Turns out, too, that both films were shot at the same time – indeed, the cast thought they were just making one (fairly long) film. When producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind released the thing in two halves, to not inconsiderable box office, the main cast united in apposite “all for one, one for all” stylee and brought a court action against the filmmakers.
Watching ‘The Three Musketeers’ over the bank holiday weekend, I had the schizophrenic experience of finding the behind-the-scenes battle more interesting than any of the swordplay on offer (don’t get me wrong: it’s excitingly done and Oliver Reed, to use the vernacular, proper goes for it; there’s just too damn much – it’s swords drawn every five minutes or so and after the fifth or sixth bout a sense of repetition sets in) and yet, as the end credits – with their little teaser for ‘The Four Musketeers’ – rolled, I was cursing that I hadn’t added that title to the rental list while I was at it.
Schizophrenic is a good description of the film overall. Oliver Reed brings real gravitas to the role of Athos, likewise Christopher Lee to the role of Rochefort, yet the presence of comic stalwarts Roy Kinnear and Spike Milligan, coupled with Frank Finlay’s buffoonish portrayal of Porthos and a general tendency by Lester to play entire sequences as exercises in broad physical comedy, gives the film an air of ‘Carry On D’Artagnan’.
Speaking of D’Artagnan, the casting of Michael York (along with that of Richard Chamberlain as Aramis) turns half of the Musketeers into pretty boys, and while the shirtless York demonstrates a buffed-up muscularity, his screen presence is at odds to Reed’s brooding intensity.
Then again, the cast as a whole is something of a pick ‘n’ mix bag: where else would you find Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welsh, Charlton Heston, Joss Ackland, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simon Ward, Geraldine Chaplin, ‘Likely Lads’ star Rodney Bewes and (I kid you not!) Sybil Danning rubbing shoulders in the same movie?
Perhaps the unlikeliest candidate emerges as most appealing: Raquel Welsh’s aptitude for deadpan comedy is priceless, her portrayal of Constance de Bonacieux as a coquettish clutz both satirises her sex symbol status and turns what could have been a mere set-dressing role into a scene-stealing success. Roy Kinnear, too, deserves a ‘man of the match’ award for two bits of inspired silliness: his attack on Rochefort with an uprooted sapling, and his twatting of a court guard while dressed as a bear.
The pacing is uneven – because of the high-end frequency of the sword fights, the moment the film pauses to deal with court intrigue or flesh out a character, inertia sets in – and some of the acting is just plain wooden, but for all the tomfoolery George Macdonald Fraser’s script retains a commendable fidelity to the novel and at 103 minutes it’s an entertaining timewaster that doesn’t waste too much of your time. Damned if I haven’t added the follow-up to my rental list.