“THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” (1977) Review

“THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” (1977) Review

I have seen my share of movie and television productions that are based on novels and plays by Alexandre Dumas père and his son Alexandre Dumas fils And for some reason, I never get tired of watching them – over and over again. And one of them is the 1977 television movie, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK”.

Directed by Mike Newell and adapted by William Bast, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” is loosely based on Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1847-50 novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”. The novel was the third and last of the author’s “The d’Artagnan Romances” literary trilogy, following “The Three Musketeers” and “Twenty Years After”. The movie begins with Philippe Bourbon being snatched by a group of mysterious men from his small French estate and imprisoned at the Bastille. It turns out that the men behind this kidnapping is King Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the head of the Musketeers, D’Artagnan.

Aware that Philippe is the twin brother of the king (and the rightful monarch of France), the pair plan to conduct a bloodless coup to eventually switch Philippe with the corrupt and malicious Louis. However, their plans are stymied when the Chevalier Duval, an aide of the also corrupt Superintendent of Finances Nicolas Fouquet, stumbles across Philippe. Fouquet, via instructions from Louis, orders Duval to take Philippe from the Bastille and install him in another prison on the coast. Fortunately for Colbert and D’Artagnan, they learn of Philippe’s fate from Louis’ reluctant and disenchanted mistress Louise de La Vallière and plot to rescue the royal twin and continue with their plot to replace him with Louis.

When I saw “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” for the first time, I thought it was perfect. Flawless. And it became one of my favorite Alexandre Dumas adaptations and television movies for years. After my recent viewing of the television movie, I now realize that it is not perfect. I feel that screenwriter William Bast had changed one aspect of Dumas’ novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”, that had an impact on the 1977 movie’s narrative. The novel had portrayed Louis as the older twin and rightful king of France. For some reason, Bast had made Philippe the oldest twin. Why? I have no idea. To justify Philippe’s theft of the French throne? Unfortunately, this narrative change left me wondering why Philippe, as the “older twin” was not allowed to be his father’s heir and later, successor. In one scene, Colbert explained that former French minister and lover of the twins’ mother Queen Anne, Cardinal Mazarin, had Philippe taken away following the latter’s birth, in order to manipulate then King Louis XIII. This explanation struck me as lame and confusing. And Bast should have never changed this aspect of Dumas’ plot.

Many moviegoers have become increasingly critical of any production that have not closely adhere to its literary source over the years. I have no idea how many of them felt about this 1977 television movie. But I have a pretty good idea how I feel about it. Although I found the major change mentioned in the above paragraph troubling, I had no problems with many of other Bast’s changes. I have read Dumas’ novel. It was interesting . . . to say the least. I have no problems reading or watching a story with a downbeat ending if it suits the narrative or if I am in the mood to embrace it. I have never been in the mood to embrace Dumas’ 1847-50 novel. Which would probably explain why I enjoyed the changes in this adaptation a lot. But wait . . . extreme changes had been made in other adaptations of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne”. What was it about this particular adaptation that I enjoyed? I found it better written than the other adaptations.

For me, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” was a tight and well-written story that did not drag or rush the movie’s narrative. Which is more than I can say for Dumas’ story. Most Dumas’ adaptations tend to be part-dramas/part-swashbucklers. “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” – at least this version – seemed to be eighty-five percent drama and fifteen percent action. In fact, the only real action sequence in this production turned out to be D’Artagnan’s rescue of Philippe from the coastal prison. And if I must be honest, I thought Mike Newell’s direction, Freddie Young’s cinematography and Bill Blunden’s editing made that sequence a tense, yet exciting affair.

However, the meat of “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” centered around its dramatic scenes. Thanks to Newell’s direction, Bast’s screenplay and a talented cast, the television movie featured some very memorable scenes. Among my favorites are Philippe’s discovery that he is the King of France’s twin brother, Louis’ malicious reaction to his failure to impress Louise de La Vallière, a tense conversation between Philippe and Queen Marie-Therese, and the last verbal duel between Colbert and Fouquet. If I had to select my absolute favorite scene, it had to be the one that featured Louis’ “Sun King” ballet, Louise’s failure to be impressed and Louis’ malicious act of using the Queen as a scapegoat for his embarrassment.

As I had earlier stated, the dramatic scenes in “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” would have never been fully satisfying to me without its top notch cast. Yes, there were solid performances from the likes of Denis Lawson, Hugh Fraser and Brenda Bruce. But I found myself impressed by other members of the cast. They include Vivien Merchant, who did an excellent job in conveying Queen Marie-Therese’s mixed emotions toward her emotionally abusive spouse – whether it was desire, resentment or a combination of both. Ian Holm was excellent as Minister Fouchet’s aide, the Chevalier Duval, who seemed to be brimming with cunning intelligence and stealth. I would never associate Louis Jordan portraying a swashbuckling figure. But I must admit that he made an excellent man-of-action in his portrayal of the experienced, competent and quick-thinking D’Artagnan.

Jenny Agutter gave a sublime and passionate performance as Louise de La Vallière, Louis’ reluctant mistress who ended up falling in love with the latter’s twin. Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of France’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert struck me as one of the more entertaining performances in the production. I found Richardson’s Colbert cunning, intelligent, patient and more importantly – at least to me – witty. I have seen Patrick McGoohan in several heroic and villainous roles. But I must admit that his Nicolas Fouquet struck me as one of the most subtlety portrayed villains I have ever seen on screen. McGoohan’s Fouquet could put Sheev Palpatine from the STAR WARS saga when it comes to subtle villainy. And I like subtle villains. I find them more dangerous.

If I had to give an award for the best performance in “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK”, I would give it to its leading man, Richard Chamberlain. Mind you, Chamberlain had to portray two characters – the decent, yet slightly hot-headed Philippe Bourbon; and the vain and egotistic King Louis XIV. Mind you, I thought Chamberlain did an excellent job of conveying Philippe’s sense of confusion, anger and passion. But the actor’s portrayal of Louis literally knocked my socks off. Chamberlain’s performance was not over-the-top. He did a subtle job of conveying Louis’ villainy. And yet, he managed to inject a great deal of – how can I put it – a joie de vivre quality in his performance that I found truly entertaining. There was no doubt that Chamberlain’s Louis was a villain. But his Louis proved to be one of the most entertaining villains I have seen on screen.

I realize that I have yet to discuss the television movie’s production values. We are talking about the 1970s. Although I can recall a good number of television miniseries with first-rate production values, I cannot say the same about several period television productions from both sides of the Atlantic. And “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” is a television movie with a 100 minutes running time. However, I thought its production values were first-rate. Despite being a made-for-TV movie, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” was shot on several locations in both France and Great Britain. Thankfully, Freddie Young’s photography did an excellent job in enhancing those locations. John Stoll took advantage of those locations and skillfully re-created France and Louis XIV’s court of the late 1660s or early 1670s. I am not an expert of 17th century fashion – in France or anywhere else. I have no idea whether Olga Lehmann’s costume designs or Betty Glasow’s hairstyle are historically accurate. But I cannot deny that I found the hairstyles satisfying and Lehman’s costumes beautiful, as shown below:

In the end, I am happy to state that “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” remains one of my all time favorite adaptations of an Alexandre Dumas père novel. Despite my quibble of one of William Bast’s changes in Dumas’ story, I feel more than satisfied with his other changes and thought he had presented a first-rate story. And my satisfaction also extends to Mike Newell’s top-notch direction and the excellent performances from a cast led by the always superb Richard Chamberlain.

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