My first exposure to Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" occurred in the late 1970s when I received a Moby Illustrated Classics version of the book with my McDonald's Happy Meal. Even though this may not have been a purist's manner of being introduced to the story, it was still a wonderfully engaging way to introduce me to the love of reading at an early age. The Illustrated Classics version of the story was quite well-done, as I recall, and I kept it for many years. Every so often, I would take it out to read and get pulled into the story all over again. What stood out for me from the Illustrated Classics version of the book was the depiction of villainous Milady de Winter, Cardinal Richielieu's beautiful and treacherous spy. I was fascinated that someone who was illustrated as so lovely in the book could also be so heartless and cruel. She was, without a doubt, my favorite character in the story. I was so engaged with her character, I was actually saddened when she was captured, put on trial by the Musketeers, and beheaded for her multiple crimes. It was one of the first times I recall rooting for the bad guy in a story.
However, I also recall that I had absolutely no interest in the heroine of the story, Constance Bonacieux, Queen Anne of France's seamstress and confidate, and D'Artagnan's love interest. Constance, unlike Milady, came across as bland and flat in the story, with little of interest or color to recommend her. I usually regarded her as a minor character, rather than one of the two principal female characters of the story, because I always forgot about her. Which is why I am always amazed by the fact that Constance happens to be my favorite character in Richard Lester's wonderful pair of movies based on Dumas' novel, "The Three Musketeers" (1973) and "The Four Musketeers" (1975). To everyone's everlasting gratitude, Lester reimagined Constance as a feisty, klutzy, endearing and sexy character and gave Raquel Welch the best role of her entire career. In a classic example of an inspired actress bringing something to the role that wasn't there originally, Welch brought Constance to life in ways that none of the actresses who have played her in other versions of the "Musketeers" saga have ever been able to do. Paired with an equally inspired Faye Dunaway, perfectly cast as my favorite character in the novel, Milady de Winter, both Welch and Dunaway disprove the adage that women in action/adventure films are usually lightweight and expendable presences. In so doing, they steal the show from their impressive male co-stars. Both movies may have had the word "Musketeers" in the title, but it's Welch and Dunaway's show all the way.
The concept of the beautiful woman who is also a comedic klutz wasn't new by the time Welch starred in the "Musketeers" films. Sharon Tate had played one in the Matt Helm spy comedy "The Wrecking Crew" (1969), for instance, but her performance always struck me as mannered, contrived, and self-conscious, not helped by her line delivery throughout that movie, which always sounded forced and unsteady. She wasn't as funny in that movie as her constituents have alleged. In contrast, Raquel Welch brought a relaxed quality to the manner in which she played Constance in a comically klutzy manner that remains consistently delightful. Unlike Sharon Tate in "The Wrecking Crew," Welch was funny because she was creating a flesh and blood character, with distinctly human traits and mannerisms that included being a klutz, as opposed to just going through the motions of being clumsy. Constance is indeed klutzy throughout the movie, but the reason it seems fresh, and why the audience never gets annoyed, is because Constance never becomes self-pitying or apologetic about making a mess of the situation. She takes it all in stride and has enough self-confidence to recognize that she has qualities of loyalty and bravery that redeem her character in spite of the mess she often makes of a situation.
Constance is also one of the most endearing characters Welch had played in her career up until this time. Prior to the "Musketeers" films, Welch had a successful run of films playing sexy characters who sometimes lacked warmth. This had more to do with the roles she played than any inherent quality in Welch because, as she has proven in recent years, there was an earthy and humorous quality to Welch that had been untapped until the "Musketeers" films. For the first time, Welch was as likeable as she was beautiful. Welch is particularly funny in her scenes with Spike Milligan, who plays her selfish, slovenly older husband. There is a tolerant affection that Welch instills in Constance with regards to her relationship with her husband that isn't evident in the book or in other film adaptations of this story. The non-judgmental quality that Welch brings to Constance humanizes the character greatly. One of her best moments in the film is when Constance reunites the Queen (Geraldine Chaplin) with her lover the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward) inside of a laundry. As the two Nobles declare their secret love for one another, Richard Lester gives Welch an illuminating close-up showing how touched Constance is by the feelings these two have for one another, and helps to underscore the basis for the trust that the Queen has bestowed upon Constance. Moments like these in "The Three Musketeers" demonstrated Welch's keen ability to play empathetic characters concerned about the welfare of others which, except for "Kansas City Bomber" (1972), she had not had the opportunity to play often up to that point in her career.
