I admire producers and directors who gamble on completely stereotyped stars and cast them in roles one normally wouldn’t associate with them. For instance, I would probably not have thought of casting Dean Martin, with his playboy image and his singing star persona, as the drunk and pathetic deputy in Rio Bravo. I may not have considered Doris Day (screwball comedy!) appropriate as the stalked woman in Midnight Lace. And I most certainly wouldn’t have thought of casting ace dancer Gene Kelly as the lead man in this entertaining swashbuckler, which doesn’t have a single dance.
This is France, in the reign of Louis XIII (Frank Morgan). The king’s authority is being usurped by the Prime Minister, the scheming Richelieu (Vincent Price, deliciously suave and evil). Richelieu is steadily whittling away at Louis’s powers, and at the same time planning a war with England that’ll help him take the government into his own hands.
In faraway Gascony, master swordsman D’Artagnan (Gene Kelly) is being given a boisterous send-off by his neighbours. D’Artagnan is off to Paris to seek his fortune, carrying with him a letter from his father to Monsieur de Treville (Reginald Owen), chief of the musketeers.
D’Artagnan gets little as an inheritance from his father: a sword, the letter, and a very odd yellowish horse.
This horse becomes the bane of D’Artagnan’s existence, because everybody who sees it has a jolly laugh at its expense. Our hot-headed hero finds himself having to protect his honour (and his horse’s) by showing people he’s not a country bumpkin.
At one town, D’Artagnan runs into a group of mounted men escorting a carriage. The leader of the men has a tiff with D’Artagnan and challenges him to a duel—but a beautiful lady (Lana Turner) inside the carriage gestures to her men to knock D’Artagnan out. They do so, and at her orders, also search him and confiscate the letter to de Treville.
D’Artagnan therefore lands up in Paris and reports to de Treville minus the letter. De Treville is amused by D’Artagnan’s enthusiasm for swordplay, but insists that he must be a cadet before he can be inducted into the legion of musketeers—if he proves himself.
D’Artagnan, happening to glance out of the window, notices in the street the same carriage and its armed escort that he’d had a run-in with. So he abandons de Treville and goes rushing down—along the way bumping into the musketeer Athos (Van Heflin), who’s nursing a wounded shoulder and gets so mad at D’Artagnan for hitting it that he challenges the Gascon to a duel. D’Artagnan accepts, for 12 o’clock.
Further down the staircase, D’Artagnan bumps into another musketeer, Porthos (Gig Young), whipping off his cape and angering the man. Porthos too challenges D’Artagnan to a duel, for 1 o’clock.
…and to round it off, D’Artagnan bangs into Aramis (Robert Coote), and fixes up to fight him at 2 o’clock.
The carriage, of course, is long gone by now, and an unhappy D’Artagnan gets ready for his three duels. Fortunately for him, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are the best of friends and so Porthos and Aramis come along as Athos’s seconds for his duel with D’Artagnan. They’re all quite impressed by D’Artagnan’s audacity, but the duel’s just about beginning when there’s an interruption: Richelieu’s men arrive to arrest the four men for duelling.
Being expert swordsmen, the three musketeers and D’Artagnan soon make short work of Richelieu’s men; D’Artagnan humiliates the leader, leaving him with his pants around his ankles.
As a result, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan are summoned by the king. He gives them a talking-to and then surreptitiously hands out 500 francs to each of them.
D’Artagnan, with that brief episode, has now acquired the love and respect of the three musketeers; a brand new wardrobe (the king tells de Treville, “Get this fellow some decent clothes!”) and some pin money.
He’s also on his way to acquiring a girlfriend: Constance Bonacieux (June Allyson), the god daughter of D’Artagnan’s landlord. The landlord’s going on a long journey, and asks D’Artagnan to keep an eye on Constance, who is the Queen’s maid and is being tailed by Richelieu’s men. The landlord is worried for Constance’s safety and fears that when she comes home from the palace, Richelieu’s men may try to attack her.
His fears prove well-founded: Constance is attacked, but D’Artagnan comes to her rescue, drives off the attackers, and falls head over heels in love with the astonished girl.
