Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Review of The Three Musketeers (1948)

Having read several people praising the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers as the best film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel, I decided to dig it up and watch it for myself. I think I've seen it before once, but that was when I was still in my single digits and the memory was mixed with all other swashbuckling films that I saw at that age. Thus, I decided that I needed to refresh my memory to make my own judgement of the film adaptations of the Dumas' novel.

The 1948 version was directed by George Sidney who was to direct one of the best film adaptations of Scaramouche only a few years later in 1952. The rather surprising choice for the star role of d'Artagnan was Gene Kelly – better known for his singing and dancing roles in... well, pretty much every other film he had been, or was to be, in. Another name that jumps up from the pages of film history is naturally that of Vincent Price playing Richelieu.

Unlike many other film adaptations of the novel, the 1948 version attempts the unthinkable: to film the entire story and pack it into 125 minutes. Other adaptations have usually simplified the story or changed it drastically to fit it into a feature film length. Upon viewing the film, I must say that there are both positives and negatives to this decision. But, first, I'd like to talk a little about the changes to the original story that were made to this film version. With these major changes, there were naturally several other details of the story that were left out of the film (such as the identity of the man who eventually beheads Milady), but those are necessary changes given the shortness of the film and have been dropped from most other film adaptations as well.

The first change jumping at the viewer is that Constance, the love-affair of the adventurous young d'Artagnan, has been changed into his landlord's niece, instead of his wife. This undoubtedly made their love-affair more palatable to the US audience at the time of release and is really a minor change. Another, perhaps more easily missed change, is that Richelieu is never referred to as Cardinal. In fact, history tells us that this change was made in order to not offend the Church. Again, the change is pretty minor as those who know the story will regard him as the Cardinal even without it being said on-screen. A third change is as difficult to spot, as Athos, who was Comte de la Fere in disguise in the original is now demoted into Baron de la Fere.

The biggest change comes with the ending of the film: When Constance was hid from d'Artagnan's and Queen's enemies in the novel, she was hid into a monastery. In the film, however, she is transported to England and the Duke of Buckingham's household. Hence, when Lady de Winter is later captured and imprisoned by the Duke, it is Constance and not Felton who is charged as her guard. In the novel, Dumas spent many (admittedly rather tedious) chapters describing how Milady slowly corrupted Felton and made him murder the duke in her stead while she escaped back to France. In this film, she manages to exploit the kind nature of Constance and cheats her into bringing her a knife, with which she then proceeds to kill both Constance and the duke by her own hand. The change really gives both characters more screen time and a chance to develop their characters, which is a good thing in my books.

And now, after I've done away with the biggest changes to the story, I can move on to talk about the film itself. In my opinion, the film's greatest failure is its pace. With a grand story fitted into 125 minutes, several key events are glossed over and some are only mentioned in passing. These include d'Artagnan's courting of Milady and his relationship with her servant, as well as most events of d'Artagnan's return trip from England etc. In the same vein, we lose many characters from the story as they make little more than an appearance. Richelieu himself appears only occasionally, his trusted man Rochefort barely makes an entrance and, worst of all, we never get to know either Aramis or Porthos. Certainly the two musketeers are on the screen on many occasions, but their characters are never explored or introduced to the viewers properly. In one scene, for example, we first find out that Aramis has decided to follow his heart and wear the cloth. In another scene later on, he comes back and says that there's always time for it later. A scene like this makes it obvious that something was just glossed over one wonders why the scenes were included in the first place.

Another character who suffers very badly in this film adaptation is Athos. In the original story and most film versions, he is a nobleman with a tragic secret. This time, however, he never seems more than a sullen drunk (who hardly deserves to be a King's Musketeer) until, at some point, he tells his miserable story. There's never any glimpse of the nobility of this tragic hero that we know from other versions of this story. Heck, even the 2011 version managed to introduce the three Musketeers better than this.

On the other hand, I was surprised to see that all the four Musketeers had their own servants. In other films we usually only get to see d'Artagnan's servant, but this time we also get to see the others moving about and Grimaud's name is even mentioned once. Likewise, in the beginning of the film, Jussac, one of the Cardinal's Guards, is introduced when he attempts to arrest the Musketeers for illegal duelling and then winds up in a duel with d'Artagnan.

For a history enthusiast like me, the swordplay sequences are a disappointment (we get the usual thin theatre/Hollywood swords, instead of actual rapiers) with too much emphasis on grinning and jumping and otherwise fooling about and too little on fighting. Similarly, the costume department had no knowledge or interest in even thinking about historical accuracy when they created the ridiculous costumes to all the stars, especially the females. Of course, historical accuracy was never a concern in the films of this era, but it is still disappointing for a period enthusiast like me.

Overall, the pace of the film is very hectic and it seems more like a missed opportunity than the great adaptation that many hail this film as. I cannot but wonder if it would not have been a better idea to change the story more drastically to fit the 125 minute length of this film, rather than try to fit in as much as possible and then gloss over crucial details and fail to give some of the characters and events the attention that they deserved. A less complete story with more time given to characters and major events might have turned into a far more memorable experience.