Page to Screen: The Man in the Iron Mask (1997)

The Man in the Iron Mask
based on The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas

I love Channel Awesome, which you probably principally know from the Nostalgia Critic, a foul-mouthed character of Doug Walker’s that reviews ‘80s and ’90s nostalgic films to hilarious effect. When the Nostalgia Chick came back after a while (Lindsay Ellis, who plays her, was balancing grad school and the show), I was delighted—and delighted that she reviewed The Man in the Iron Mask, a dimly remembered Leonard DiCaprio vehicle with Jeremy Irons in it. (I’d say I saw it during my Jeremy Irons phase, but that would imply my Jeremy Irons phase ended.) Her review is hilarious (and dead-on about John Malkovich’s enunciation). After finding a VHS copy at the library, I settled in for what surely could only be the finest in bad ‘90s period pieces.

And then I found myself enjoying it without a trace of irony. Whoops!

In The Man in the Iron Mask, we join the heroes of Dumas’s The Three Musketeers settling into middle age and their chosen occupations with varying levels of success–Athos and Aramis are aging gracefully, while D’Artagnan worries about King Louis and Porthos hits a mid-life crisis. After King Louis has Athos’s beloved son killed to sleep with his fiance, Athos swears revenge on King Louis and the other Musketeers lose their faith in their king; save D’Artagnan, who desperately wants to believe Louis can become the king he knows he can be. Aramis comes up with a solution—the mysterious man in the iron mask.

While I haven’t read The Vicomte de Bragelonne, all-knowing Wikipedia tells me that the film takes a minor plot that divides the Musketeers politically and ends up foiled and runs with it, as do, of course, the other ten films based on the same source. But I actually like the story here; while the humor can be infantile at times (can someone tell me why poop jokes are funny?), it’s emotionally solid. Even Louis, who would be easy to vilify, has some complexity—at the beginning, he seems to be trying (not too hard, though) and he is concerned about women loving him only for his status. Sure, he’s rotten to the core, but he’s not wholly evil. There’s twists that I find very in-character, and even the much criticized and mocked last stand is thoroughly explained—our heroes don’t expect to live through the night and the musketeers don’t want to murder their mentors and their captain. While it’s a very loose adaptation, I find it to be very believable for the characters I met in The Three Musketeers, which is more than I can say for some more faithful adaptations. History, though, does get messed with—Versailles is featured, despite not being ready in 1662, Louis was actually married at the time, and, most hilariously, the film ends with Aramis telling us of Louis XIV’s generous and peaceful reign, which is total bull. But it’s a smashing fun story with heart.

The casting (unlike some Dumas adaptations I can name—I’m looking at you, The Three Musketeers!) is fantastic. While the fact that nobody seems to be using the same accent initially threw me, I could rationalize it as emphasizing character traits or ignore it entirely. Although John Malkovich’s enunciation does make me giggle, he’s a straight-forward and emotionally mature Athos, and casting Peter Sarsgaard as his son, Raoul, was brilliant, if only because they have the same speech pattern. Jeremy Irons makes a wonderful Aramis, wry, still a little vain, devout, and very clever. Gerard Depardieu is a lusty Porthos going through somewhat of a midlife crisis. Gabriel Byrne makes for a nice D’Artagnan, conflicted by his fierce loyalty to the king and what a bad king he’s turning out to be. Leonardo DiCaprio does very nicely as Louis and Philippe, differing their performances to the degree you can tell who is who simply by body language. The cast has fantastic chemistry with each other—after a rough introductory scene, I became very fond of the bond between Aramis and Porthos; their friendship is unlikely but deep and true. There’s a scene in the film where Porthos, unable to have sex, decides to hang himself—Aramis has wisely sawed the beam in the barn to keep him from succeeding. Their ensuing confrontation is one of those masculine moments where they express their friendship without actually talking about their feelings; it really made me smile.

I was very surprised by this movie—to be sure, it’s got some campily fun moments (such as when Aramis, trying to encourage Porthos to see the beauty in life, roars at him to enjoy the cooing of the pigeons), but I really liked it. The scene where the switch takes place is wonderfully done and full of emotion—Louis’s fright as the Musketeers taunt him with the mask of his brother underneath the golden masks of the ball and the forcibly quiet reunion between Philippe and Queen Anne are particular highlights. The costumes are gorgeous, the sets are lush, the fights are thrilling, and the soundtrack does its job well (although I will admit to wondering if Philippe was raised in the Shire when it wandered into previously unexplored territory). I always feel like I have to apologize when I like movies critics didn’t, but you know what? I’m not apologizing for digging this at all.

Bottom line: Like most adaptations of The Vicomte de Bragelonne, this film takes the minor subplot of the man in the iron mask and runs with it—but stays remarkably true to the characters we know and love from The Three Musketeers. The cast is great, especially Jeremy Irons as Aramis, Leonardo DiCaprio as both King Louis and the Man in the Iron Mask, and, briefly, Peter Sarsgaard as John Malkovitch’s son, the swordfights are thrilling, and the costumes are gorgeous. Great fun.

I rented this VHS tape from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Man in the Iron Mask (1997)

  1. You know, I’ve always felt slightly guilty for enjoying this film so much. There’s a lot to like in it, even if the historical accuracy is somewhat low. I didn’t know that it’s only based on a short story, though – I will have to look up both it and ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’.

    • I have looked up The Vicomte de Bragelonne on Wikipedia and apologise for thinking that it was only a short story! Not sure why I got that impression from your post.

  2. I watched this ages ago, despite my inherent aversion to di Caprio, and really enjoyed it too. I think the musketeers are just cast so well, with such chemistry (as you said) that nothing else matters!

  3. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Fun with Search Terms « The Literary Omnivore

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