The Three Musketeers (and The Four Musketeers) are wonderful films and blend slapstick, adventure, romance and drama so magnificently. What is unusual about the slapstick in the film is it makes it more realistic, in my opinion, which is the opposite of what you would expect slapstick to do in a film.
In most swashbucklers, the fighting and action is choreographed, and meant to be as suave, daring, and as graceful as possible. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone go at each other as master fencers, and though the action is may at times seem frenetic, it always comes off as if no one could have done it better. But the fights and the action in the Musketeers movies is often clumsy, awkward, and messy. People trip on things, slip and fall, bump into things, swing and miss, and tire. The effect is to make the fighting realistic, while at the same time funny. The fight at the laundry is a good example. Slipping on the wet surfaces, hitting people with wet sheets... this is unlike the graceful action you would normally see in a swashbuckling film.
I was happy to see Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers” (1973) included in our movie line-up. It is a wonderful version of the Dumas story, played for laughs on several levels. Not only is it played as slapstick, it is also presented as a realistic representation of the filthy world of the historical past -- with chamber pots dumped out windows and mud & dirt everywhere. But the realism is in the setting, not in the fencing. As a fencer, I enjoy the fights in this movie and the overflow follow-up “The Four Musketeers” (1975). But it is not for the quality or realism of the fencing, it is for the energy and humor of the exchange. Of course, the fencing in this film is as choreographed as thoroughly as any fight scene in any movie -- the action is too dangerous to do otherwise. Because it was played for humor, the action was intentionally “clumsy, awkward and messy.” Realistically, swordsmen who were clumsy, awkward and messy had very short careers.
The fencing that took place between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) was beautifully staged by fencing master Fred Cavens, and it was not played for laughs. But it did involve tripping on or jumping over furniture and candle stands, and it ended with Rathbone making a critical defensive mistake that allows the killing thrust to land. Cavens staged an even greater fight two years later, in “The Mark of Zorro” (1940), between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. Though the structure of the fight was roughly the same, the execution was at a higher level. It is the most realistic fencing I have seen in a movie. Even so, it is not the real thing. As Cavens explained, “For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what is coming. All movements -- instead of being as small as possible, as in competitive fencing -- must be large…” With “The Three Musketeers,” the movements are large, but the action is not telegraphed. The humor comes from not knowing what they are going to do next. The fight on ice, in “The Four Musketeers, is another example of this humorous approach to fighting.
It should be noted that Lester’s version of “The Three Musketeers” was not the first version to spoof or parody the Dumas tale. A musical comedy version was produced in 1939, starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers, and a comic/dramatic version came out in 1948, starring Gene Kelly. The 1948 version contains some very funny and athletic fencing by Kelly that could be considered slapstick. But, the best example of comic fencing is not in any of these versions of The Three Musketeers. It is in “The Court Jester” (1956) between Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone and contains both expert fencing and ridiculous slapstick. It was staged by Hollywood’s other master fencer/choreographer, Ralph Faulkner. It is no coincidence that Basil Rathbone was involved in all these great fight scenes -- he was a skilled fencer. Among his fellow actors, only Cornel Wilde (who was a collegiate champion) was his superior.