This is undoubtedly the most complete and faithful adaptation of The Three Musketeers ever filmed. It's also a pleasure to watch and succeeds in translating a plot-heavy book into a handsome set of images. Director Henri Diamant-Berger worked with the benefit of a lavish budget and many hours of screen time, since his film was released as a 12-part serial.
The authentically 17th century costumes and the sets are impressive (though the sets are too clean). The script retains almost everything from Dumas's novel but simplifies and abbreviates a few parts (including D'Artagnan's wooing of Milday and her seduction of Felton). It removes suspense by spelling out several events more than Dumas did; it also devotes excessive time to comic relief scenes with M. Bonacieux and Planchet.
Diamant-Berger's direction is assured, though not especially stylish. He has a good eye for outdoor locations (this is definitely not a set-bound film) and action on horseback, but his interior staging is rudimentary. In 1921 silent filmmaking had yet to reach its pinnacle of sophistication and style, as exemplified by Henri Fescourt's dazzling "Monte Cristo" (1929).
Casting is a mixed bag. The Musketeers look like they stepped out of the novel (especially Aimé Simon-Girard's amusing D'Artganan) but the villains are disappointing: Édouard de Max's Cardinal Richelieu is a little too campy (he really likes watching kittens frolic on his desk) while Claude Mérelle's underplayed Milady is more businesswoman than femme fatale. She doesn't project the intensity of the original, just as the movie lacks the intensity of the book.
The only surviving film print has English inter-titles, but these were eliminated from the French DVD, the only one available. But since the film is such a faithful adaptation, you'll understand almost everything if the book is still fresh in your head.
The DVD, supervised by Diamant-Berger's grandson, is controversial. To shorten the film, the inter-titles have been replaced by subtitles and narration. And not only has a symphonic score been added, but also Foley sound effects! Every hoof-beat, every rustle of the trees, and every clack of swords has been dubbed in. The clattering sound certainly keeps you awake (not that the film has many longueurs), and the pace is artificially swifter without inter-titles, but the new subtitles go by too quickly. That said, the film looks terrific--the surviving print must have been in good shape.
The Three Musketeers was one of the most successful films of the 1920s in France, and Diamant-Berger followed it by filming Dumas's sequel "Vignt Ans Apres," now lost. He also filmed a sound remake of the Musketeers in 1932--a documentary among the DVD's special features includes excerpts.
Since an English-language version of the 1921 Musketeers already exists, I hope an enterprising DVD company like Flicker Alley will make it available to American audiences. There have been many good and bad films made from The Three Musketeers, but none more comprehensive than Diamant-Berger's.
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