Another quality I like about Welch's performance is the way she appears unaware of her own beauty and attractiveness throughout the "Musketeer" films. The lack of vanity that Welch instills in Constance strikes a notable contrast with Faye Dunaway's playfully scheming and treacherous Milady de Winter. Milady knows her effect on the male species and thrives on her awareness that her looks and charm are able to bring ruin to foolish men. Dunaway effectively modulates her expressive voice throughout the "Musketeer" films to veer between light and frothy, and cold and cunning with great ease. I like the scene in "The Three Musketeers" where she is seducing the Duke of Buckingham so that she can steal the diamonds from the necklace that Queen Anne had entrusted him with. Dunaway sits at the edge of the bed, swinging her legs and twirling up her toes, as the Duke undresses her. She pretends to be a compliant and submissive sex object to the Duke, while knowing full well that she's the one in control of the situation because she has him under her spell. Just as I reacted to the character when I read my Classics Illustrated version of "The Three Musketeers" that I got with my McDonald's Happy Meal, Dunaway makes Milady in this film version a villainess we happen to like very much by bringing some identifiable human qualities to the character.
Dunaway created such an effective antagonist that it's a pleasure, at the end of "The Three Musketeers" to see Welch and Dunaway square off in a cat fight as Constance and Milady battle each other for possession of the Queen's diamonds. Such a scene could be tasteless and campy, but Richard Lester stages it as a bawdy, raucous fight that never fails to rouse a delighted audience. Dunaway demonstrates Milady's deadly determination throughout the sequence, even pulling out a sharp jeweled comb from her hair as a weapon to threaten the scrappy Constance. Welch, meanwhile, shows Constance's courageous qualities during this fight sequence, never batting an eyelash when she gets the skirt of her dress caught in the closed doorway, immediately picking herself up from the marble floor after Milady repeatedly throws her to the ground, and fighting off her ruthless antagonist with knives, lit candles, and whatever else is at her disposal.
At one point, when Constance throws a bushel of grapes in Milady's face, Dunaway shows what a good sport she is by taking the hit in stride and fighting on as if nothing happened. When Michael York's D'Artagnan crashes through a window, slides across a table, bumps into Dunaway's Milady from behind, and knocks the diamonds into the hands of Welch's Constance, you feel like applauding because the rousing sequence has been capped off by a comedy gesture that you normally would not associate with dramatic actors of this calibre. Dunaway reacts with an appropriately outraged and indignant expression that, actually, makes Milady even more endearing and allows you to anticipate the revenge she will cook up against D'Artagnan and Constance in the sequel. What makes the sequence work is the fact that neither Welch nor Dunaway ever lose their ladylike dignity in this fight sequence. They demonstrate their characters' mettle without ever looking silly doing it.
Welch and Dunaway continue to be delightful presences in the sequel "The Four Musketeers," with Constance kidnapped by the Count de Rochefort (Christopher Lee) and Milady embarking on an affair with D'Artagnan that quickly turns dangerous. Unfortunately, because the film follows the storyline of the novel, both Constance and Milady die violent deaths, with Constance strangled by Milady, and Milady beheaded by the executioner hired by the Musketeers. I always found this dark turn of events unsettling, particularly because I had grown to like both of their character so much. Every time I watch the "Musketeers" movies, I always dread the ending because I know that these exciting and vibrant women will meet fatal ends. Years later, director Richard Lester reunited much of the cast for a sequel entitled "The Return of the Musketeers" (1989) that was competent, but lacked the charm of the initial two films, due in no small part to the absence of Welch and Dunaway. When you watch "The Return of the Musketeers," you realize the extent to which these two actresses brought humor, class and playful exuberance to the original "Musketeers" films. I would love to see Welch and Dunaway reunited for another film that casts them as strong-willed rivals on opposite ends of a conflict. I have no doubt that they would still create magic together. In the meantime, the fine work of director Richard Lester, and of actresses Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway, in "The Three Musketeers" and "The Four Musketeers" allow both of these films to rise above the cliches of the action-adventure genre by giving us a pair of substantive women for the audience to enjoy. In so doing, they help set a standard that other action films should aspire to, but rarely achieve.