Monday, May 2, 2011

Dumas, Les trois Mousquetaires (1844)

Les trois Mousquetaires certainly has had the biggest impact of any 19th century French novel. Teh imahe of the four friends with crossed swords, tabards, and plumed hats, is unmistakeable. The novel spawned a plethora of after-products: Dumas himself massed a hit play out of it, and ether are been a stream of musicals, novel sequels and prequels, parodies, video games, a candy bar, and especially films– over 50 films in a dozen countries all based on the novel in some way of other, including: a cartoon version with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy: a German version called Sex Adventures of the Three Musketeers; a Spanish language version called Three and a Half Musketeers (no. the half is not a dwarf version of d'Artagnan, but rather a faithful dog). I assume that many of these films are dreadful -- and the previews for a brand-new 3D version I saw last week at the theater look like an especially

Fun note: in the 1948 Gene Kelly version, Vincent Price played Richelieu and the dapper Gig Young was miscast as the dull-witted but happy strongman Porthos.

I guess I'm too old for the Three Musketeers, as much as I loved it as a teenager. Yes, the story races along and the dialog is snappy, the characters vivid if somewhat one-dimensional. And the great set-piece, the long ride of the musketeers to save the Queen's honor. as they are picked off by the Cardinal's agents is as exciting as ever. Most of all, this celebration of male camaraderie and never-say-die courage is unmatched.

But the four heroes are, if you look at them objectively, a set of roistering louts. Contemptuous of –and ready to cozen – the middle classes, brutal to their servants, exploitative to women, blankly deferential to royalty, spendthrift, quarrelsome and generally thoughtless, and especially in the case of the "more mature" Athos, unpleasant drunks. In other words, they have all the charm of rowdy fraternity jocks or football hooligans trashing a bar.

Dumas's world is everything that Balzac;s is not. Both the Paris of Louis XIII and that of Louis=Philippe are full of dangers. treachery, and intrigues, but in the 19th century Paris, you can't get out of trouble with a rapier, a fast horse, and a loyal servant. In fact, in Balzac the characters most like the musketeers are exposed as the smooth louts and parasites that they are, from de Marsay and Du Tillet to Rastignac and de Rubempré.

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