Great Movies III

film 6 of 8

The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 2, 2015

This brings Losey’s Don Giovanni to mind. The French decors, the various costumes—practically (Josef von) Sternbergian in their grand excess—the magnificent Spanish settings: ignore the story and turn the sound off and you’ll still be rewarded to the point of ravishment. Three Musketeers things still apply, obviously, since it’s all basically the same film. (Made by the same people, at the same time.) Director Richard Lester’s staging is wonderful, as is the sound design. The film is saucy, even—Milady’s chamber—bawdy. But it’s bawdy according to august precedent, and human reality. Age and appropriateness: if I were young those things might linger and trouble. As it is they register and fall harmoniously into the whole Chaucerian tapestry.

Screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser is channeling Dumas, of course, but also introducing some of his own mordant wit. (Cf. his surpassingly cynical and accomplished series of Flashman novels.) This means that there’s velocity and hi-jinx, but also that things get dark, even bitter. We have intimations of mortality, a hint of how high spirits seem inevitably to end in disappointment and sorrow. (Have fun watching it with the kids, and then mention to them why fidelity and circumspection might really be the best way after all.) That breakfast on the battlement sequence features some really nice derring-do, but behind it, and with the gentle and suggestive introduction of the Protestant stuff, is a sense of factional and historical intractability.

Similarly, the various duels, all the fighting starts out as a combination of acrobatic and comic. Then it evolves, and darkly: from fun (the battle on the ice is good knockabout) it moves to desperation, then ends in actual savagery. The battle at the convent ends in a terrible conflagration, one that feels like more than just local or particular. And finally we get to the deaths. And what deaths! This isn’t just violence, but cathartic violence. In its own PG way Milady’s dismantling of the Puritan warder rises to de Laclos/Dangerous Liaisons-like levels. And because we feel for the culprit, as well as for the victim, the subsequent assassination of Buckingham is positively fearsome, pitiable. Awkward, comical, erotical Raquel Welch gets strangled! Villainous Christopher Lee’s demise gives us no comfort, given the mighty, equalizing/humanizing struggle that precedes it. And however much she may deserve it—those close ups!—Faye Dunaway’s beheading is dreadful. Visually speaking the staging of the event is heartless. The reactions to the event are not. Again, this is politics, as in realpolitik, and the individual just scrambling to survive.

The film’s very conclusion is especially impressive. Richelieu/Heston—a superb creation/performance—represents another politically apt, practically Brechtian ideological observation. His last interview with Dartagnan really sums things up nicely. Ally, mis-ally, re-ally: in the end there is only to try to keep on your feet. For some that means dishonour, for some the Macchiavellian reality, and for others a Confucian rolling up of the sleeves. (In fact, The Four Musketeers … also has a great deal of useful stuff to say about administration, administrative appointments, the grudges you might have, and how forgiving and forgetting is not just a principle for religious adherents or Socratic refusers.)

A lot of pointed, perceptive politics for such a blockbusting film! But the last impression we get is more moral than ideological, religious even. In the end the poignantly illiterate D’Artagnan—they’ve very gently distributed this fact all through the movie—tries to give his new commission to his friends. They refuse, but not just for chivalry’s sake. Remember how much older they were, way back when all of this started? As combatants, they’re finished, and they know it. They’re not actually musketeers any longer. As the film ends we cut to that last Magnificent Seven tracking shot, and yet we perceive that this is not really the appropriate, or actual ending. Suddenly, after all the décolletage, this is Everyman having need of his soul, or Bunyan’s Christian, crossing the river. What a franchise! The possible depths of the popular!