The book by Alexandre Dumas — the 1977 movie — the 1998 movie
Alexandre Dumas was my favorite author in my pre-teen years. I read at the time in French, first The Count of Monte-Cristo, then The Three Musketeers, and then whatever Dumas book I could lay my hands on. However, now, half a century later, I couldn’t remember the plot of “L’Homme au masque de fer” and how it ended. Thus, I attempted to “re-read” it on Audible. I made the mistake of buying an English copy, not realizing there was also a French copy.
You’d think they would have selected a reader who actually could read French. But no. Never mind the incorrect pronunciations of proper nouns. But why use an Italian pronunciation for words like monseigneur (monsignor)? Then to pronounce the “m” and a non-existent “p” in the words “comte” and “vicomte”? Ah, and the most excruciating ear-grater: “My foy!” (for “ma foi”) I know, it could be a translation issue. But couldn’t they use “by my troth!” or some such?
Moving on to the plot. I suppose the argument should be that when making a movie, you cannot assume everyone has already read the previous three books and the movie plot should be able to stand on its own. However, the greatness of the original book was not so much in the utilization of the rumor of a masked man in the Bastille, but in the closing act of the saga of the musketeers. For those of my readers who have no inkling what I’m talking about, here’s what the first three books are about:
The Three Musketeers was so named because d’Artagnan wasn’t a musketeer until 2/3 into the book. He alone used his original name. The other three used pseudonyms because they were fleeing from some personal history. At the end of a string of brilliant exploits, all three decide to leave the corps of the king’s musketeers. Athos returns to his estate and reclaims his original title of Comte de la Fere. Porthos marries his Widow Cocquenard and inherits a large property. Aramis finally returns to his original vocation and becomes a full-fledged priest.
In Twenty Years Later, the Count de Winter (Milady’s brother-in-law) asks d’Artagnan for help in freeing the deposed English king Charles I. He finds his old companions and they all travel to London. The entire atmosphere is rather sombre all the way through, and made worse by the appearance of Mordaunt, a son we never knew Milady had. He is rather a psychopath and tries to kill the four but eventually perishes in the sea, or so we hope.
In The Viscount of Bragelonne, we find that Athos had a son named Raoul all this time and his life now revolves around him. My memory of the book is that it’s all about Raoul’s love story with a certain Louise de la Valliere who was a neighboring aristocrat. The two sort of grew up together and were engaged to be married when Louis XIV notices her and wants her as his mistress. She falls in love with the king. Aramis moves up the ranks and ends up as Bishop of Vannes. Porthos inherits even more property but begets no child. D’Artagnan ends up as Captain of the King’s Musketeers after M. de Treville retires.
This book, the Man in the Iron Mask, picks up where the previous book left off, not ten or twenty years later. Raoul is still heartbroken and enlists as the Duke de Beaufort’s aide-de-camp. Knowing he means to die, Athos sees him off and allows himself to sink into depression, with premonitory visions helping him along. He eventually dies too when he finds out Raoul died in Africa during a battle. Online, a number of comments call Raoul a wimp. If he is a wimp, then so is Athos. Alexandre Dumas lived in an era when love was a goddess to be worshipped and a man willing to die for the love of another person was pure and good. A wimp would simply drink poison. Raoul chose to die on the battlefield heroically.
This is also where the 1998 movie with Leonardo di Caprio bothers me. It portrays Athos and Raoul as poor. The miserable house they inhabit has a low ceiling and they need to bow their heads to pass through the door! Louise de la Valliere is similarly portrayed as coming from a poor background. Then, may I ask, how did they end up in the royal court? They try to save Raoul from being a wimp by making the evil Louis XIV purposefully using him as cannon fodder. Here, the wimp is Louise who is not the unfaithful fiancee but a pawn and eventually hangs herself interestingly by jumping out the window. In reality, La Valliere gave Louis five children before he moved on to other women. Louise is given a different role in the 1977 movie with Richard Chamberlain. There, she is “revulsed” by the king but meets the twin while visiting her father in prison. Thus she falls in love with the kind twin but hates the psychotic twin. Here I can’t stop myself commenting on the weird fact that two dungeons in the Bastille had a communicating window!!!
Right. The plot.
It is a historical fact that there was indeed a man imprisoned with a mask on his face. Apparently it was not made of iron, and was worn intermittently. Still, it was too good a morsel not to be made into a huge plot. So, Dumas used the theory that the masked prisoner was Louis XIV’s twin brother, hidden away because they (Louis XIII, Mazarin, Anne of Austria) feared a future feud for the crown. The twin, named Philippe, grows up in a cottage in the countryside, is given a gentleman’s education, but suddenly, upon Louis XIV’s taking over his own reign, is suddenly sent to the Bastille.
