THREE MUSKETEERS, THE (Fred Niblo, 1921, USA, 119m, Col-BW)
Cast: Thomas Holding, Sidney Franklin, Charles Stevens, Nigel de Brulier, Willis Robards, Lon Poff, Mary MacLaren, Marguerite de la Motte, Barbara La Marr, Walt Whitman, Adolphe Menjou, Charles Belcher, Eugene Pallette, Boyd Irwin, Leon Barry, George Siegmann, Douglas Fairbanks
Director: Fred Niblo
Writer: Douglas Fairbanks, Lotta Woods
Running Time: 120 min.
Leaving his country village, D'Artagnan (Douglas Fairbanks) heads to Paris in hopes of becoming a musketeer. Soon after, he meets three of them -- Athos (Leon Barry), Porthos (George Siegmann) and Aramis (Eugene Pallette) -- and joins their struggle to defend Queen Anne (Mary MacLaren) against the devious Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel De Brulier). The cardinal's been scheming to expose Anne's infidelity by stealing a brooch she gave her lover (Thomas Holding), and the musketeers vow to get it first.
The Three Musketeers is a terrific piece of entertainment. In Fairbanks it has a legendary action star at the peak of his career. And while he is too old for the part, he goes some way towards mitigating this miscasting with the sheer energy of his performance. He moves like a youngster on an adrenaline high, which is a good thing when he’s called upon to perform action set pieces, but perhaps not so great at other times, when his exaggerated gestures gives the impression that he still thinks he’s performing for the people in the cheap seats.
D’Artagnan’s heroic goodness is counterpointed perfectly by the wiles of the ambitious Cardinal Richelieu, played with relish by the skeletal Nigel de Brulier, who was so good in the part that he would play the Cardinal three more times in his career. As this movie is Fairbanks’ baby it’s perhaps not too surprising that Siegmann, Bary and Pallette are relegated to supporting roles as the other three musketeers.
For much of the movie, the dual stories of D’Artagnan’s incorporation into the Musketeers and the Cardinal’s skulduggery play out in parallel to one another, coming together only when the beleaguered Queen tasks D’Artagnan with the mission of travelling to Britain to retrieve the brooch before the Court Ball — a mission he completes with only minutes to spare.
Douglas Faribanks plays D'Artagnan in this version of the famous Dumas novel which he produced at United Artists. And it's an incredible disappointment. You'd think that this story would be a cinch to pull off for the king of the swashbucklers, but Niblo's direction is so unimaginative that it was all I could do to stay awake. Most of the time he just puts the camera in a room and shoots everything head-on, while the actors gesticulate wildly.
The broader canvas of The Three Musketeers allows for greater freedom of expression for its director Fred Niblo, who had also filmed Zorro. Niblo was an expert at balancing rhythm and motion in crowd scenes, but was also a great dramatic director. Here he gets to show off both these abilities, providing a realistic and constantly moving backdrop with the masses of extras at his disposal, yet also allowing the more emotional scenes to play out at a steady pace, giving them dignity and bringing out naturalism in the performances.
He still recognises however that this is first and foremost an action picture. He gives a unique look to every action shot, sometimes putting figures in the background, other times foregrounding them, sometimes having them move towards the camera, other times across the frame. A great shot is the one in which Fairbanks steals food from the cardinal troops. The guards are placed in the foreground at the right of the frame; Fairbanks appears on the left in the background. This arrangement focuses us on Fairbanks, and the depth of his position also allows him room to do his stunts without having to move the camera or change angle.
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