Whilst perpetually tackled as a public domain text with a ready supply of iconic characters and rollicking action, thus saving screenwriters and producers from hard work creating their own, there have been few entirely successful or satisfying adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ most famous novel. At least, few in English language cinema. Perhaps that’s because although it’s the mother of much modern genre literature and reams of swashbuckler filmmaking, the novel has an unusual structure and style that blends high melodrama and tragedy with farce and satire, and its complex plot builds to a curious series of resolutions that are more like diminuendos. There’s a deceptive quality to the novel, with its young, ardent heroes outmatched by the power politics around them and resolving instead to proffer heroism as an expression of idealism and rejection of power, and life as a thrill-ride, skating across a necessary blindness to sorrow, that’s definably existentialist, and contributed in an odd and torturous way to the development of noir fiction – not only in its heroes’ relationship to society but also in the archetypal femme fatale Milady de Winter. But the story has generally been utilised as a justification for broad action-comedy – take the 1939 version that starred the Ritz Brothers. Even the best adaptation to date, Richard Lester’s early ‘70s diptych, played up slapstick at the cost of the original tale’s equally droll, but rather subtler ribaldry.
All that’s the long way of getting around to stating that this version, featuring Gene Kelly as D’Artagnan, Van Heflin as Athos, Gig Young as Porthos and Robert Coote as Aramis, is a bewildering, wildly uneven blend. This was one of the first significant efforts to recapture the zest of pre-WW2 adventure cinema (Errol Flynn’s somewhat enervated stab at reviving that zest, The Adventures of Don Juan, came out the same year). Whilst pre-war adventure films like The Mark of Zorro (1940) or The Sea Hawk (1941) could be playful but also grounded and dramatic, even gritty, this reveals a new uncertainty about how to play such material, unable to reconcile the flagrant unreality of the traditional swashbuckler, and the new post-war realism, manifesting in a film that is divided against itself. Director George Sidney had just directed Kelly in three bubbly musicals, and the first half plays as a candy-coloured comedy, a choice that had its logic in the circumstances of the production, but which hardly, finally suits the material. The idea of turning new, young dancer star Kelly, who might already have been harbouring aspirations to play meatier roles than he had been getting to date in frothy, flashy fare, into a sword-and-pistol action hero, was an inspired one; surely he had the physical grace and dynamism, the jaunty charm, the joie de vivre to revive the moribund genre.
Kelly had just come off The Pirate, a fully-fledged blend of swashbuckler and musical, and the version of The Three Musketeers that MGM built around him (although Lana Turner was actually top-billed) looks and sounds often like the next installment, with the musketeers introduced as colour-coordinated dandies, and Kelly playing D’Artagnan as the archest of big-talking ingénues. Everyone looks at first like they're waiting for Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. The familiar plot is still in play. Young Gascon warrior progeny D’Artagnan leaves home to join the King’s Regiment of Musketeers with his father’s sword and a less than noble-looking horse and, after being mugged on the road by the henchmen of Milady de Winter (Turner), turns up in Paris a mess. He swiftly gets himself in hot water with all three of the notorious title trio, and arranges to duel them one after the other in the Jardin Luxembourg. But he finishes up joining forces with them, and earning their lifelong friendship, when they have to fight off a mob of Cardinal Richelieu’s heavies, who use a ban on duelling as one of many pretexts to assert Richelieu’s power, over the soldiers who support King Louis XIII’s (Frank Morgan) embattled independence.
D’Artagnan is soon drawn into the life of Constance (June Allyson), his landlord’s goddaughter (she was his wife in the book; but this was
in 1948), who works for the Queen (Angela Lansbury). She knows of the Queen’s illicit romance with the English Prime Minister, the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton - the Duke was probably gay in real life, but that’s neither here nor there), which Richelieu hopes to uncover to the King and thus gain his support for war against Hollywood . He’s dispatched de Winter to snatch away some jewels from a set that the Queen gave Buckingham as a keepsake, leading D’Artagnan and the musketeers to speed their way to England England battling Richelieu’s forces every foot of the way, and save the Queen’s honour. When Richelieu nonetheless gets his war, he again sets de Winter on Buckingham, this time to kill him.
