Swashbuckling and slapstick comedy go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The massive global success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is proof enough of this. Director Richard Lester and the producers, the Salkinds, the guys who later brought us Superman, had this formula figured out 30 years before with their two-movie adaptation of The Three Musketeers.
The Three Musketeers and the sequel, The Four Musketeers, may have been the first instance where a series of movies were shot back to back in order to cut costs and keep the cast intact. Or maybe they just split a really long movie into two, a la Kill Bill. And the cast is of the All-Star variety, featuring such names as Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, and Charlton Heston.
A young Michael York takes the lead as D'Artagnan, an ambitious young country bumpkin who sets out to the city with the goal of becoming one of the Queen's Musketeers. He meets the Three Musketeers, and together, they are sent on a mission: retrieve the queen's jewels, so she won't get caught sleeping around with someone other than the king, thus shaming France. Over the course of the first movie, he grows from a clumsy kid to a full-fledged Musketeer. The sequel follows Dunaway's character Milady de Winter, as she plots revenge against D'Artagnan and friends for the events of the first movie.
I watched both movies back to back in one sitting, so I'm honestly having a hard time remembering which scenes came from what movie. But they both do work great together as one huge film. I liked Michael York a lot as D'Artagnan. He's always charming and likeable in the few films I've seen him take the lead. I also thought Faye Dunaway and Christopher Lee were great in their villainous roles. The titular Musketeers were a ton of fun, but I felt like they didn't get enough screentime. In fact, I think Raquel Welch's cleavage had a bigger role than they do.
The action scenes and setpieces alternate between elaborate physical comedy routines and impeccably choreographed sword fights. Lester does nice work of balancing the two, for the most part, but sometimes the comedy gets a little too low-brow and/or broad for my tastes, especially in the first movie, which is lighter. The second one, while still funny, pulls back a little bit, and has a much darker tone, even with some turns in the plot towards the end that are unusual for a big movie such as this. I haven't read the books yet, but I assume they stay pretty faithful.
The Three and Four Musketeers are both really fun adventure movies, that are almost great for the whole family, if it wasn't for all that bawdy humor. Of the two, I think the second one is the better. It just balanced the humor with the drama with the action really well, while the first is a little bit tilted towards the comedy side. I honestly believe that Gore Verbinski was inspired by these when he made the Pirates movies. They have a similar sense of quirkiness, big characters, and high adventure.