“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1948) Review

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“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1948) Review

There are times when I find myself amazed at the longevity of Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers”. The novel has been in circulation for nearly 170 years. Hollywood and other film industries have been adapting the novel for the movies or television for nearly a century. One adaptation I recently viewed was the Hollywood movie produced and released by MGM Studios in 1948. 

We all know the story. A young Frenchman from Gascon sets out for Paris in the early 17th century to join the King’s Musketeers. During this journey, he meets a beautiful, mysterious woman and picks a fight with one of the lady’s escorts. Upon his arrival in Paris, d’Artagnan presents himself to Commander de Treville of the Musketeers and successfully joins the unit, despite losing his father’s letter of introduction. D’Artagnan also manages to annoy three of the most skillful Musketeers – Athos, Aramis and Porthos – and schedule a duel with all three of them. His duel with Athos ends when members of Cardinal Richelieu’s men tries to arrest the Musketeers. And d’Artagnan assists the Musketeers in their fight against the Cardinal’s men. The young Gascon befriends his fellow Musketeers, acquires a valet named Planchet and falls in love with the goddaughter of his new landlord, Constance Bonacieux. However, Constance also happens to be Queen Anne’s dressmaker. Thanks to her romance with d’Artagnan, the latter becomes involved in royal and political intrigue as he helps Constance prevent Cardinal Richelieu from exposing the Queen’s romance with England’s Duke of Buckingham; and becomes the target of one of the Cardinal’s top agents – the beautiful and deadly Milady de Winter, who happened to be the mysterious woman he had briefly encountered on the road to Paris.

Directed by George Sidney and written by Robert Ardrey, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” turned out to be the second most faithful adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Mind you, there were differences. Due to Code restrictions, Constance Bonacieux was the goddaughter of d’Artagnan’s landlord, not the wife. Therefore, this version avoided any adulterous taint in the relationship between the hero and his lady love. The war conducted between France and Spain featured in Dumas’ novel was transformed into a private military campaign conducted behind King Louis XIII’s back, between Richelieu and Buckingham. And Milady de Winter’s prison guard in England turned out to be Constance (in hiding from Richelieu), instead of John Felton, one of the Duke’s officers. Which meant that Constance’s death occurred at Buckingham’s castle, instead of inside a monastery in France. Fortunately, these changes barely made any negative impact on my viewing pleasure. But there were some aspects of the movie that did not sit well with me.

Mind you, Gene Kelly’s overall performance as d’Artagnan struck me as well done, despite the actor being over a decade older than the actual character. But there were times in the movie’s first half when I found his performance a little hammy and strident – especially in his effort to convey the image of a passionate and impetuous youth. A good example of this hamminess was his reaction to his first sight of Constance Bonacieux. Screenwriter Robert Ardrey did very little to showcase the Comte de Rochefort character in the film and ended up wasting the presence of actor Ian Keith, who portrayed the character in this film and in the 1935 adaptation. I liked Frank Morgan’s portrayal of King Louis XIII, but I must admit that he seemed to old for the role. And the Queen Anne character, portrayed wonderfully by Angela Landsbury, practically disappeared in the movie’s second half, despite the major roles played by Constance and the Duke of Buckingham during that period.

Despite these quibbles, I must admit that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is probably my second favorite adaptation of Dumas’ novel. One thing, the Technicolor featured in this film is absolutely beautiful. The color, combined with Robert H. Planck’s photography of the movie’s locations really took my breath away . . . especially in scenes that featured some of the characters’ travels across France and England. Herbert Stothart, who had won an Oscar for his work on 1939’s “THE WIZARD OF OZ”, did an admirable job of blending the movie’s score with the on-screen drama and action. Speaking of action, this movie featured some of the best sword fighting choreography I have ever seen on screen. The fight scenes definitely benefited from Kelly’s dancing skills and athleticism. But Kelly was not the only one who looked good in the action scenes. So did Van Heflin, Robert Coote and especially Gig Young. Even Keenan Wynn, who portrayed d’Artagnan’s valet Planchet, looked good in one or two scenes. I must admit that Walter Plunkett’s costume designs looked absolutely beautiful – for both the male and female characters. However, a part of me suspected they were not an accurate reflection of early 17th century France.

Ardrey’s adaptation of Dumas’ novel may not have been perfect. But I cannot deny that the screenwriter still fashioned a first-rate script. He did an excellent job in meshing the two major plotlines of the novels – the theft of Queen Anne’s diamonds and Milady de Winter’s activities against d’Artagnan and the Duke of Buckingham in the movie’s second half. George Sidney’s energetic direction and excellent performances from the cast elevated the script even higher. Not only did the sword fighting sequences impressed me, I especially enjoyed the long sequence that featured d’Artagnan’s journey to England to fetch Queen Anne’s diamonds. The movie also featured some fine dramatic scenes. One of them featured superb performances from Lana Turner and Vincent Price, in which the two villainous characters discuss the fates of both the Duke of Buckingham and d’Artagnan. Another turned out to be a showcase for Van Heflin in which the drunken Athos revealed the details of his failed marriage. But my favorite featured Athos’ revelation of Milady as his estranged wife in a conversation with d’Artagnan. This scene revealed some outstanding performances from both Heflin and Kelly.

No movie is perfect. I can honestly say that the 1948 movie, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is no bastion of perfection. It has its flaws. But it also possesses virtues that outweigh its flaws – including an excellent cast, beautiful photography, and a well-written adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel. Most of all, all the movie’s virtues were increased tenfold from a well-paced and energetic direction from George Sidney. It is a pity that MGM Studios failed to profit from “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”. The studio certainly deserved to.

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