Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Buckle that swash, part II: More like F'artagnan


A descent into action-adventure sub-mediocrity, Douglas Fairbanks' second swashbuckler needed more than just indifferently-filmed swordfighting.

Directed by Fred Niblo
Written by Edward Knoblock, Lotta Woods, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
With Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (D'artagnan), Marguerite de la Motte (Constance), Leon Bary (Athos), George Siegman (Porthos), Eugene Pallette (Aramis), Adolphe Menjou (King Louis XIII), Mary MacLaren (Queen Anne), Barbara La Marr (Milady de Winter), Lon Poff (Father Joseph), and Nigel de Brulier (Cardinal de Richelieu)

Spoiler alert: high

Since the title of this review just wasn't juvenile enough, I should point out that the primary credited screenwriter was named "Edward Knoblock," and I have no doubt that his family has been locking knobs with delicate skill since the High Middle Ages.  Perhaps they do so still.  Anyway, bad jokes like that are exactly what you need to keep the mind from wandering during a fitfully-exciting but mostly-dull slog like The Three Musketeers.

Knoblock wrote the picture with some assistance from his scenario editor, Lotta Woods, but the key decisions, naturally, all came from above.  The author of Musketeers was its star, Douglas Fairbanks himself.  As he had with his markedly-superior action debut, The Mark of Zorro, he chose the source material to adapt, and then he had his hired hand adapt it his way.  Unfortunately, unlike Zorro, when Fairbanks set himself to creating Musketeers, while I'm sure he did a lot of preparatory tumbling and push-ups, he didn't expend half the effort crafting an actual personality for his sword-waving hero.  And this is a sad state of affairs, since it was precisely this attention to the range and the possibilities of Fairbanks' persona—even a bit more than his stunts—that made Zorro so enjoyable in the first place.

But perhaps it's all in fidelity to the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas' universally-read novel.  (So universally-read, in fact, that even I've read it.)  It's been twenty years, so it's difficult for me to say with certainty; in terms of plot, however, the film is faithful almost to a fault.  It condenses a great many things, and exits long before the book does—which is probably for the best—but altogether it's shockingly accurate to its source.  (The only major points left out are the bloody repression of Huguenots by nominal good guys, D'artagnan's philandering with the villainess Milady de Winter, and that woman's subsequent execution.)  In any event, the plot is never really the biggest problem—though the silent form is completely unsuited to the kind of dense (and sort-of inherently boring) courtly intrigues which absolutely dominate the Musketeers' stop-and-go narrative—nor is its great sin to be found in its gestures toward adventure—for these are sometimes successful, if only rarely capable of really getting the blood up.  It's hard to say which is Musketeers' truly fatal flaw: its filmmaking, which is perhaps the crudest level to which a Fairbanks actioner ever sunk; or its lead, who gives one of the most uncharismatic peformances in his career, in the service of one of his most unappealing roles.

Fairbanks, of course, is D'artagnan, a young Gascon, poor—but of noble extraction nonetheless.  He has been raised to be a bloodthirsty thug by his father, who exhorts him to duel any man that so much as looks at him.  D'artagnan sets off to Paris to join the King's Musketeers, the most prestigious service a man could hope for, although it seems to amount solely to a nicer set of clothes to duel in.  On his journey, another nobleman incurs his ire for laughing at his horse's color, which is the shade of a buttercup.  (It is perhaps the single weakest insult I've ever seen lobbed in a movie.  Yet the only good intertitle-based joke in the whole movie appears in this scene.  As the nobleman approaches the carriage of his compatriot, the evil Milady de Winter, D'artagnan interrupts: "Pardon me, madam, but I must kill your friend!")  D'artagnan is kept from settling his score, however, and so resumes his path to the capital.

There, D'aratagnan is predictably turned down for a spot on the Musketeers; but, as he prepares to leave, he spies the offensive nobleman again.  Running to catch his foeman, he manages to annoy the best blades in Paris, each challenging him to a duel in turn.  He accepts, though these Three Musketeers—Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, in case you didn't know—are quite surprised to find the neophyte ready to fight them all at once.  Before they can set upon each other like animals, however, who should appear but the Cardinal Richelieu's Guards—the Musketeers' most hated enemy, despised even more than their second- and third-most hated enemies, Protestant women and Protestant children.  The Guards seek a halt to the Musketeers' illegal street fight.  Of course, this causes only a bigger brawl.  The outcome is that D'artagnan makes a name for himself as a master swordsman (no training montages shall be found in this movie, but that's to be expected since there's no character arc either).  Naturally, he and the Musketeers become fast friends.

Meanwhile, in the palace, Cardinal Richelieu schemes to expose the Queen's infidelity, ridding himself of her courtly interference.  He suggests that the King ask his wife to wear the diamonds he gave her, knowing that the Queen has regifted them to her English paramour, the Duke of Buckingham.  D'artagnan and the Musketeers, made aware of matters by the Queen's servant Constance, rush to retrieve the diamonds and save the Queen's honor.  And—other than D'artagnan's romantic interest in Constance—it is never explained why the hell they even care, other than a vague grudge against Richelieu, and their even vaguer commitment to chivalry, which requires the Musketeers to offer their "devotion to Queen," but which likewise demands "loyalty to King," who probably ought to be made aware of his wife's consortium with a heretical foreign nobleman (who, historically, was also an active enemy of the Kingdom).

