The Swashathon (the Swashbuckler Blogathon): The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

swashathon-2-princess-brideMovies Silently is hosting the Swashathon or the Swashbuckler Blogathon, and I could not pass this opportunity by to review Randall Wallace’s “The Man In the Iron Mask” (1998). As many of you would know, today is also Bastille Day or la Fête nationale in France, which provides for another excuse to delve into a film portraying France. Here, despite many critics’ allegations that “The Man In the Iron Mask” is laughable, flimsy and disrespects the novel by Alexandre Dumas it is based on, the film is actually an enjoyable ride from start to finish. If the audience does not take this film too seriously, and allow themselves to be carried away by the plot, action and the humour, they are in for a treat. The visuals are delightful, the music composed by Nick Glennie-Smith is great, and the film has a cast many directors would “die for”: Leonardo DiCaprio (Revolutionary Road” (2008)), John Malkovich (“The Portrait of a Lady” (1996)), Jeremy Irons (“The Correspondence” (2016)), Gabriel Byrne (“I, Anna” (2012)) and Gerard Depardieu. 

The Man in the Iron Mask PosterThe Man in the Iron Mask (1998) 

The Man in the Iron Mask” is inevitably one of those films which will be enjoyed by the general public/audience far more than by seen-it-all-before critics. The story here is interesting enough. In the reign of King Louis XIV (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), there are wars with the Dutch and bloody riots in the homeland. However, the young King, who is somewhat heartless and ill-tempered, is far from being concerned about these things, and would rather spend his time throwing lavish parties and pursuing women. One of the women he set his eyes on happens to be Christine (Judith Godreche), the fiancee of Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard), who is the son of Athos (John Malkovich), one of the musketeers. The King promptly sends Raoul away from his beloved to the war, where Raoul is purposefully killed, and this occasion widens the gap of hostility between the musketeers and Louis, whose confidante remains D’Artagnan. Moreover, as Louis instructs Aramis to find and kill the leader of Jesuits (who is, secretly, Aramis himself), the three men envisage the plan: to replace Louis with his identical twin brother Phillippe (Leonardo DiCaprio in a double role), who happens to be in a guarded prison.

Even though the plot is fantastical, it is loosely based on historical facts. Circa 1660s, a prisoner was arrested and imprisoned under the conditions shrouded in secrecy at numerous prisons in France. For example, his face was to be covered, his cell was to be guarded by triple doors to reduce the risk of eavesdropping, and he was forbidden to speak to anyone about anything. These facts gave rise to many speculations as to the actual identity of the prisoner, and why he should be kept under such mysterious conditions. Dumas took this story and theorised that the prisoner, named “Eustache Dauger”, was actually the twin brother of Louis XIV. Thus, the major appeal of “The Man in the Iron Mask” lies in the fascination with identical twins, and in how one brother can replace another brother on the throne without anyone knowing. More recently, however, Professor Paul Sonnino stated that he uncovered the true identity of the prisoner – it was the valet to the treasurer for Cardinal Mazarin, some French Minister at the time. The valet never revealed his face to visitors because his employer was involved in the illegal accumulation of wealth, including possibly robbing the English royalty. Apparently, the valet was imprisoned for admitting the sins of his employer, and was told that he would be killed if he ever revealed his true identity (see here). 

It is relatively easy to spot all the negative things about this film. The constant pulling of emotional strings may be over-bearing; the French are americanised here (even though a number of French actors are involved); and banality may be found almost everywhere. And, of course, technically, this film is a bit disastrous. The French trio of Musketeers in the film speak with different accents, for example, Porthos (Depardieu) with his French (as he should do) and Aramis (Irons) with his British, and even D’Artagnan (Byrne) sports an Irish accent. Moreover, Louis (DiCaprio) himself speaks nothing but American English. But, apart from all that, its the over-use and over-doing of humouristic sequences, largely provided by Porthos (Depardieu), from which stems the unfortunate cinematic disenchantment. The so-called “funny” scenes in the film, such as those involving naked Depardie in a farm shed, are really needless in this film, and almost take this film to a completely different genre, that of comedy. 

Despite the criticisms above, there are also tons of things to like here. The cast and its acting alone make this film the one to watch. All the musketeers in the film could not have been more different from one another, but all of them share close friendship and devotion to the cause, and this is all rather moving. Irons is one’s perfect Aramis, a serious and deeply-religious man, who we see get in an argument with the frivolous and fun-loving Porthos (Depardieu) in the very first scenes they are together. Then, there is Athos played by John Malkovich. He is the one devoted to his son and his King, but when circumstances change, he becomes the first to take a sword and seek revenge. Previously playing secretive and double-faced Osmond in “The Portrait of a Lady“, Malkovich’s transition from a doting father to an almost maniacal revenge-seeker in this film could not have been more in line with what this actor could do best, even if, ultimately, it was an “overkill” performance. Byrne as D’Artagnan is also good. The actor’s looks and personality are almost a synonym of the word “chivalry”, and it is easy to see why we see him before any other musketeers in the film.

