Thursday, September 22, 2022

Literary Movie Church Adaptations Volume 4: The Three Musketeers


The Three Musketeers
(1973 and 1993)

When our kids were young we often listened to books on tape. I believe it was on a trip to Yosemite that we listened to Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. A classic like that would be swell for the whole family, right?

Somehow I didn’t remember that a key plot point in the novel is that Queen Anne, the wife of the king of France, is having an affair with the English Duke of Buckingham. The Musketeers, somehow on behalf of the King to whom they have sworn allegiance, take on the duty of keeping the Queen’s affair secret to prevent a war between France and England.

That was a lot to explain to elementary school kids. In addition, one of the chief villains of the book is Cardinal Richelieu, an official in the Roman Catholic Church. It's easy to see why Tom Sawyer loved the book, and why boys since it was first published in 1844 love the swordfights, derring-do, and adventures. But it’s not exactly “wholesome.” 

Of course, it was written by a Frenchman, Alexandre Dumas, and the French apparently have a different idea about what is family-friendly.

Fortunately, Movie Churches has never counted family friendliness among the criteria for films reviewed; the only requirement is that a film has churches and/or clergy. This means the 1948 version of The Three Musketeers doesn’t fit our criteria. In order to avoid offending any Catholics in the audience (or the Roman Catholic Church itself), MGM had VIncent Price play “Prime Minister” Richelieu rather than Cardinal Richelieu.


Fortunately, there have been many, many screen adaptions of The Three Musketeers, from a 1921 silent feature through a 2011 abomination with blimps and high-wire kung-fu. We’ll limit ourselves to two versions, beginning with director Richard Lester’s 1973 version (subtitled "The Queen’s Diamonds"). Along with screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser (known for his series of satirical Flashman novels), Lester leans into the moral shadiness of the adventures, playing up the sex and moral hypocrisy. In addition, Charleton Heston most certainly plays the Cardinal Richelieu.

A young farm boy, D’Artagnan (Michael York), is warned about the Cardinal by his father as he goes off to Paris to become one of the King’s Musketeers, “Never accept insults…Unless it’s from the King…Or the Cardinal Richelieu. Don’t trust him.” Arriving in Paris, D’Artagnan manages to insult three of the King’s Musketeers: Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), and Porthos (Frank Finley). He challenges all three to a duel, but the first duel is interrupted by the Cardinal’s Guards (who we soon learn are rivals of the King’s Musketeers). The Musketeers allow D’Artagnan to join them in a scuffle with the Guards, and the Musketeers are victorious over greater numbers. A group of nuns on a balcony watch the fight excitedly without seeming to choose sides.)

As in the novel, Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) lends her diamonds to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham of England (Simon Ward). Cardinal Richelieu learns of this and encourages King Louis XIII (Jean-Perre Cassel) to hold a ball at which the Queen will wear her diamonds. The Cardinal plans to reveal the queen's affair with the leader of the English, a nobleman, and begin a war between the nations.


The Cardinal’s plan is, of course, foiled by the Musketeers, but he takes his defeat in good spirits. He is cold and calculating, but he also doesn’t seek revenge when there's no profit in it. Compared to the Cardinal Richelieu played by Tim Curry in Disney’s 1993 version of the film, he’s a relative saint.

In this version, the French Musketeers are played by Americans: Chris O’Donnell (D’Artagnan), Charlie Sheen (Aramis), Keifer Sutherland (Athos), and Oliver Platt (Porthos). I’m sure the success of Young Guns played a part in the casting. I’m just surprised they didn’t title the film Young Swords.

I suppose because it was Disney, the Musketeers’ assignment is not to cover up the Queen’s affair, but instead, the Musketeers must recover a secret treaty the Cardinal sends to England.


Curry’s Cardinal is a much nastier piece of work than Heston’s. We see him early in the film visiting prisoners in their cells. One of the men pleads for mercy from the Cardinal for the crime of theft. “My family was starving. Please in the name of God…”

“Very well,” says the Cardinal. “In the Name of God.” And the Cardinal has the prisoner executed, saying, “One less mouth to feed.”

In this film, the Cardinal isn’t trying to expose Queen Anne's (Gabrielle Anwar) affair but wants to have an affair with her himself. He enters her room as she bathes and watches lustfully. He says to her, “After all, I’m still a man.” 

She responds, “Your sacrifice brings you closer to God.” 

He responds, “But it is not God I desire to be close to.” In spite of his efforts, she is able to parry his advances.

I was rather surprised by the graphic nature of this scene. There are also a number of killings in the film and lingering shots of women’s bosoms, but that doesn’t impact the film’s Movie Churches Steeple rating, which is based on the behavior of the Cardinal, who is the prominent clergyman in the films. The 1973 Cardinal Heston and the 1993 Cardinal Curry average out to a lowly Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

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