He’s so besotted by Constance that when she meets a strange man in the street, obviously for a rendezvous that’s planned, D’Artagnan goes berserk with jealousy and tries to run the stranger through. Constance stops him. This, she explains hurriedly, is the Englishman George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (John Sutton). D’Artagnan begs the duke’s pardon and retreats, and we soon discover why—Constance takes the duke to the actual rendezvous: a clandestine meeting with the duke’s lover, Anne, Queen of France (Angela Lansbury).
Anne is delighted to see Buckingham, but also sorrowful. Richelieu is closing in, and she fears that if she continues to meet Buckingham, Richelieu will, sooner or later, expose their affair. They must not see each other anymore and Buckingham must return to England. But she gives him a token of her affection: a dozen diamond studs.
What the queen doesn’t know is that one of her maids is a spy of Richelieu’s. Shortly after, Richelieu concocts a plan to get the queen into trouble. He sends for his most trusted agent, the Countess de Winter—who turns out to be the same mysterious lady whom D’Artagnan had encountered on the road to Paris—and gives her an assignment: to go to England and steal two of the studs the queen has given Buckingham.
Richelieu then plays a master stroke: he arranges for a grand banquet to be held, in which the queen will especially be required to display the jewels she was gifted for her birthday—the twelve diamond studs. The queen realises that Richelieu knows about her liaison with Buckingham; with the studs across the Channel in England, Richelieu is now meaning to ensure that King Louis also comes to know of Anne’s infidelity. Disaster looms, and Constance, the queen’s confidant, does the only thing she can think of: she rushes to D’Artagnan and begs him to fetch the studs back from Buckingham.
So D’Artagnan sets off with Athos, Porthos and Aramis (who come along because they think at least one will get to England if four set out). Sure enough, they’re chased all the way by Richelieu’s men, who try to kill them. One by one, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are wounded and fall back; but D’Artagnan gets to England by wounding a fop called the Count de Ward and taking his letter of transit. D’Artagnan reaches Buckingham, retrieves the studs (there’s a moment of anxiety when two studs are seen to be missing, but the duke gets his jewellers to make substitutes), and heads back.
Along the way, D’Artagnan stops off at an inn, where he discovers a very drunk and melancholic Athos in the cellar. Athos is so deep in his cups, he begins to tell D’Artagnan a story about an aristocratic friend of his who fell in love with, and married, a woman who turned out to be terribly evil—she seduced a local monk and robbed a church with his help. The woman’s husband forced a confession from her, then handed her over to the executioner, who branded her shoulder with a fleur de lis. That was the end of the man’s relationship with his wife; he cast her out, renounced his land and titles, and joined the king’s legions.
Athos eventually overcomes this pathos, and he and D’Artagnan return to Paris in the nick of time. The precious studs are returned to a grateful queen, who thus foils Richelieu; and a vengeful Richelieu retaliates by having Constance kidnapped.
D’Artagnan catches the tiger by the tail and goes to Richelieu to ask him for Constance’s life in return for his own. Richelieu, surprisingly, says he would rather have D’Artagnan as one of his own lieutenants. D’Artagnan’s still trying to digest this when an unexpected visitor arrives: the Countess de Winter. She and D’Artagnan recognise each other, and Richelieu calmly hands D’Artagnan over to her so that she can “give him a glimpse of the kind of society he can expect” if he accepts the offer of a lieutenancy with Richelieu.
And before we know it, our hero, forgetting all about Constance, is falling inexorably in love with the alluring Countess de Winter…
There’s plenty more to come: intrigue, romance, melodrama, comedy, lots of swordplay, even some grim stuff. In short, lots of entertainment.
What I liked about this film:
Lana Turner. She is so very beautiful, and so very Lady de Winter—brutal, merciless, mercenary, scheming. Superb.
What I didn’t like:
I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to films based on stories I like. Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is a fabulous novel, fast-paced and excellently plotted. The film, while retaining the first half pretty much as is, inexplicably goes off the rails in the second half—the story is quite different from the novel. I can understand stories being edited to make them fit the length required of a film (in fact, here they’ve done a good job of editing the first half), but why completely change a perfectly good story?
The swordplay. There’s plenty of it here, but it’s not very good: just a lot of slashing and hacking. What really irked me was that they had a brilliant dancer like Gene Kelly to work with, and they wasted an opportunity for what could have been some beautifully choreographed footwork! Stewart Granger in Scaramouche is miles ahead of poor Gene in The Three Musketeers.
Hey, still an enjoyable film, and good fun.