The first major action scene, the duel in the Lux, is more comedic dance number than life-and-death brawl, with D’Artagnan dodging, jumping and leaping various fixtures in playing with his opponent, Jussac (Sol Gorss), before finally besting him and forcing him to fall backwards into a pool with his trousers around his knees. One moment that comes right out of a Friz Freleng cartoon presents D’Artagnan vibrating with horny glee in realising he’s got a bird’s eye view on the bedroom of comely Constance, leering and stamping his feet in ecstasy. Up until this point the film is distressingly twee and only Kelly’s physicality makes it at all watchable. Slowly, this version does deepen and become more engaging, but it moves forward in such tonally disparate fits and starts that it never really works. The early comic emphasis makes the last third’s darker touches, like Milady’s unremitting desire to get vengeance on D’Artagnan (for having pretended to be one of her lovers for the sake of getting to first base with her), and her murder of
Constance, seem all the more bewildering.
Kelly’s performance swings from cartoonish to realistic, and sometimes there’s a good effect in this. His D’Artagnan enters the film as a youth who assumes studied airs of outrage and makes an arse of himself in offering his idea of man’s man and romantic rhetoric, bordering on a send-up of macho posturing, between wising up and growing up. This is particularly apparent in his first scene with Constance in which, having saved her from some of Richelieu’s thugs, he hurriedly makes corny love to her before realising what a fool he’s being, and when Constance asks if he’s D’Artagnan “the famous swordsman”, he substitutes, “the famous booby”, and continues on with more genuine emotion and speech. To a certain extent, his performance embodies the film – these polarities are evident throughout, but usually without enough clear sense of how to alternate them. More peculiar, interesting, and strange is Heflin’s Athos, the most Byronic of the Musketeers. Heflin plays the character as dark and troubled, rather hysterical when he’s supposed to be jovial, and genuinely dark when mulling over his tragic past, which of course involved de Winter. Heflin also seems to be in a different movie to Kelly and most of the rest of the cast: his relatively low-key, more mature-seeming approach is a distinct example of something that had shifted in the Hollywood playbook.
The film does hit its stride during the running battle in the heroes’ efforts to get to
, in a sequence filled with terrific fencing, excellent stunts, and a visual shout-out to Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood in a duel on the shoreline. Director Sidney would go on to make the best swashbuckler of the ‘50s, Scaramouche, and the design, staging, and stylistic alternation of high drama and vivid comedy, essayed in picture-book colours, which are all so strong in that film, are here too, but the mixture is infinitely more lumpy and often tedious. His best flourishes come towards the end, especially in the memorable sequence in which de Winter, having been placed in Constance’s hands as the one person in Buckingham’s mind who can be relied upon to not fall for Milady’s wiles, play-acts a descent into sorrow and hysteria in trying to convince Constance to sneak her in a knife with which to commit suicide; the sight of the lovely Turner as a bitter, ashen wretch and then, pretending to be Constance after having murdered her, sneaking into the Duke’s room with her hand caked in blood, is momentarily strong melodrama. England
Turner, the one-note actress to end all one-note actresses, is too callow to be a persuasive de Winter, who’s supposed to be a master manipulator of feline cunning and unfathomable emotional depravity; instead she comes across like a cranky homecoming queen mad at her jock boyfriend. Nonetheless, her comeuppance – having her head cleaved off by an executioner at the Musketeer’s behest – is the real climax of the film, and Turner pulls off the necessary moment of Milady realising there’s no way out and substituting false pleading for innate, imperious dignity. There’s quite a distance travelled by the film, both in narrative and style, from the campy jaunt of the early scenes to the infernal lighting and climactic Gothicism in this resolution, and the production and photography are all master class, full of bold and vividly contrasting colours and hues, even if the guiding style fails to cohere. One of the best reasons to watch is Vincent Price, still developing his sinister persona, at his most silken and Machiavellian as Richelieu; a couple of more incidental but excellent performances come from Keenan Wynn, oddly cast as D’Artagnan’s buffoonish valet Planchet, and Patricia Medina as Kitty, de Winter’s maid and willing object of D’Artagnan’s romantic obfuscation. The overall effect is of a film that is a patchwork quilt of intentions and results.