First in an occasional series in which I’ll break down why I love some of my favorite movies.
A few weeks ago, I went to see Paul W. S. Anderson’s new version of The Three Musketeers, which was predictably loathsome. For me, its awfulness was a bit of a relief, because, as I mentioned in my review, my favorite movie of all time is probably the 1993 adaptation of the same story. In that rendition, D’Artagnan is played by early ‘90s It-boy Chris O’Donnell (currently doing this), Tim Curry takes on the role of the villainous Cardinal Richelieu, and the titular Musketeers get their swashes buckled by younger versions of Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, and Oliver Platt. Alexandre Dumas, meanwhile, gets forcibly rolled over in his grave: even Anderson’s awful retelling, if you subtract the airships, is more faithful to the original story than the script that David Loughery presented to director Stephen Herek.
Given that film’s not-particularly-sterling pedigree, however (it has a moldy 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) one may justly question what I find so appealing about it. What can I say? Sometimes you watch the perfect movie at the perfect time in your life and it seems to have been made entirely for you. That was The Three Musketeers to my eight-year-old-self, somehow such a perfect alchemy of mischief, humor, and derring-do that I could watch it until I knew every line by heart and still want to see it again. Even at that age, I was a sucker for the facts and trappings of history, so I was easily susceptible to the setting of eighteenth-century France, with its stylized swordplay and spectacular settings. And these Musketeers were easy to cheer for, both because, each in their own way, they had such panache, and because Tim Curry, milking lines like “All for one — and more for me” for all they were worth, made for such a perfect villain. Of course, I knew that I wasn’t watching a ‘great’ movie, in the way that Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather are great movies — but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any film that I thought was more entertaining.
If anything, this new edition has only made me appreciate the old one more. Anderson’s Musketeers tries to impress us by having the heroes take on forty opponents at a time, but there is never any genuine sense of peril. Herek’s protagonists, by contrast, are never quite out of danger, which makes their devil-may-care attitudes all the more appealing. There is the presence of death, and that itself makes every character — hero and villain both — more vital, more human. Herek also gives us meaningful relationships and rivalries between the principals. Say what you want about the idea that Rochefort killed D’Artagnan’s father, but it makes for good theatre. Anderson instead tries to get us to care about the final showdown between D’Artagnan and Rochefort by having the latter insult the former’s horse at the beginning of the movie. (Those who wish to point out that this episode occurs in the novel would do well to remember that Rochefort has quite a different role there than in the film.)
As a beloved movie of my childhood, it’s impossible for me to watch the 1993 Three Musketeers with any kind of objectivity. Still, I’d argue that there is something important that separates it from Anderson’s update: it takes its characters, with the exception of comic relief Girard, seriously. Even Curry’s scene-chewing Richelieu, whose grins become ever more malevolent over the course of the movie, is in deadly earnest. He may be cartoonish in his malice, but it’s at least unfeigned. Anderson’s characters, by contrast, try to substitute intonation for emotion, and none of them are remotely likable.
Even today, I go back to The Three Musketeers at least once a year. Every time I watch it, I’m again reminded of how entirely popcorn it is; it’ll never pass muster as a ‘good’ film. Yet it still entertains me in a way that almost no other movie of my youth, except perhaps Star Wars, has managed to maintain, and if I had to choose between those two I would usually go with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. If it must be considered a guilty pleasure, so be it: there is still something wonderful about slipping into my eight-year-old self for two hours out of the year.