by Paul Batters
‘Who wants to live ’till the last bottle is empty? It’s all-for one, d’Artagnan, and one for all!’ Athos (Van Heflin)
Films provide us with a myriad of opportunities and personal responses. We all have those films that can be a catharsis for pent up emotions, from which we find release where others merely shrug or cannot see or make the personal connection. There are those films we watch and in which we become deeply immersed or those we simply enjoy because they are fun. Hollywood has always been about escape and stepping into another world is a key part of the magic. Indeed, we sometimes find ourselves watching a film (after enjoying it many times before) because it’s a ‘go-to’ when we need something that’s either not too taxing on our thought process or is the perfect film to get comfortable with on the sofa. As much as I enjoy considering the brilliance of how a director like Murnau frames the mis-en scene, it’s also nice to enjoy some silly film that’s just plain fun. Sometimes you need a good burger and a Coke over filet mignon and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (or two).
For me, MGM’s colourful and grandiose The Three Musketeers (1948) is such a film.
The classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere, is a particular favourite of mine and it is no wonder that the famous story has been filmed numerous times. It offers adventure, romance and intrigue, with liberal doses of exciting characters and history (or historical fiction to be precise), all thrown together in an almost epic story. Bringing such a story to the screen, presents quite the challenge to the director and MGM certainly saw the value in doing so in 1947, when it announced that a film adaption of the story was going into production. Its’ eventual release in 1948 was a financial success for MGM, although profits would be slightly whittled down by the huge production cost.
Yet despite this, The Three Musketeers, directed by George Sidney, is not exactly MGM at its’ very best though critics generally gave it good reviews, including Bosley Crowther. Over time, however, critics have been less kind in their reviews. In fairness, the negative criticisms are not unfounded. Visually, The Three Musketeers is a Technicolor extravaganza that is perhaps a little too saturated in rich colour and goes way over the top in the costume department. The film is also over-long with certain scenes drawn out, unnecessary and laboured to the point of distraction. As a result, the pacing of the film goes awry. Additionally, the direction of the film at certain points becomes disjointed, with the film not able to decide whether it is rollicking fun-filled romp, petty melodrama, romance or dark historical drama. The romance scenes are as cheesy as you can get and Kelly’s wooing of June Allyson is cringe-worthy of the highest degree. And just for good measure, the casting is also a little off-key, despite some great talent.
Let’s have a look at the story.
The oft-told story has the young, naïve and slightly grandiose d’Artagnan (portrayed by the not-so-young Gene Kelly) heading to Paris to fulfil his dream of becoming a Musketeer. On his journey, he immediately finds himself in trouble, which will inadvertently find him committed to fight three duals in one day – against the very men he intends to join, the Three Musketeers. In the process of the first duel against Athos (Van Heflin), the guards of the King’s powerful Prime Minister Richelieu (Vincent Price) interrupt them and a mighty sword fight ensues. d’Artagnan fights alongside and wins the admiration of the three, who embrace him into their friendship group.
But he is drawn into further intrigue when he falls in love with Constance (June Allyson), a lady-in-waiting of the Queen (Angela Lansbury). Given a set of 12 diamonds by her husband the King (Frank Morgan), she instead offers them as a gift to her lover the English Duke Of Buckingham (John Sutton). Richelieu learns of this and sees an opportunity to gain mileage out of it but our heroic group set out to retrieve the jewels from England, facing danger, whilst Richelieu employs the treacherous and beautiful Countess de Winter (Lana Turner).
It’s all part of his scheme to bring France and England to war, and thus seize the throne for himself. However, d’Artagnan is successful in his mission and returns with the jewels including two replacements, previously stolen by the Countess.
Impressed by d’Artagnan’s courage, Richelieu attempts to gain his services by not only kidnapping Constance but by also using the Countess to seduce and distract the young aspiring musketeer. But as he starts to fall for the Countess, d’Artagnan discovers a terrible truth from the long-suffering Athos – the Countess is actually Athos’ wife, condemned to death for her treachery.
After much turmoil, war does break out and although things do not go well for Richelieu, he is not yet undone. The Musketeers discover proof, which will implicate Richelieu in his evil plans but they must first deal with the Countess as well as maintain the King’s good graces. The final ending will not be revealed here!
There’s a fair amount of silliness, barely believable character development and motivation and political intrigue that makes little sense. So why do I enjoy the film?
Because it is fun to watch – even with all the nonsense.
There is some weak casting but the strengths outweigh any weaknesses. True, Gene Kelly is not exactly what many might picture as a believable d’Artagnan, considering Kelly’s age at the time. But he was certainly dedicated to the role. Kelly, who had long held an ambition to play the role, previously and famously played in the 1921 silent version by the legendary Douglas Fairbanks Snr, particularly championed the production of the film. According to Gene Kelly, Fairbanks had been a boyhood hero of his, and marvelled at his acrobatic skill and screen presence, leaving the boy with dreams of matching the great man’s skills. In a February 1985 issue of Interview, Kelly stated that his greatest influence was the legendary silent screen star: ‘I couldn’t believe his grace, his moves, his athleticism’. Despite a long-standing dream of playing the role, Kelly would admit that it was a taxing time playing D’Artagnan, outlining in a 1991 interview with Reflections:
“Every time I think about The Three Musketeers I want to groan…ouch! I feel sore and stiff at just the thought of it… I had to go into training for that picture just like a prizefighter before a fight”.
Additionally, Kelly himself had the athleticism and physical skill of an amazing dancer and he brings this to the portrayal. Kelly’s d’Artagnan is formidable and incredibly skilled with the sword, and the amazing sword fights and action are breathtaking in their choreography and some of the best on screen. Kelly would state:
We studied two hours a day with Jean Heremans, the national fencing champion of Belgium, to learn how to fence. What a genius he was. When he had finished with us we, who were greenhorns, were able to fight with one hand tied behind. It was hard work.”
All the training and hard work appears seamless on the screen and it’s one of the great strengths of the film. Furthermore, Kelly does bring a vivaciousness, joy and carefree naivety that fit the portrayal quite well.
A number of critics haven’t thought much of Van Heflin as Athos but he’s believable as the tormented musketeer haunted by a past and drowning his sorrows in drink. Heflin conveys the tragedy of Athos’ life with authenticity and the final scenes, which bring his personal tragedy to a head, are also done well.
But perhaps the best casting is Lana Turner as the Countess. She is absolutely gorgeous to look at and as dangerous as a femme fatale. By all reports, she wasn’t too keen on the role but MGM prevailed upon her and we get to see Turner in her first Technicolor film. The final scenes as she faces justice are also beautifully done. Also outstanding is Vincent Price as Richelieu. The combination of his physicality, wonderful voice and incredible confidence shapes a memorable and completely believable villain.
Production wise, there was no hold back on the cost. All the hallmarks of a classic MGM production are present. The MGM used their back-lot well and the keen eye will recognise some of the sets being used in period pieces and historical dramas, not to mention the odd musical. Street scenes, inns, palaces and gardens all evoke the era and our hero and his cohort seem right at home there as they make merry, fight and carouse.
Truth to be told, The Three Musketeers is superficial silliness and yes, there is plenty that could have been fixed. But put aside critical analysis and it’s also a lot of fun. The fact that it’s gaudy and over-the-top shapes its’ appeal and despite the director unsure of his film’s identity, it never truly take itself seriously. And we all need that type of film from time to time.
This article has been submitted for the 2018 Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Film And TV Cafe Blog. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – https://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2018/05/celebrate-national-classic-movie-day.html
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.