his slain father's legacy as a musketeer. But first, a duel – presumably, to illustrate for the audience d’Artagnan’s prowess with a sword, albeit, against a relatively clumsy and comedically effete foe, Gérard (Paul McGann) who, along with brothers, has come to restore the honor of his sister’s reputation after d’Artagnan has presumably deflowered her. Lucky girl! Meanwhile, in Paris, the one-eyed Captain of the Cardinal’s guards, Rochefort (Michael Wincott) has effectively disbanded the musketeers on Richelieu’s orders; their great hall destroyed, their tunics burned in a bonfire on the main concourse to illustrate for all of France the end of an era. Richelieu has framed his decision as a viable means to fortify the King’s army, already preparing for an impending war with England. But actually, Richelieu has practically guaranteed Louis XIV’s (Hugh O’Conor) defeat by brokering a charter of peace with the Duke of Buckingham in England with himself declared the new regent of France. Richelieu also has designs on Queen Anne (Gabrielle Anwar). She emphatically does not share his interests and even more so, is ever-devoted to the King, despite Louis’ awkward indifference towards her.
Meanwhile, the self-assured d’Artagnan, newly arrived in Paris, inadvertently makes rather bad enemies of Athos, Porthos, and Aramis without knowing they are musketeers; challenging each to a duel behind the cathedral at varying intervals in the same afternoon. Also, in town, d’Artagnan becomes immediately smitten with Constance (Julie Delpy), the Queen’s handmaiden. Arriving behind the abandoned cathedral for the first of his encounters with Athos, d’Artagnan is startled to discover Porthos and Aramis also waiting for him – all three revealed to be musketeers. But before the first duel can commence, Rochefort arrives with a small army to arrest the trio. Although he is not yet one of them, d’Artagnan pledges his allegiance to the musketeers and a battle royale between them and Rochefort’s forces commences. With hasty dispatch, this quartet easily humiliates Rochefort’s men. But, at battle’s end, the musketeers spurn d’Artagnan’s desire to become one of them and depart his company. In short order, d’Artagnan is recaptured by the Cardinal’s Guard. Attempting escape, d’Artagnan overhears a conversation between a shadowy vixen and Richelieu, who has held her reputation hostage for some time. Richelieu charges the woman with delivering a signed treaty to Buckingham, ensuring his claim on the throne.
Alas, things go from bad to worse when d’Artagnan is found out by Rochefort and exposed in his knowledge about Richelieu’s grand plan. The Cardinal decrees d’Artagnan must die, especially since he willfully refuses to give up the whereabouts of the remaining musketeers. All would appear lost, except that the musketeers have already infiltrated the prison to break out their pubescent loyalist. Now, d'Artagnan reveals to them Richelieu's plot for succession. The musketeers pledge to unearth the spy, gain access to the treaty and thus expose Richelieu’s treason to the crown. During a skirmish with Rochefort’s forces, the musketeers and d’Artagnan are once more parted. Passing out from a superficial wound, d’Artagnan awakens, stripped of his weapons, in Milady de Winter’s bed. She plies her feminine charms but to no avail and he, unaware she is the spy, reveals his purpose against Richelieu. Unsuccessful in her attempt to kill d’Artagnan with a dagger, de Winter flees for her rendezvous with Buckingham; their contratante thwarted as the musketeers have already boarded the vessel bound for England. De Winter is taken prisoner; a bitter pill for Athos to swallow as he and the woman he knew as Sabine were once passionate lovers. Athos betrayed Sabine after discovering she was branded for execution. Now in possession of the treaty, Athos realizes Sabine can no longer escape death. As the executioner prepares for her beheading, a repentant de Winter, touched by Athos as he begs her forgiveness, divulges the Cardinal’s plot against the crown before leaping off the edge of a cliff to her death.
