November 1, 2011
Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers has been adapted countless times for the screen, most of them forgotten. There is a 1911 Edison production, a modernized 1933 Mascot serial that starred John Wayne as a French Foreign Legionnaire, and now a newfangled 3D version crafted by Paul W.S. Anderson. Left out of this un-illustrious list are the canonical Douglas Fairbanks interpretation of 1924, and the popular jokey two-parter from Richard Lester in ’73 and ’74, but alas, it seems the latest Dumas gloss will go the way of Edison’s and the Duke’s, filed away as a rote remake and quietly ignored thereafter. Garnering a variety of gleeful pans and disappointing box-office returns, Anderson’s Three Musketeers nevertheless abounds in visual riches and confirms the director as one of the few to fully explore the possibilities of new 3D technologies.
Anderson told the London Free Press that Richard Lester’s Musketeers was one of the first films his father took him to see as a child. It was this childhood memory, and an interest in filming Baroque and Romanesque European architecture that set the project in motion. The idea started when Anderson and long-time producer Jeremy Bolt were marveling at the buildings in Berlin, where they were shooting Resident Evil: Afterlife, and, Bolt told ComingSoon.net, “Paul said that we should really try and find a project where we could shoot some of these buildings for real.” The impetus for the project was purely visual, and a bit of a departure for the duo, whose previous films were mainly studio-bound. After sharing their mutual love of Lester’s lusty and slapstick take on the material, they pitched it to Constantin Films, who accepted. I would imagine the pitch included more references to the success of historical fantasies like Pirates of the Caribbean than King Ludwig II, whose Bavarian castles they would shoot in, but the influences of both are prevalent throughout.
Anderson and Bolt made a number of tweaks to Dumas’ story and Lester’s film. Most of the sexual energy of Lester’s version, which is overflowing with innuendo and Raquel Welch’s heaving bosom, is softened and diverted entirely into Milla Jovovich’s wonderfully sinuous and menacing turn as Milady, another of Anderson’s steely feminine heroes (or, here, anitheroes). In a nod to the lucrative tween audience (and inadvertently more faithful to Dumas), D’Artagnan is made younger and callower, with the Bieberesque Logan Lerman taking over the sabre. Not as spry as Fairbanks or as impish or Michael York, Lerman is a bit of a non-entity, but succeeds in not distracting from the often spectacular backdrops. The youth push is rounded out by Freddie Fox as an earnestly mincing King Louis XIII and Gabriella Wilde as D’Artagnan’s chaste love interest Constance. The three title roughnecks (Matthew Macfadyen/Luke Evans/Ray Stevenson), while not matching the oily majesty of Lester’s Oliver Reed/Richard Chamberlain/Frank Finlay, do a workmanlike job of swashbuckling, and were physical enough to perform the swordfights without stunt doubles.
This athleticism allows Anderson to get close and analytical in the sparring scenes, using slow-motion to register every thrust and parry. This facility with clean lines of action is nothing new for the director, but the spaces in which they snap into place certainly is. The first of Anderson’s films to be shot mostly on location, his Three Musketeers emphasizes dizzying verticals as opposed to the claustrophobic horizontals of the Resident Evil series. This transition is visualized in the the first action scene, which takes place in an underground corridor that could have come out of R.E. The receding depth-of-field works brilliantly in 3D, as it did in Resident Evil: Afterlife (recently named by Stefan Drössler (director of the Munich Filmmuseum), as one of the best contemporary 3D films in a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art), and it even ends, like its zombie-killing forebear, with a Milla Jovovich action scene, as she dives through a barrage of weight-sensitive booby traps. The prize at the end, however, is the plans for an airborne killing machine, supposedly designed by Da Vinci. This hot-air balloon warship is indicative of the vertical heights Anderson will push his visuals for the rest of the film.
The castles of King Ludwig II are a reasonable match for the France of Louis XIII, since Ludwig was obsessed with Versailles and ordered the Herrenchiemsee to be built, a replica of Versailles in neo-Baroque style. These are garishly gorgeous constructions, and Anderson was allowed to film interiors as well, which he approaches in airy high and low angles, the actors receding into the depths of their own history, the ornate ceiling murals gaining the foreground to the characters’ background in the sharp 3D compositions (shot on the Arri Alexa, also Scorsese’s choice for Hugo).
The introduction of the flying warships, while clearly an effort to pump up the film’s action quotient, is also a perfect device to push Anderson’s experiments in verticality. The closing set-piece is a slow ascent followed by a steep decline, the 3D depth effects shifting so that up and down becomes the new background and foreground, a re-orienting of space that is a logical extension of the scene but dizzying to behold. When the battle crashes , the lines of Bavarian architecture re-ground the image, with the climactic swordfight taking place on the vaulting roof of a church, whose steep declines tumble the combatants back down to the earth. A marvel of cinematic architecture, Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers should rightfully carve out a space next to the efforts of Douglas Fairbanks and Richard Lester as the exuberantly entertaining Dumas adaptation of its age.