Is this a problem in the novel?  Because "motivation" is a pretty serious problem in this movie.

In any event, the race is on: Richelieu's agents against our heroes, all the way to England and back again, and it ends in... well, the biggest anticlimax you could ever find in a pre-Gladiator world—that is, before popular period pieces said to hell with history, and killed their villains regardless of whether it was their appointed hour.

D'artagnan, I've said, may be The Three Musketeers' biggest problem: he is obnoxious in almost every way besides Fairbanks' unimpeachable ability to physically demonstrate D'artagnan's martial prowess.  A solid half of Musketeers is D'artagnan picking fights with, and murdering, strangers.  He does so with some panache—the handspring that Fairbanks pulls off, to leave a dagger in a Guardsman's chest, is not remembered for no reason—but as much as I love cinematic violence, it's best when its purveyor has some cognizable rationale for why he's serial-killing his way through a major city.  Or else it had better be very cool.  Musketeers doesn't score highly on either point.  D'artagnan lives in the desolate tonal valley between violent antiheroes and slapstick killers: in the former, life is bleak, and death something of a satisfaction; in the latter, life is absurd, and death is joyous.  Death in Musketeers simply... is.

The lack of either basic morality or a transgressive amorality in D'artagnan is exceeded only by his even more unpleasant arrogance, something Fairbanks keeps selling, and which I suppose the crowds in 1921 must have been buying, but which annoyed the hell out of me.  Once the adventuring comes into its own (and a plot kicks in to some degree), and D'artagnan must work together (sort of) with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, he's somewhat more bearable.  The proceedings should take on some semblance of fun, then—although truthfully the "fun" parts of Musketeers are never, ever enough to overcome its shoddy characterizations.  (After all, the Musketeers themselves are unlikeable chortling morons, too, and the closest any get to an identifiable personality in this adaptation is that Porthos is the husky one.)

Silent films are almost never middling: when they lose you, they tend to lose you for good.  Musketeers makes it easy to stop caring, and that's its other big problem.  Fred Niblo's direction feels even more locked-down than it was in Zorro, where he at least managed to convey Fairbanks' own energy.  Instead, the general impression set by Musketeers' fight scenes is one of barely-consecutive shots of individually good stunts, poorly married to one another by crude editing.  There is nothing on the scale of the action-comic chase that climaxed Zorro.  That film's playfulness is largely absent, replaced with furious nonsense and braggadocio, while the scene in Richelieu's chamber, with a hidden gun pointed at D'artagnan, is a master class on how to evaporate an enjoyably tense moment with a perfunctory escape.

Niblo manages only two truly exciting images in the whole affair: the first, a hail of flying swords coming through a door—missing our hero and his lady fair by inches; the second, Porthos, straining like Atlas under a collapsing bridge so that his fellows may ride safely across.  But Niblo's camera is more often poorly-placed; it moves, exactly once.  (It is still 1921, I realize, but Cabiria was doing wonderful things with movement fully seven years earlier.)  Parts of Musketeers, now lost, were evidently shot in two-strip Technicolor; too bad, since color might have helped the readability of all those crowd shots of men fighting in the midground while wearing slightly different styles of broad hats and crucifix-embroidered cloaks.

If there's one saving grace to Musketeers, it's Nigel de Brulier as the Red Eminence himself.  The reduction of Cardinal Richelieu's complex historicity into the material of a diabolical villain is baked into the premise, so we cannot argue much with that; let us instead praise de Brulier for bringing a diabolical villain to life.  As befits a silent film antagonist, he works with his look: drooping eyes, a drawn face, and a reserved intellectual's demeanor—that never forgets that there is a certain venality to his character, a willingness to be flattered and pandered to.  His visage is a little bit rat-like, in fact—that is, he's the very image of the Cardinal.  (De Brulier would reprise the character again and again, making half a career out of playing Richelieu, continuing onward into the sound era.  We conclude that nobody was more perfect for the part.)

But the ending, which sees our villain simply give the fuck up, is so nonchalant about its own lack of satisfactory resolution that it's almost compelling as its own isolated species of baffling twist—and de Brulier plays it so well that Musketeers comes even closer to pushing it over the top—but ultimately what the film leaves you with is a frustration.  Indeed, Musketeers sometimes seems almost contemptuous: it assumes an audience that can be entertained by nothing more than quick movement and vaguely adventurous themes.  That wasn't a bad assumption—The Three Musketeers, after all, was a success, whether it deserved to be or not.

If Zorro made Fairbanks a star, Musketeers made Fairbanks an institution.  (And if Zorro gave him his mustache, Musketeers fused it to his face.)  Musketeers earns some credit for this, for great films were in the actor's future.  Sadly, the next one is Robin Hood—so we'll have to wait a while longer to actually deal with one of those.

Score:  4/10


  1. I admire your capacity to engage with silent films at their level. And genuinely not like them. That takes real strength of character.

    1. I appreciate it. But you don't want to know what I think of Murnau's Sunrise.