It had been a while since I watched my copy of the Douglas Fairbanks version of The Three Musketeers, so when The Iron Mask showed up from Netflix I decided to watch it again. It's also been a while since I read Dumas' Three Musketeers, but I think I remember enough of it to compare.
Fairbanks is a brilliant D'Artagnan, who's never been one of my favorite heroes. The literary D'Artagnan eventually grows into a character I don't mind, but as he begins the book, he's cocky, unduly arrogant, and quick-tempered. He also chases married women, but Dumas doesn't portray that so much as D'Artagnan's particular fault as it is a general failing in seventeenth century French morals. But regardless, D'Artagnan's rather a lout and Fairbanks plays him perfectly as one.
The movie's pretty faithful to what it includes of Dumas' story. It leaves out a bunch of Milady de Winter's backstory and focuses primarily on the intrigue of Richelieu and King Louis's trying to catch Queen Anne in adultery with England's Duke of Buckingham. Anne is portrayed as being loyal to her vows, but interested enough in Buckingham that she gives him a jeweled brooch as a remembrance. When Richelieu finds out, he has Louis demand that Anne wear the piece to an upcoming ball. Constance, Anne's seamstress, happens to be D'Artagnan's love interest and asks D'Artagnan to travel to England to retrieve the brooch in time for the ball. When Richelieu learns of Constance's plan, he sends soldiers to hunt down D'Artagnan and the musketeers while Milady de Winter races to England to try to secure the brooch first.
Which is all more or less how the book goes except for -- like I said -- a lot of extra details and backstory. And Constance's husband from the book becomes her uncle in the movie in order to make D'Artagnan not completely irredeemable. Nigel De Brulier is a perfect Richelieu, who manages to come off as simultaneously commanding and weaselly. Barbara La Marr is also suitably charming and dangerous as Milady, and Boyd Irwin is a wonderfully sinister Comte de Rochefort.
The action is all great, and like most of the really physical silent movies, you don't appreciate how amazing the stunts and fights are unless you stop to think about what you've just seen. On the Iron Mask DVD are some outtakes of Fairbanks trying several times to make a particularly difficult jump. It's a very cool scene in the movie, but the outtakes really drive home how fantastic it was.
My only complaint about the movie is that the ending is anti-climactic. I'm going to say why, so SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this paragraph. My recollection of the book is that Richelieu is thwarted by D'Artagnan and the musketeers, but through a combination of their own cunning and Louis' protection, Richelieu can't harm them or their co-conspirators. Someone correct me if I'm wrong about that, but it doesn't affect what I didn't like about the movie, which is that Richelieu pretty much just concedes defeat and congratulates the good guys for outwitting him. The End. It actually sets up Richelieu's characterization in The Iron Mask rather well, but it makes for a pretty lame ending to the first movie.
Four out of five scandalous affairs.
The first half of The Iron Mask pretty much picks up where the previous movie leaves off and fills in some of the backstory and completes some of the details from the novel that had been left out, especially the end of the novel and the resolution to the Milady storyline. At the same time, we get some setup for events that are going to take place in the last half of the movie, which is the Man in the Iron Mask plot.
I haven't read Dumas' version of the story, so all I have to compare it to is the 1998 version, which I love. I don't know which is most faithful to the novel, but I like the '98 version better because of how it handles the twin brothers and their relationships with D'Artagnan. Also, the '98 version tells you a lot more about what Athos, Porthos, and Aramis have been up to since their military days. In The Iron Mask, they're disbanded by Richelieu (played again by Nigel De Brulier) and inexplicably stay disbanded, even after Richelieu's death, until D'Artagnan needs them, sends for them, and they show up for one last fight together.
SPOILER WARNING. The Iron Mask ends with the death of all four musketeers, which you'd think would be sad, but is done in a really uplifting, exciting way. D'Artagnan is the last to go and as everyone gathers around his body, his spirit joins those of the three musketeers as they encourage him to join them in continuing adventures in the afterlife. "The Beginning," the end title says. And we believe it. END OF SPOILER.
I mentioned above that Richelieu's character is played a bit differently in the second movie , so I'll finish by explaining that. In Dumas' The Three Musketeers and pretty much every movie version I've seen, Richelieu is a slimy and conniving, but dangerous enemy. His motivation is that he wants to rule France from behind the king. He wants to be in charge and we aren't told that that's for any other reason than that he's a megalomaniac.
I don't know if he changes through the course of Dumas' novels, but I really like that The Iron Mask adds another dimension to him. According to this movie, he's motivated not by his love for power, but by his love for France and his realization that Louis isn't strong enough to rule adequately on his own. Louis' bound to be influenced by someone and Richelieu wants it to be by a patriot rather than a foreigner like Anne. Every ruthless thing Richelieu does is for the good of the country and we suspect that even D'Artagnan starts to see that in his later years. It also explains why Richelieu didn't take revenge on D'Artagnan and Company at the end of the first movie: it wouldn't have benefited France to lose four such capable men, who were patriots in their own right.
Oh, one more thing. The music in the Kino DVD of The Iron Mask is amazing. The Three Musketeers soundtrack is okay, but it feels a bit generic. The Iron Mask soundtrack was obviously scored particularly for the film and enhances the emotions of the film like you'd expect any good soundtrack to do. It even includes cymbal crashes when D'Artagnan breaks through windows.
Four out of five secret entrances to hidden castle prisons.