When Richard Lester finished filming The Three Musketeers (1973), he and the producers realized they had enough story and enough footage to turn one film into two, prompting The Four Musketeers (1974)—and one of the more famous lawsuits in the history of film. (The cast had only signed and been paid for one movie.) In reality then, this was less a sequel than merely the rest of the one film. Oddly enough, it feels like a separate film—not in the least because The Four Musketeers is far more subversive and contains more pointed social satire than its predecessor.
The approach to cutting the footage into two films is simple enough. Lester simply employs a kind of “the story thus far” approach with an aged Porthos (Frank Finlay) narrating footage from the first film to bring the viewer up to speed. (The films were released eight months apart.) But rather than coming across as a cheesy device, the narration actually sets the tone for the second part, which is surprisingly different. This a tougher film—a more anarchic one and a little meaner. The narration undercuts everything we see, with not just Porthos’ self-serving view of the events, but also by underscoring the hypocrisy of so much we’d seen. Another clue to this lies in the difference between the promotional tag line of the first film—“One for all and all for fun”—and this one—“One for all and all for one! (And every man for himself.)”
To some degree, this was probably inevitable and inherent in the material. While there was no shortage of swordplay and people being run through in The Three Musketeers (though more often than not people only seem to be wounded), there’s a much higher mortality rate here. Moreover, there’s the fact that the film will depict the comeuppance of its principal villains. While the characters certainly deserve their fates within the context of the story, they’re such amusing scoundrels that it feels a little cold. Indeed, one of these (I won’t say which) is a startlingly grim affair, made just that much more so by giving the executioner the bleakly comic bit of insisting on extra money for having had to row his charge to another shore (“I’m a headsman, not a sailor”).
Don’t misunderstand, The Four Musketeers is still essentially in comic-romp mode. If anything, the film is more fanciful than its predecessor. Lester’s “damnable machines” are fully in evidence. In fact, the early parts of the film often seem like a parade of these recalcitrant devices—and it doesn’t stop there. It’s still fun stuff, but there’s an undeniable undercurrent of something less pleasant just beneath the surface, which is in itself something that had always lurked around the edges of Lester’s work from Help! (1965) on.