Oh no, you’re thinking, here we go again: ‘grumpy old author goes off on one about yet another new TV series with a historical setting’. Well, ok, The Musketeers does fulfill quite a few of the cliches of modern TV drama: bromance (as I believe ‘friendship’ is called these days), fast paced racy dialogue just about audible over thumping soundtrack, impossibly attractive young actors of both genders, historically inaccurate teeth, Peter Capaldi, and no scene requiring a concentration span longer than about 15 seconds. As regular readers of this blog might remember, I measure all versions of The Three Musketeers against both the original books and the 1973 film, and even on those counts…wait for it…I think this new version shapes up pretty well.
Yes, both the ‘background’ (sic) music and some of the production values turn it at times into a kind of seventeenth century spaghetti western, but there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Quite a few people on Twitter seem to have a problem with characters speaking like refugees from the Queen Vic in Eastenders, but would those same people really prefer everybody to be speaking in a way that would be truly authentic, namely in 17th century French and Gascon? Of course it’s not true to the books: to do a version true to the books would demand a film so long that only Martin Scorsese could direct it. Of course it’s not historically accurate either, but in many respects, Dumas himself was about as historically accurate as The Muppets. (The Duke of Buckingham as a great statesman, feared general and ardent heterosexual lover? Pull the other ones, Alexandre, they’ve got bells on.) Indeed, it could be said that The Musketeers does rather better on this criterion than Dumas, and certainly better than pretty much any film version ever made. For one thing, the writer has cleverly moved the setting to 1630, rather than 1626-8, so that the Spanish and not the English are the bad guys, and we even had a reference to how well loved the assassinated King Henri IV had been. OK, one might quibble with such oddities as the accent of the Poitevin Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu spilling over occasionally into Glaswegian-cum-Gallifreyan, and the unexpected ‘Moorish’ antecedents of the Baron du Vallon de Bracieux de Pierrefonds (aka Porthos), of which Dumas would probably have approved wholeheartedly. But on the whole, this is rather better than any of the musketeer abominations that have been perpetrated on the big screen in the last 25 years or so.
At the end of the day, if the Musketeers series makes even just a few people go back and read the Dumas originals, then it’s done one of its jobs (the principal one, of course, being to provide mindless entertainment for jaded authors on Sunday evenings). The same is true of it gets no more than a couple of dozen curious souls Googling ‘Richelieu’ or ‘Louis XIII’, or makes just one History student develop an abiding interest in early 17th century French history – a topic that I taught for many years, and which my students seemed to enjoy, but which probably doesn’t feature much, if at all, in British classrooms these days. If only we also had a similarly high profile TV series set in the Restoration era…a remake of the classic BBC epic The First Churchills, perhaps? (Not a chance: a drama about the toff ancestors of a Tory prime minister, with an intelligent script which gives full weight to the political and religious complexities of the time, being made by today’s dumbed-down, right-on Beeb? Oh look, airborne bacon.) But if TV makers are hunting around for a well-received historical fiction series with a Restoration setting, lots of recognisable real-life characters and dramatic historical events, not to mention plenty of action at sea to pull in the Pirates of the Caribbean audience, then may I modestly venture to suggest… But no doubt you’re there before me.
The fact that The Musketeers is starting on TV at pretty much the same time as a lot of the World War I centenary commemorations are getting under way reminded me of a book that’s been sitting, neglected, on one of my bookshelves. Browsing in a musty old secondhand bookshop a few years ago, I came across an equally musty old tome called In the Trail of the Three Musketeers, by Bernard Newman, published in 1934. Having always been a huge fan of Dumas’ tales, I snapped it up at once.
In the Trail is a very curious book. First of all, it is founded on an explicit assumption that its readership will be entirely au fait with every aspect of the entire Dumas canon, right down to being able to recall exactly where each obscure event took place; and while we might debate just how realistic making that assumption was even in 1934, I think we can all agree that making it in 2014 would instantly consign the tome in question to outright oblivion. Although it pains me even to mention their names in the same sentence, when it comes to size of readership, these days, for ‘Dumas’ read ‘Dan Brown’; and if that’s progress, then all I can say is sic transit gloria mundi.
Secondly, though, what could have been a pointless exercise in literary and historical pedantry of the worst sort is transformed into a work of considerable poignancy by the tragic coincidence that the events from the 1620s onwards, real and fictitious, which Dumas described in his books, took place largely in exactly the same locales as much of the fighting on the Western Front. This is no surprise: after all, the Western Front had once been known as ‘the cockpit of Europe’, the flat, indefensible lands of Flanders and northern France which were fought over time and time again – as such evocative names as Agincourt, Rocroi and Ramillies prove. As Newman writes at one point,
The real D’Artagnan…must have known our war area almost as well as we did ourselves, for most of his campaigns were fought in these parts. The list of the sieges in which he was engaged is one of familiar names: Arras, Aire, la Bassée, Bapaume, Cassel, Menin, Béthune, St Venant, Valenciennes, Dunkirk, Gravelines, Ypres, Tournai, Douai, Lille and many others. It reads like a campaign of 1914-18.
Thus Newman is not just following in the footsteps of the Musketeers: in many cases, he is also following quite literally in the footsteps of those who went to meet their fates on the battlefields of northern France between 1914 and 1918. Take this second extract, where Newman (who fought on the Front) is describing the departure of D’Artagnan and the musketeers from Arras for Béthune, where, coincidentally and fatally, both Constance Bonacieux and Milady de Winter happen to be housed in the same convent:
They galloped off on the road to Béthune. I followed, yet the sobering influence of the war again steadied my pace. Who could hurry through places such as these? Neuville-St Vaast is the first. St Vaast is a corruption of St Vedast, one of the earliest bishops of Arras. He little knew the desolation that would once overtake his patronomical village! Nearby are two of the most striking cemeteries in France – Lichfield and Zivy craters – two great mine craters, sheltering more than a hundred bodies. The craters are filled in; a stretch of turf forms a great carpet; and a stone scroll about the circumference records the names of the men who are in this common grave. ‘Common’ is an awkward word; this resting place is more distinguished than the most ornate mausoleum.
Newman then sets out to follow the musketeers from Béthune to their final reckoning with Milady.
Dumas gives a full itinerary of the fateful journey; the very names of the villages make an Englishman thrill. Festubert, with its grim memories of 1915, when thousands of men gave their lives to an experiment; Richebourg, nearby, sharing with the neighbouring Neuve Chapelle the scene of the first barrage. Richebourg has a more unique distinction today: it is the site of the memorial to the Indian troops who fell in France. It is worthy of its subject: a great circle of stone lattice, guarded by two Eastern tiger cats; a green lawn, traversed by stone paths; on the surrounding walls, the carved arms of the Indian states and the names of the missing. To anyone with imagination there is no more moving sight in France; these warm-blooded sons of the sun, now lying in the coldest of damp clay. Did we not pity them even when they lived, shivering through the muddy chill of a Flanders winter?
I wondered – what would D’Artagnan have thought of it – of these quiet lanes peopled by grave-faced men from the East, whose boys wore beards, praising strange gods in a strange tongue? India was a new land in his day – maybe he had never seen an Indian. Their warriors would have been as strange to him as the weapons they carried. But Athos, I know, would have succumbed to the dignity of their memorial. Yet for all its dignity, for the moment I missed something. Then I understood: it was the only cemetery I had seen without a cross.
I’ll revisit Newman’s book from time to time in future posts. In the meantime, though, I’ll be interested to see how The Musketeers develops!