As Rochefort has hired a sharpshooter to assassinate Louis during his birthday felicitations, Athos, Porthos and Aramis send communiqués to rally the rest of the musketeers at their side in order to foil this latest attempt on the King’s life. During the assembly, d'Artagnan causes the sniper’s shot to go wide. It narrowly misses Louis and Richelieu deflects blame to the musketeers as the real plotters of the coup. Swinging into action, Athos, Porthos and Aramis face off with the Cardinal's guards, amply aided by the other musketeers. As the great hall erupts into pandemonium, Richelieu shoots Aramis in the chest, taking Louis and Anne hostage and deep into the bowels of the Bastille. Athos and Porthos make chase while d'Artagnan engages in a duel to the death with Rochefort who dully confesses he murdered d’Artagnan’s father and now, plans to follow through by killing his son. Instead, Constance reappears, returning d’Artagnan’s sword to him. He promptly kills Rochefort in self-defense. Delayed in their arrival to the underground river, Athos and Porthos observe as Richelieu's boat, with Louis and Anne aboard, departs, presumably for a safe haven. Instead, the boatman casts off his cloak, revealing him to be Aramis; Richelieu’s earlier bullet deflected by Aramis’ crucifix. A liberated Louis punches Richelieu in the face, knocking him into the river. The musketeers are reinstated and d'Artagnan chooses to serve the King as a musketeer. Hence, when Gérard and his brothers resurface, hellbent on seeing d'Artagnan receive his comeuppance at last, Porthos reminds the new recruit he need never fear dueling alone; the thoroughly frightened Gérard and his cowardly brood comically chased off by a small contingent from the musketeer corp.
This version of The Three Musketeers does not hold up nearly as well as some of the other glossy adaptations gone before it, chiefly, I suspect, because its stars are too transparently like themselves, never to assimilate into character. Charlie Sheen, in particular, is an awkward fit, as is, to a slightly lesser degree, Kiefer Sutherland, while Chris O’Donnell – undeniable eye candy – is nevertheless, out of his element; his burgeoning heartthrob status among teenage girls, too baby-smooth and bearing none of the emotional continence of a young man in search of his father’s killer. One can no more imagine this foursome as knight templars, loyal to God and the Crown, than to picture any of the aforementioned, dressed in leotards, reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. Director Herek affords zero run time to Dumas’ storybook love affairs between Constance and d’Artagnan or tragically flawed passion between Athos and Sabine that might have provided this wall-to-wall actioner with momentary respites and a poignant core. Instead, what is here is more ‘much a duel about nothing’ than an impassioned costume-drama. The action sequences are competently executed, though none distinguished as a stand-alone moment in cinema history.
Shot almost entirely in Austria, Seegrotte, Hinterbrühl, Castle Landsee, Markt St. Martin, Burgenland, Burg Liechtenstein, Maria Enzersdorf, Hofburg and Vienna, with a brief departure to England’s Rumps Point, Polzeath, Charlestown and, Cornwall, The Three Musketeers benefits from Wolf Kroeger’s production design, Hertha Hareiter and Richard Holland’s ’s art direction, and, John Mollo’s luscious costuming, beautifully photographed by Dean Semler. It all looks as it should. Alas, in the end it’s the story that matters; David Loughrey’s screenplay allowing for no subtle departures between the heart-palpitating and overly noisy action sequences; a lot of testosterone chest-thumping, combined with a clash of steel, to no purpose except to deflect from the fact there is not a whole lot going on elsewhere in this story.
The Three Musketeers arrives on Blu-ray via Disney Inc.’s ‘exclusive’ club – bare bones titles from their illustrious past, selling at exorbitant prices via third-party sellers on Amazon for those residing outside of the United States. Ugh! Will someone at the Mouse House please inform these marketing geniuses they could quadruple their sell-through with a more main stream devotion to their back catalog?!? Exclusive, my fanny! I digress. We will doff our feather and felt cavalier’s hats to those responsible for remastering the studio’s deep catalog in hi-def. The original DVD release of The Three Musketeers was, bar none, one of the worst-looking standard def releases of all time, riddled in age-related dirt, some chroma bleeding, and a ton of DNR and edge enhancement. Well, you can officially use that DVD as a deckle for your drink because this new to Blu is stunning. There is no point comparing the old disc to this 1080p remaster. Colors here are vibrant and richly saturated. Contrast is bang on perfect. Film grain looks very indigenous to its source. Flesh tones pop with renewed vitality. This is a great effort, marred only by the very fleeting glimpse of edge enhancement. Most will not even notice it. The 5.1 DTS audio delivers a knock-out punch, punctuating Michael Kamen’s bombastic underscore. As with all Disney Club ‘exclusives’ there are NO extra features. Dumb! Bottom line: if you are a fan of this adaptation of The Three Musketeers you will want to snatch this one up for your home video archives.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)