Sunday, 8 August 2010

What I've Been Watching: The Man In The Iron Mask

I've seen the 1977 version of The Man In The Iron Mask so many times that I've lost count. If you happen to have not seen the 1998 version with Leonardo Di Caprio (playing Louis XIV as a pantomime villain-Lothario), then skip it and watch this older, but far superior adaptation instead. Unless you'd like to see Gerard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Gabriel Byrne enjoying themselves and hamming it up while competing for most luxuriant hairpiece award.

The story,The Man In The Iron Mask originally formed one volume of Alexandre Dumas' serialised work, The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later; his sequel to both The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.

Fascinated by the true and mysterious story of an unknown prisoner of the French crown who was reported to have worn a cloth mask at all times, Dumas took the few known facts and crafted them into an exciting tale of intrigue and adventure. The cloth mask became iron, and the prisoner, whose identity has long been debated, becomes Philippe, the secret older twin brother of King Louis XIV, whisked away at birth and brought up in seclusion at the behest of Cardinal Mazarin (chief advisor and minister to Louis' mother, and later Louis himself). Dumas invents the premise that Mazarin, hungry for power at all costs decides to bring up King Louis' older twin in secret with the desire to one day usurp the throne and set the legitimate Philippe upon the throne as a puppet ruler.

The unwitting Philippe becomes the titular Man In The Iron Mask when his existence is discovered by King Louis. As killing his brother would be regicide, Louis instead gives orders for Philippe's face to be covered permanently. Luckily for Philippe, however, help is at hand from the dashing Captain D'Artagnan, and so the treasonous plotting, adventure and swashbuckling begin in earnest.

The 1977 version may have been made for TV, but don't let it put you off. Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings And A Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter & The Goblet Of Fire) it has a wonderful if not eclectic cast. Richard Chamberlain plays both Philippe and Louis XIV. Playing the hapless Philippe with sincerity, his real achievement is his portrayal of an arrogant, vindictive Louis. Of course, this is Dumas' and Mike Newell's version of Louis, and there is an element of contrived villainy. (Historical sources on Louis do not paint him in such an unflattering light- quite the opposite, in fact). Yet Richard Chamberlain's performance as The Sun King is subtle but striking. He wears the elaborate costumes, wigs and make-up with graceful ease (no mean achievement for a modern man unused to curled wigs, ribbons and heeled shoes).

Alongside Chamberlain, Jenny Agutter, Louis Jourdan, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm and Patrick McGoohan make up the rest of the cast. Admittedly, it's always odd seeing Patrick McGoohan not being chased by a giant white balloon, but he plays the wicked Fouquet with dastardly aplomb.

The budget for the film was not inconsiderable: there are no shaky sets or dodgy costumes. The locations are gorgeous, alternating between English and French locations including Versailles, Fontainebleau and the Chateau Vaux-Vicomte. The production is lavish, and there is an interesting amount of attention paid to the rituals, etiquette and pastimes of the French court (the scene in which Louis, covered in gold paint, dances in a court ballet as The Sun King particularly stands out). The costumes are accurately and beautifully designed, for which the designer, Olga Lehmann was nominated for an Emmy.

The whole production comes together to create an exciting and interesting version of Alexandre Dumas' tale. I can and have watched this over and over again and always come away from it wishing it was just a little bit longer.

For an original costume sketch by Olga Lehmann of Richard Chamberlain and Jenny Agutter's costumes, click here.


  1. I love, love, LOVE Alexandre Dumas' novels (both father's and son's) and have read Man in the Iron Mask when I was a teenager (rith after Three Musketeers and before Count Monte Christo...) but have never seen any of those films. I didn't want to spoil my own image of the times but now that you recommend this film...

    Have a great time in Toronto! I'm off to Ariege in the south west France for two intense weeks of rock climbing and photo taking. Can't wait!!!

  2. I know what you mean about not wanting to spoil the images you have. They are far more vivid than any film I always think. But, this version is lovely.

    Sounds like you'll be having fun in France! Good luck with the climbing and I look forward to hearing about it!

  3. Dear Laura,
    It sounds like I must get my hands on this as soon as possible. I have only vague recollections of reading the book!

  4. Laura,
    How could I not want to see it after that stunning post? I've seen the newer version - not memorable enough for me to have it in my film library, so I will have to see the other.
    I so appreciate the time you take to write such wonderful and informative posts. Your posts are always top-notch.

  5. Ingrid- I think you can get the DVD on Amazon, although it maybe a Region 2, not Region 1, I'm not too sure.

    Catherine- Thank you for your lovely words. I enjoy writing this blog so much and your words always encourage me.

    I hope of you get to see the film that you enjoy it!