Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Review: The Man in the Iron Mask (1977)

The Man in the Iron Mask is a film adaptation of the story told by Alexandre Dumas in his d'Artagnan Romances. It takes portions of the story of King Louis XIV's love affair with Louise de la Vallière and combines it with a completely reworked plotline involving Louis' secret twin brother. Overall, I must say that the film manages to deliver a more interesting and involving story than the original novel did.

The film starts by introducing Phillipe, Louis' brother, who is taken from his home and delivered to Bastille by men working for Colbert, one of the powerful French ministers. His intention is to use Phillipe by making him play the part of the king and thus give France a better king than Louis has proven to be. We also see Louis futilely trying to win Louise de la Vallière's heart and humiliating the queen in the process. The story moves quickly, introducing the main players and then proceeding with the main plot. Incidentally, the plot on how the brothers are going to be switched is taken directly from the novel.

However, the film also takes some big freedoms with the original story. Whereas Colbert was plotting with Aramis in the novel, the film shows him rubbing shoulders with d'Artagnan instead - and the three musketeers are nowhere to be seen. It is d'Artagnan, rather than Aramis, who is disillusioned by Louis' reign and wishes to be rid of the foolish king. And this change is only the beginning - while the man in the iron mask was more or less a side quest in the original novel, here it takes the centre stage. And Phillipe is the older brother here, making him the rightful heir (this actually confuses the issue of how and why he was hidden away in the first place, as it would be more logical to hide the younger heir). Those who (like me) were somewhat disappointed by Dumas' handling of the intriguing idea will be well pleased with this variant.

The film is one of those "made of TV" movies that are usually rather painful to watch, but The Man in the Iron Mask is actually very enjoyable. And, in fact, it was released in cinemas in many parts of the world. Only a couple of actors are bad enough to make the viewer chuckle and while the plot has some holes in it, they are in no way worse than in almost all other movies out there. Richard Chamberlain is excellent as Louis and Phillipe and Patrick McGoohan shines as the "evil" Fouquet.

What is even more impressive, the filming locations are some of the most period accurate I've ever seen. Standing in for Fouquet's chateau is the actual historical Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau built by Fouquet. Similarly, the actual Fontainebleau castle is used for the King's residence. The interior shots were done elsewhere, but these settings still lend this film authenticity that many competitors are missing. Likewise, the costumes are surprisingly good all the way from the central roles down to the minor appearances.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable film that has suffered only slightly by the passage of years. I like this story better than I did Dumas' own version. It is a must see for any fan of period films and Dumas. The only negative points come from the unnecessary changes to the plot (e.g. the question of the elder brother, the change in d'Artagnan's role).