The Three Musketeers (1921)
Director: Fred Niblo
Cast: Adolphe Menjou, Mary MacLaren, Nigel De Brulier
Synopsis: The young Gascon D’Artagnan arrives in Paris, his heart set on joining the king’s Musketeers.
Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel (actually based on real people) had already been brought to the screen three times when Douglas Fairbanks’ production company made this version in 1921. Fred Niblo, who had already worked with Fairbanks on the previous year’s The Mark of Zorro — and who would go on to direct MGM’s Ben-Hur — A Tale of the Christ in 1925 — turned in an exciting, fast-moving adventure story combining the intrigues of the French royalty with breathless action which still looks impressive today, despite some near-comical posturing by the exuberant Fairbanks at times.
At 38, and despite giving a ferociously energetic performance, Fairbanks was too old for the role of the youthful D’Artagnan. Although he appears in reasonable shape, he looked his age in the face and had the makings of a double chin. Today he would probably be employed only as a spoof Musketeer, but back in 1921 he was at the top of his game and could pretty much pick any role he wanted. His D’Artagnan is first seen being despatched to Paris by his father, a member of the impoverished nobility, to introduce himself to the chief of the Musketeers and become a member of the guard.
Arriving amidst laughter at the state of his horse, he quickly gets himself into scrapes with three musketeers — Porthos (George Siegmann), Athos (Leon Bary) and Aramis (Eugene Pallette) – at different times and arranges to meet each of them at the same time for a duel. However, before he can fight them he is forced to join forces with the musketeers against the Cardinal’s Guard. Impressed by his swordsmanship, the three musketeers become firm friends with the brash youth.
Meanwhile, in the court of King Louis XIII (Adolphe Menjou), the wily Cardinal de Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier) attempts to undermine the Queen, Ann of Austria (Mary MacLaren), whom he realises is the only thing that stands in his way of controlling the King, and therefore the country. The Queen repeatedly rebuffs the advances of the love-struck Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Holding) but agrees to give him a brooch, given to her by the King, as a memento. Knowing she no longer has the brooch, the Cardinal persuades the King to insist that she wears it to the Court Ball, due to take place in 12 days.
The Three Musketeers is a terrific piece of entertainment. In Fairbanks it has a legendary action star at the peak of his career. And while he is too old for the part, he goes some way towards mitigating this miscasting with the sheer energy of his performance. He moves like a youngster on an adrenaline high, which is a good thing when he’s called upon to perform action set pieces, but perhaps not so great at other times, when his exaggerated gestures gives the impression that he still thinks he’s performing for the people in the cheap seats. D’Artagnan’s heroic goodness is counterpointed perfectly by the wiles of the ambitious Cardinal Richelieu, played with relish by the skeletal Nigel de Brulier, who was so good in the part that he would play the Cardinal three more times in his career. As this movie is Fairbanks’ baby it’s perhaps not too surprising that Siegmann, Bary and Pallette are relegated to supporting roles as the other three musketeers.
For much of the movie, the dual stories of D’Artagnan’s incorporation into the Musketeers and the Cardinal’s skulduggery play out in parallel to one another, coming together only when the beleaguered Queen tasks D’Artagnan with the mission of travelling to Britain to retrieve the brooch before the Court Ball — a mission he completes with only minutes to spare. The Cardinal’s exploits provide a more satisfying tale, and it’s in this story that director Niblo employs a more sophisticated technique, using symbolism — such as the way shots of the Cardinal’s hand tightening around a Queen chess piece are inserted into scenes of the King searching the Queen’s papers for evidence of an affair with Buckingham insinuated by the Cardinal — to emphasise the insidious influences at play. But The Three Musketeers is mostly an action movie played out against sumptuous sets, and as such it succeeds immeasurably, with breathless action set pieces played out at a thunderous pace.
(Reviewed 1st July 2013)