Though previously released by Fox Lorber, Anchor Bay's new anamorphic transfers of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers” bring Richard Lester's now-classic action-comedy diptych in a beautifully designed foldout case, with pretty art direction incorporating images of the film's stellar international cast, and elegant animated menus with a silhouetted Oliver Reed preparing for a duel.
Finally presented in their proper widescreen ratio, these new transfers are less raw than the older Fox Lorber versions, offering a more stable balance of colours and less extreme contrast between shadows and bright sunlight - a problem that made the older transfers a bit hot in the white levels. Film grain is less severe, although the active compression becomes evident during shadowy and low-light scenes - something that may have been lessened by dropping the included full screen versions on each disc.
Though still in mono - the orchestral scores did get full stereo releases on LP and CD - there's a decent blend of witty banter, character muttering, sound effects, and surges of period-flavored music.
After suffering devastating financial failures with "Austerlitz" and Orson Welles' version of "The Trial," Ilya Salkind and co-producer Pierre Spengler assembled the idea to film the Alexandre Dumas novel - not remake the 'children's' version that previous efforts had relied upon. Enter George MacDonald Fraser, author of the witty historical "Flashman" novels, who ended up writing a dynamic fusion of factual history, real-life characters, and dollops of nutty humour that satirized the more serious issues of class struggles, mortal danger, and court intrigue.
In his amusing and informative 1988 history-in-film chronicle, "The Hollywood History Of The World," Fraser writes that, after a 25 year absence from the screen, his approach of the Dumas novel "was quite different. The story was told in two films totaling three and a half hours, with a mixture of comedy and realism; there was room for more of Dumas, and for historical detail - a real tennis match, the siege of La Rochelle, the extravagances of royalty in elegant palaces and the squalor of slum interiors, even an early submarine, authentic broadsword rough-housing instead of the conventional polished rapier work." Closer to Dumas's original characters, they were "a good deal less decorous and principled than they usually appear on screen."
As the plight of the Musketeers were ultimately divided into two self-contained works - subtitled as 1973's "The Queen's Diamonds," and 1974's "Milady's Revenge" - so are the documentaries which flank each disc (using amiable 'scenes from' and recap footage). Fraser makes several points that are addressed in greater detail on both discs: as the films were divided into two self-contained works - subtitled as 1973's "The Queen's Diamonds," and 1974's "Milady's Revenge" - so are the documentaries which flank each disc (using amiable 'scenes from' and recap footage). Twenty years after their production, the tone of the participants has mellowed - a combination of warm regard for the experience and the films' enduring legacy as film classics; plus a more tempered attitude, concerning the lawsuit launched by the actors when they discovered their paid work for a single epic was being exploited as two features.
That's the only hot topic in what's an otherwise exhaustive 2-part hour-long documentary that assembles cast members Michael York (still looking ludicrously youthful), Christopher Lee (who, twenty years York's senior, performed his own dangerous stunts), an ageless Raquel Welch, Charlton Heston (seated in front of a huge painting of himself as Cardinal Richlieu), and Frank Finlay (who closes the doc with a delightful anecdote in being recognized by a new generation of fans).
An ebullient Ilya Salkind covers the production's history, and the film's burly stunt coordinator details the duels and fiery battles in the second film that often put the exhausted actors in risky situations. (The swordplay is incredible. For his first historical film, director Richard Lester photographed the combats in lengthy takes, wisely showing the actors' fatigue and mounting sweat. There's plenty of rough kicks, body-checks and punches that arguably lessened the more mannered duels of past Musketeer efforts.)
Richard Lester doesn't appear in the interviews, and though the presence and insight of this now-reclusive and retired film director is missed, there's enough admiration from the cast and crew to reinforce Lester's ideal handling of what could have been a risky venture.
The remaining extras include wonderfully detailed actor and director biographies (duplicated on both discs), and publicity materials that span trailers, TV ads, and radio spots. Originally distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox, the trailers use the tags "All For One, and All Four For Fun!" for the first movie, and "Four For Fun, And Fun For All!" for the second. Naturally "They're Back!" figures prominently in the ads for the second film, and the radio spots ("Tell me MORE!!") use a frequently hysterical set of ad hype - a bygone style that's been largely replaced with catchy dialogue, and the usual theme song to help sell the soundtrack album.
The quality of the trailers are fairly grainy, and it's rather amusing to see the original widescreen images get cropped for theatrical trailers, and even further chopped for TV - using cheaper film stock, heavy grain, weak colours, and a significant loss in detail.
Each disc also contains a generous gallery of stills - portraits, behind-the-scenes - and publicity materials from around the world, including press book, posters, novelization, soundtrack albums, and a snapshot of the Super 8 film version; exploitation tools that would no doubt serve the Salkinds very well once the "Superman" series began a few years later.
The last gem is a short publicity featurette on Disc 1 which includes ultra-brief interviews (more like sound bites) from key actors in and out of make-up, some production footage, and a rather unnerved Michael Legrand at the mixing board, as the exhausted composer states point blank he had a mere ten days (!) to score the first film (with Lalo Schifrin seamlessly scoring the second with wholly new thematic material). The sound is rough, and the grain and faded colour reflect the archival nature of this well-worn promo.
No doubt the only thing left to offer is Richard Lester's 1989 follow-up, "The Return of the Musketeers," which would complete this cherished series some day on DVD.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan