Dumas for Dummies

Volume 2, Issue 3

Forty or so versions of The Three Musketeers on film since 1903, some, admittedly loose adaptations or cartoons, but a plethora of choices from which, to my mind, only one version is worth salvaging, the 1973 Richard Lester film and its 1974 sequel. Since the world has not been waiting with baited breath for yet another Hollywood spin on the Dumas classic, Paul Anderson has not offered one. Instead he has created a steampunk fantasy that is so “loosely based” on the original that one wishes he had called it “Buckingham and Milady” rather than usurping the original title. Yet usurpation is perhaps no better than Dumas deserves, having himself claimed full authorship of a work written with the aid of Auguste Maquet. I suggest that L’autre Dumas, a recent film that examines their fraught relationship is well worth a detour.

Dumas for Dummies

Liana Vardi University of Buffalo

John Barrell, the august eighteenth-century literary historian, in a letter to The Guardian of 16 November 2011, berated the BBC series Garrow’s Law for attributing cases defended by John Erskine to its hero, William Garrow. The series has been hailed by viewers and critics alike and is a favorite of mine, since I’m always a sucker for well-acted historical drama. My gut response to his complaint was that Barrell had missed the point. The series is faithful to the spirit of the era and anyone curious about the real Garrow can find out what he did or did not actually achieve. Fiction is filled with irritants to the professional historian for it claims the same terrain with a degree of freedom that challenges our expertise. While I hardly think that a distorted perception of Garrow is likely to alter one’s view of English jurisprudence, or The Tudors for that matter of Reformation England, their power to engage is bound to be disturbing, and I was reminded of this as I set to review the new film version of The Three Musketeers, based on one of history’s most successful distortions.

Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel, his most-famous and most-beloved, crystallized for generations of readers the image of a devious Cardinal Richelieu dominating a weak and sullen Louis XIII. When I teach the Old Regime I start with the novel and we compare its mythic version to Lloyd Moote’s biography of Louis XIII and John Elliott’s revisionist portrayal of the Cardinal.[1] This exercise introduces students to the differences between history and fiction and to the way in which nineteenth-century fiction entrenched a Tocquevillian version of absolutism that postulated that Richelieu’s centralizing early modern state dealt a mortal blow to aristocratic independence. We go on to examine in detail the policies pursued to consolidate state power, and how Dumas’ romanticized version of aristocratic panache, not to mention of Anne of Austria, Buckingham, and the siege of La Rochelle, stack up against the historical evidence.

As Simone Bertière points out in her fond apperçu of Dumas and the musketeers, [2] the trilogy that includes Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelone, follows the taming of the military nobility from the 1620s to the 1670s, with the result that the last novel, centered on Louis XIV’s court, is the weakest of the lot, marginalizing its retired musketeers, except for d’Artagnan’s famous arrest of Fouquet (a mission carried out by the real d’Artagnan, the one non-fictional musketeer). For the everlasting appeal of The Three Musketeers lies in the musketeers themselves, including, of course, the teen-aged d’ Artagnan who aspires to membership in the King’s Guards, their dingbat servants, their tragic loves, and their undying loyalty.  All this is magnificently rendered in Richard Lester’s 1973 film adaptation, capturing Dumas’s intentions through its stellar cast, from the brooding Athos (Oliver Reed) to the impetuous d’Artagnan (Michael York), even if stretching the point with an overly fey and wimpy monarch (Jean-Pierre Cassel).  Charlton Heston makes for a surprisingly good Richelieu, and Faye Dunaway a mesmerizing arch-villainness Milady.

It is fair to say that Paul W. S. Anderson had no such ambitions in his version of The Three Musketeers –in 3D—which hit the screens, worldwide, on 12 October 2011.  Its Ninja-style acrobatics and Monty-Phythonesque flying machines are not its worst excesses, at least “historically speaking.”  The film focuses on a treacherous and of course ravishing Milady (played by the director’s wife Milla Jovovitch) who betrays a besotted Athos by handing “Leonardo Da Vinci’s” plans for a war machine, retrieved from a secret Venetian vault, to a power-hungry Duke of Buckingham, sparking a conflict between him and the musketeers in which retrieving the queen’s jewels or Richelieu’s ambitions play secondary roles. The musketeers are here “unemployed” because of “budget cuts” and hence mercenaries, although happy to act on behalf of the realm if asked to do so, which renders d’Artagnan’s enrollment a mere matter of choice, distorting the whole point of Dumas’s first novel. Worse, Aramis has become a “municipal employee”  handing out parking tickets to horses who have sullied the public thoroughfare, which, however amusing, doesn’t do much for anyone’s understanding of class distinctions. Athos cannot bring himself to kill Milady –in total disregard of the battle between “good and evil” which exculpates the book’s final vengeance—and she hurls herself from the flying ship to be rescued, much to her surprise, by Buckingham. Constance Bonacieux, d’Artagnan’s “love interest”, becomes in this version lady-in-waiting to Queen Anne, unfettered by a petty-bourgeois, timorous, elderly husband. That character had allowed  Dumas to round out his panorama of the seventeenth-century social scene with cheap shots at the middle class, and these scenes are delightfully rendered in Lester’s version where the cuckholded fool is enlisted as Richelieu’s spy. As well, Constance survives in 2011, demolishing thereby the fundamental requirement of the genre that “all for one and one for all” not include “long-term relationships.”

