Dumas's novel has appealed to filmmakers of the world ever since the beginning of commercial cinema. In this country alone, there have been many different films based on Dumas's masterpiece. Some versions remain reasonably faithful to the novel, while other versions use some of Dumas's general plot outlines, or the characters, or the era, and then stray variously from the novel itself.
One of the early films which was based on The Three Musketeers starred Douglas Fairbanks, probably the most famous "swashbuckling" actor of the silent film industry. In fact, this movie almost singlehandedly set the tone for the Douglas Fairbanks-style of acting which has, in one way or another, influenced later productions and acting styles for similar movies. That is, Fairbanks was filmed swinging from chandeliers, brandishing swords, perilously crossing deep, craggy ravines, fighting against insurmountable odds, and performing other improbable feats of bravado and bravery. The film is 186 minutes long, an extremely long movie for a silent film; usually silent films lasted 60 to 90 minutes.
Another film version of The Three Musketeers was released in 1933. This cinematic treatment of the novel contained sound, but was a rather brief, truncated version of the story. The director terribly miscast a youthful John Wayne as one of the musketeers.
The 1935 version of the novel starred Walter Abel, an actor known for his dignity and reserve; not surprisingly, he made d'Artagnan one of the most boring swordsmen ever. Not recommended.
The 1939 Three Musketeers film starring the Ritz Brothers — Al, Jimmy, and Harry — used Dumas's title as a vehicle for the rich comic talents of the three zany brothers. Very little attention was given to Dumas's plot; Don Ameche was cast as d'Artagnan, but he failed to make the role memorable. The movie should be seen only for the antics of the three Ritz Brothers as the three irrepressible musketeers.
Recently, there have been efforts to create sequels for Dumas's original novel. Among them, The Fifth Musketeer has been given a screen treatment, as well as a movie featuring d'Artagnan as an aging swordsman, still gallant and dashing, but now more of a Don Quixote figure.
Of all the movie versions, however, most movie critics agree that the best were released in 1949 and 1974. The 1949 Three Musketeers featured an all-star cast of MGM notables. Director George Sidney cast Gene Kelly as d'Artagnan; Van Heflin as Athos; June Allison as Constance; Lana Turner as Milady; Vincent Price as Richelieu; and Angela Lansbury as Queen Anne. This film version, unlike the 1974 production by Richard Lester, is unusually faithful to Dumas's novel. Consider, for instance, the fidelity of the film to the novel in the following key scenes.
Scene 1. As d'Artagnan departs from home, he is cleanly and neatly dressed, although he is a peasant lad; he receives gifts from his father and departs on a very comic-looking horse. In contrast, this same scene in the 1974 Richard Lester film, starring Michael York as d'Artagnan, shows the hero dressed in dirty, ragged clothes, conducting himself rather basely and departing on a perfectly acceptable-looking horse.
Scene 2. D'Artagnan's arrival in Meung is memorable because of his impetuous attack on "the man from Meung"; d'Artagnan attempts to duel with the stranger, but is defeated, beaten, and robbed. In Lester's film, the duel scene and the fighting are played wholly for comedy.
Scene 3. D'Artagnan's arrival in Paris and his admittance to Treville's house shows him overhearing Athos, Porthos, and Aramis being reprimanded for dueling in a tavern. This scene is omitted in Lester's film.
Scene 4. D'Artagnan catches sight of "the man from Meung," runs after him, bumps into Athos and agrees to a 12 o'clock duel; he knocks Porthos down, revealing a half-golden (instead of an entirely golden) shoulder belt, and agrees to a 1 o'clock duel; then he enrages the usually quiet Aramis and agrees to a 2 o'clock duel. In the Lester film, there are so many extraneous things happening that one loses all sense of any individuality among the three musketeers.
Scene 5. During d'Artagnan's duel with Athos, while the other two musketeers wait their turn, the duel is interrupted by the appearance of the cardinal's men, who arrive to arrest them; d'Artagnan sides with the musketeers and thereby becomes an unofficial "fourth" musketeer.
While this is a rather short scene in the novel, it is usually presented in the movies in the grand tradition of the great dueling scenes established by Douglas Fairbanks. In the Sidney film, it is a continuous, running scene, marvelously orchestrated and brilliantly choreographed. Each of the duelists is individualized with the ultimate and final attention focused on the magnificent performance by Gene Kelly as d'Artagnan. In his heyday, Kelly was one of the finest dancers on the silver screen, and this particular scene emphasizes his masterful ability to move and dance.
The three musketeers finally retire to the background and function merely as an appreciative audience as this fantastic peasant lad from Gascony deliciously combats with finesse and, at times, with humor — always in control of the situation. The entire scene functions as a complete cinematic unit.
In contrast, the Lester version is filmed as though it were a back street brawl, with no continuity of camera work; each short, jerky shot has little or no relation to the next short, jerky shot. Instead of long, lyric passages of classic dueling, Lester has his swordsmen doing karate chops, kicking, gouging, jumping, bludgeoning with rakes and poles, and other such related nonsense. There is absolutely no sense of d'Artagnan's being a superior swordsman.
Scene 6. After Treville reprimands the four men and they are summoned to an audience with the king, the scene of them marching through the elegant throne room and up to the king is a classic scene which is often used or recreated for advertising purposes. Curiously, this entire scene is deleted from the Lester film and replaced with odd doings of street people and gratuitous acrobats, circus-like activities, and other visual diversions inserted to create a sense of "atmosphere."
From this point on, the Sidney film varies only slightly from the novel. However, note that Constance Bonacieux becomes Monsieur Bonacieux's adopted daughter; thus the love affair between her and d'Artagnan was more acceptable to the moral code of the late'40s than d'Artagnan's having an affair with his landlord's wife. In the Lester movie, the young and beautiful Constance is played by an aging but voluptuous Raquel Welch, who is immediately attracted to d'Artagnan; the two are in bed within minutes of meeting one another.
From this point on in the Lester film, there is little similarity to Dumas's novel. The Sidney film, however, continues to follow Dumas's novel almost scene for scene. Admittedly, there are some "adjustments" — such as placing Milady under the guard of Constance, instead of introducing a new character (John Felton in the novel), and later, there is a serious divergence from the novel when Milady goes to her death proud and defiant, rather than pleading and conniving, as she does in the novel.
In conclusion, the 1949 movie is a very close rendering of Dumas's literary masterpiece, whereas the 1974 movie uses the basic plotline of the novel, but creates an entirely different sort of finished product.