So, in a kick of nostalgia, I decided to watch a movie from my teen years that I hadn’t seen in a long time: Disney’s The Three Musketeers from 1993. Having read Alexandre Dumas’s novel a couple years before, I remember being really excited to see an updated version of a classic story. Anachronistic and ridiculous as it is, I enjoyed the performances, especially Kiefer Sutherland as Athos, Oliver Platt as Porthos, and Tim Curry as Cardinal Richelieu, and the sword fights. It may not have done total justice to Dumas’s original, but I found it to be fun. I honestly can’t recall the last time I watched it before this watch, but it has always come to mind when Oliver Platt shows up in a movie, and I have fond memories of it.
Watching it this time, I still really enjoyed the movie, even as certain things about it are pretty dumb. Many of the actors just stick with a combination of American, British, French, and other accents — mostly whatever accent they have naturally. I think that’s a defensible choice. The default “foreign” accent for most (all?) American movies is “British-y,” which still wouldn’t make sense for the French setting, and we don’t want these actors trying French accents, do we? Instead, I think if the actors’ performances work, the accent doesn’t matter unless it’s distractingly bad.
And this point in particular made me want to watch another 90s period action-adventure with an odd mixture of accents: 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Prince of Thieves parallels The Three Musketeers in more interesting ways than just the accents. Both films combine a swashbuckling — at times goofy — sense of adventure with weighty — at times serious — human and political concerns, and all of it has a fair helping of melodrama.
But there’s one commonality that really stood out to me this time: both movies take politically motivated and amoral antagonists and make them totally EVIL.
The Three Musketeers’ chief antagonist is real-life historical figure Cardinal Richelieu. Dumas’s Richelieu is the conniving, manipulative chief advisor to France’s King Louis XIII, a man of twenty-four at the opening of the book. In the novel, Richelieu works primarily against Louis’s queen, Anne of Austria, who is somewhat secretly having an affair with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. D’Artagnan, his companions Athos, Porthos, and Aramis (the eponymous three musketeers), and their servants spend much of the novel protecting Queen Anne from Richelieu’s plot to expose the affair and cause war between France and England. Richelieu’s main motivation (as in real life) is to strengthen the power of the monarchy and weaken that of the landed nobility. So while many of the details in Dumas’s novel may be fabricated, the general idea of Richelieu is fairly close to history.
Instead of this more nuanced character, Tim Curry’s Cardinal Richelieu is a scene-chewing, megalomaniacal villain. Not only is he desirous of the beautiful Queen Anne’s affections (as he is in the novel), he also seeks to assassinate the even-younger King Louis and ascend the throne himself, hopefully with Anne as his queen. His plot is not to cause war between France and England, but to broker a secret treaty with the Duke of Buckingham, a non-entity in the movie simply described by Aramis as England’s Richelieu.
The dungeons under Paris in which we are first introduced to Richelieu and Captain Rochefort (his chief lieutenant) are not just horrible in the normal way, but include a mutilated beast of a jailor who acts as a mini-boss for Aramis in the movie’s final action sequence.
Much like in comic book movies of the last 30 years, the bad guys here are dispatched by the end: Rochefort by D’Artagnan (with help from Constance) and Richelieu by Aramis (Richelieu’s former student). Given how traitorously evil Richelieu in particular is made to be, his death at the end is necessary; he can’t be allowed to continue living and plotting against our heroes in any possible sequels.
For Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, our evil antagonist is the Sheriff of Nottingham (portrayed in a delightfully over-the-top way by Alan Rickman). Nottingham is usually portrayed as greedy, over-taxing the people (keeping the excess for himself) and generally being unsympathetic to their plight. His prominence in any one story tends to vary; for example, in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Nottingham takes a back seat to Guy of Gisborne, played by Basil Rathbone.
Instead, Prince of Thieves completely ignores King Richard’s brother Prince John, for whom Nottingham is often a lackey, and instead, Nottingham is the chief villain of the film. I find this strange given our culture’s familiarity with the character of Prince John; even if he’s not present throughout the film, he’s usually behind Nottingham’s bad actions.
Furthermore, Nottingham is made thoroughly evil. He has conspired with a crooked clergyman to accuse people of devil worship while he himself consorts with a witch whose black chapel is complete with an upside-down cross, and he attempts to force a marriage between himself and Marian Du Bois, after which he immediately tries to rape her. That should be enough to convince the audience that Nottingham is almost the Devil himself, but he also murders Guy of Gisborne, in this film his cousin and lieutenant, for failing to capture Robin Hood one last time.
I suppose I can see why the filmmakers wanted to elevate Nottingham’s place in the film; perhaps Robin’s actions against Nottingham are more epic because they’re directly against the main villain in England. But I also think there’s something missing by making Nottingham the BIG BAD. In the traditional Robin Hood stories, Prince John may be defeated in the short term, but eventually he wins: he will become the King John who loses Normandy to the French and is forced by the barons to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. There’s something about that sense of inevitability that’s missing in Prince of Thieves. Instead, Nottingham and his witch are killed, Robin and Marian are married, and King Richard returns from the Crusades without any hint that he will die in France having only spent perhaps six months of his reign in England.
For me, that really is the central problem with both The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. By making the antagonists EVIL, their deaths are necessitated, making the stories in each conclusive; there’s no room for the antagonist to continue on into a sequel (whether real or imagined). The story is over and everyone will live happily ever after. But for stories set in history, even anachronistically imaginative history, this feels the more false than even the terrible accents.