It is great to watch these great actors interacting with one another, and the plot becomes more and more entertaining as it moves along, involving tense action sequences (musketeers using rapiers and other armoury), as well as touching love scenes, for example those between D’Artagnan and Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), or between Raoul and Christine. In other words, “swashbuckling” all the way: everything, from the attempted assassination of the King to the prison break will be covered, and the audience will have plenty of intrigue throughout, and even a “twist” at the end. Couple all this with some amazing costumes provided by James Acheson and some stunning cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, and the result is that the audience will even overlook the fact that DiCaprio struggles a bit to provide a convincing and subtle interpretation of the twin brothers, and, unnecessarily, makes one truly humble and kind, and another too despotic and overly arrogant. Perhaps, he should have sought advice from Jeremy Irons for his role. That man put a little stone in his shoe every time he played Elliot, to differentiate him playing Beverly, two identical twins, in “Dead Ringers” (1988). That way, Irons could create a subtle, barely perceivable difference between two brothers in his acting, rather than be totally unkind to the personalities of both. Then, there is, of course, the soundtrack, which is the thing of sheer acoustic beauty. Composed by Nick Glennie-Smith, it fits the picture to the core, and if the “Surrounded” track is very inspirational and thought-provoking, then the “Heart of a King” track is very moving and unforgettable. 

The Man in the Iron Mask” may not be one’s perfect film: it largely relies on sentimentality to provoke interest; does not even try to break away from stereotypes; and has numerous faults in the technical execution. Having said that, the film still remains very entertaining throughout; the cast and the soundtrack are great; the acting by Malkovich, Irons, Byrne and Depardieu is some joy to watch; the visuals are splendid; and the interesting history behind the film’s story is alone enough to arouse curiosity and excitement. 7/10

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18 Responses to The Swashathon (the Swashbuckler Blogathon): The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

  1. raistlin0903 says:

    This is a bit of a blast from the past, but I think it still is a fun movie. I quite liked it at the time of it’s release. The atmosphere for this one was just really cool, and breathed the word fun. Great review for a movie that I haven’t seen in quite a while, but might do a rewatch for now after reading this post 😊

    • He he…yes, I also liked it way back then. Can’t remember much though – a vague bit here and there. Hmmm, also time for a rewatch.

      • dbmoviesblog says:

        Thanks! Yes, it is exactly that – fun to watch, but even apart from that, there are, at least in my opinion, very good things here cinema-wise, and credit really should have been given by critics where it was due. It would be nice to know what you guys thought about it on your re-watches 🙂

  2. Mr. Bobinsky says:

    I remember how ruthlessly it was criticized. It’s good that somebody wtites honest reviews for these kind of movies. I wonder though why the valet wasn’s simply executed.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks for the comment. Critics’ opinions at the time of a movie release could be a bit unfair. Such films as Blade Runner, The Shining and Fight Club were fiercely criticised at the time of their releases, but their true value was recognised in time. I am not saying that this film has the same standing – definitely not, not even close, but, surely, it is better than the majority of reviews on it.
      I guess the valet could not be executed without a trial, and if there were a trial, anything said could have prejudiced and implicated the French government in horrific crimes. In fact, rumours have it that the actual prisoner was treated very well generally, and was given some favours others in the same prison never received – probably so that he continues to keep his mouth shut? Who knows.

      • Mr. Bobinsky says:

        Yes, you bring up some good examples. With films that aren’t perfect that may happen often. You give an interesting insight about the valet. I had an impression they could’ve executioned him easily if they wanted to.

  3. I, too, enjoyed this very much when it came out. I thought Leo was super, by the way; the King has to be evil to excuse his eventual fate. And as for trivializing the book — come on, Dumas wasn’t exactly Shakespeare — he was a popular novelist, not the darling of intellectuals.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Fair enough, I am glad to find more people who liked this one. As for Dumas, I also agree. But, then again, his work is pretty cherished around the world. I think many people would rather see Shakespeare’s work bend to unrecognition on screen than Dumas’ – because Dumas’ work is already written in “cinematographic” style.

  4. vinnieh says:

    A very entertaining movie adventure. Like you said, it’s best to focus on the excitement here.

  5. This was a real childhood favourite. I love Gabriel and Leo in this. This has one of the most beautiful scores I’ve ever heard. The costumes and sets are simply stunning. I really like the 70’s version of this starring Louis Jourdan, if you’ve never seen that version I recommend it.

    I’ve always been intrigued by the true story that inspired this. Does anyone know if there’s any good biographies or documentaries out there about the real story and how Dumas was inspired by it?

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks for recommending me the 70’s version – I have to admit I’ve never seen it. I remember I watched one interesting documentary about the true story on youtube. But, it was some years ago.

  6. Thanks so much for joining in! I saw this in theaters when it was first released (Spoiler: I do admit to rolling my eyes at the ending, which indicates Louis XIV was just a splendid chap after you-know-what) but I agree that Irons is a smashing Aramis. A shame he didn’t play the role in a version of The Three Musketeers as he is the musketeer that seems the most difficult to capture on film.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks so much for hosting! Honesty, this blogathon is superb! I agree about Irons. He is rarely miscast, and his scenes kind of brought this film from pure whimsy back to earth, I thought. He was indispensable in this movie.

  7. What a terrific cast! I think I’ll enjoy this one for the cast (and costumes) alone. I realize this may not be a perfect movie (e.g. your observation about the different accents), but if it’s entertaining then an audience can feel they got their money’s worth.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Definitely, the cast is just amazing – I know very few films who will amass such a fine line of actors, and I found the film super entertaining. Thanks very much for your comment!

  8. Jade says:

    As a kid, I loved this movie! Not sure if it still holds up today, but I remember the story was quite fantastic. The cast is wonderful too, even if Leo’s acting wasn’t perfect. Now I’ll have to watch it again sometime soon! 🙂

  9. Joe Thompson says:

    I enjoyed your review. I had read the contemporary reviews, so I approached this one with low expectations, but then I liked it, despite the weird variety of accents. I thought the Musketeers were well cast, and Leo DiCaprio seemed to have fun with the double role. Everyone cheered when the king wound up wearing the mask.

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