If I cannot imagine mentioning this new version to my students except to ask if anyone has seen it, I am much more likely to show them bits of a much better film, L’autre Dumas, now making the rounds of American art houses under the title Dumas. This film recounts the love-hate relationship between Alexandre Dumas and his most renowned collaborator, Auguste Maquet [there were many such “ghosts” in his stable], who co-authored Dumas’s most famous historical novels, including the musketeer trilogy, The Count of Monte Cristo and the sixteenth-century and revolutionary cycles. Maquet, a trained historian, dug out historical anecdotes, filled in the historical detail, plotted the stories, and composed much of the text to which Dumas added his brio and dialogues.[3] In the realm of historical inaccuracies perhaps the greatest is to ascribe the sole authorship of The Musketeers to Dumas, and, although Dumas acknowledged his collaborator’s contributions with ill grace, the latter, however irate, did not pursue this beyond monetary compensation. The film alludes to the 1858 court case at the very end but focuses primarily on 1847-1848 when the two men are composing The Vicomte de Bragelone as well as adapting Monte Cristo for the stage. A mousy, decorous Maquet, wonderfully played by Benoît Poelvoorde, has followed Dumas (a portly Gérard Depardieu, of course) to Trouville and is there mistaken for Dumas by a ravishing young woman (a luminous Mélanie Thierry) and he cannot bring himself to tell her the truth. Nor does she believe him when he finally blurts it out. She is seeking Dumas’s help for a revolutionary undertaking, believing Dumas is still the ardent Republican of summer 1830, but instead embroils Maquet, who has fallen hard for her, putting at risk his solid marital status (although it is salvaged by his protective and good humored wife). The scene moves to Paris and to Monte Cristo, Dumas’s fairy-tale estate near Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which he is trying to preserve from his estranged wife who is demanding her dowry back (as she did, in real life, thus sealing Dumas’s financial ruin). Dumas’s profligacy replicates his seventeenth-century nobles’s disdain of money but, since this is the nineteenth century and he is no Monte Cristo, he must write for a living and make sure that Maquet turns in his copy on time.

Stolen and assumed reputations, mistaken identities, true identities revealed at a masked ball, imaginary and real plots involving armed revolutionaries, government spies, and ministers, combine to make this a lively romp that offers as good a portrait of France on the cusp and in the midst of revolution as one can find in film. As Maquet and Dumas are moved to “heroism,” each for his own reasons, their indebtdness to the nineteenth-century Romanticism they helped foment, is made patent. But the driving force of the film remains the rivalry between the two men which moves from literary to romantic and finally political, granting Maquet the beau rôleas naive but earnest in contrast to Dumas’s bombastic and underhanded maneuvers. But, by the film’s end, equilibrium has been restored as they continue their collaboration, for neither can do without the other, and neither will be successful once they part.  All for one and one for all!

  1. A. Lloyd Moote, Louis XIII the Just, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1989; J.H. Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  2. Simone Bertère, Dumas et les mousquetaires, histoire d’un chef-d’œuvre, Paris, Editions de Fallois, 2009, “Livre de poche” 2010.
  3. See Bertière and Bernard Fillaire, Alexandre Dumas, Auguste Maquet et associés, Essai, Paris, Bartillat, 2002, 2010.  The controversy regarding Maquet’s contribution is longstanding and enduring.

Paul W.S. Anderson, Director, The Three Musketeers (2011), color, Germany, France, UK, USA, Constantin Film Produktion, Impact Pictures, Nouvelles Éditions de Films, Running Time: 110 min. Safy Nebbou, L’autre Dumas [Dumas] (2010), color, France, Film Oblige, Union Générale Cinématographique, K2, Running Time: 105 min.

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