Aramis, who is also a freemason, decides the time has come to save France from a tyrannical king by switching the twins. He drags Porthos into the execution of his scheme, probably because Porthos is big and strong and does not ask too many questions. Poor Porthos is actually not told what he is really doing until much later. Again, some commentators online mention that he is their favorite character. I have to reckon that Dumas has chosen this book to put a heroic aura around Porthos, who was always outshone in the previous books by the other three colorful characters.
The plot fails very quickly when, after switching the twins, Aramis proceeds to inform Fouquet of the situation. Fouquet was in charge of the country’s finances, besides being extremely wealthy. Colbert, the other minister, was jealous of him and managed to produce paper proof that Fouquet had swindled the king out of millions of francs. D’Artagnan spent the night guarding Fouquet and was to arrest him in the morning.
Aramis assumes Fouquet would be glad of the change in his situation. However, he had not expected Fouquet’s loyalty to be so blind. Despite the fact that Philippe is also the son of Louis XIII, Fouquet gives Aramis (and Porthos) four hours to escape to Belle-Isle, a fortress he owns, while he storms his way into the Bastille and frees Louis. Who, by the way, still arrested him later. D’Artagnan is given the task of taking Philippe to the island of Ste Marguerite south of Cannes where he is fitted with the titular iron mask.
The royal troops blow up the grotto through which Porthos and Aramis were trying to escape. Thus Porthos is killed in the explosion. Aramis, upon hearing the name of the commanding officer, smiles, hops onto the ship and makes strange signs. The office changes color and does not arrest him. Later, we find out Aramis has fled to Spain where he becomes a lord and returns four years later as an ambassador.
D’Artagnan dies in a battle against the Dutch, blown away by a cannon ball right when he received the order that he’d been made marshall of France. Thus, by the end of the book, three of the four musketeers have met their demise. They were the imaginary companions of my childhood. I shed a few tears.
In the 1977 movie, the three musketeers do not even appear. D’Artagnan is the mastermind of the plot, which actually succeeds! In the 1998 movie, all four are included and it is indeed Aramis who masterminds the whole plot. However, why did Athos and Raoul have to be poor, Porthos to be a fool who decides to hang himself naked, and Aramis to be a mere “priest”? On the other hand, this movie makes d’Artagnan and Anne of Austria secret lovers (OMG… how can she be “the only woman I ever loved”… has he completely forgotten Mme Bonacieux???), and the twins his sons. This explains his absolute devotion to his king, yet later an equal devotion to his other son when he finds out his identity. Thus, d’Artagnan becomes the opponent of his three friends in the plot, yet ends up helping them, and finally throws himself in front of Philippe to protect him from Louis’ insane dagger thrust. He dies. Gulp. The ending is a bit hard to swallow. In a sudden volte-face, the lieutenant turns against Louis too and the musketeers succeed in the switch. Philippe becomes king and Louis ends up behind the iron mask in the Bastille.
Actors: Well, I like Gerard Depardieu’s acting but I don’t relish looking at his naked butt. On the other hand, since he can pronounce “d’Artagnan” perfectly, why didn’t the director ask him to coach the other actors? The choice of Anne Parillaud as Anne of Austria was brilliant. She was the perfect mix of beauty, coldness, and regality as I imagined upon my first reading of The Three Musketeers years ago. The 1977 movie made such a farce of both Anne of Austria and Maria Theresa. Both Richard Chamberlain and Leonardo di Caprio are great actors, pulling off the opposite characters of Louis and Philippe with great skill. Di Caprio is definitely eye candy too. I’m not blaming John Malkovich but the scriptwriter for the poor portrayal of Athos, who time and again was described by Dumas as having a noble forehead, noble profile, noble carriage, and a wise logical mind, a great heart, speaking little but saying only important words. Here, Athos looks like a disheveled, balding, bumbling old man, shoulders hunched, face ungroomed. The four valets were not featured at all in the movies.
Setting: The 1977 movie did mention that Vaux was the splendid palace built by Fouquet. In the 1998 movie, it was sort of implied that it was the royal palace. Indeed, the magnificence of Vaux was one the “proofs” that Fouquet had helped himself to the royal coffers. It is a pity that neither movie chose to film at Belle-Isle or at the Isle of Ste Marguerite. Both fortresses are still present today and would have made a nice change of view.
Final words: If you feel up to it, you should read the book — complete and unabridged– first. Then you will feel frustrated with the 1977 movie and entertained by the 1998 movie.