#459: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Musketeers, masks and malevolent twins, oh my
Initial release: 1998
Director: Randall Wallace
For all his acting chops, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar shelf has been pretty empty; 20+ years of acting and the man has only ever got an Oscar in 2016 for his role in The Revenant, but for his dual role in The Man In The Iron Mask, playing King Louis XIV and his secret twin, he really should’ve gotten two Oscars.
Not that Iron Mask is the kind of movie that makes it to the Oscars, mind you — it’s a 1990s period action dramedy and there’s plenty of those already. This one has the distinction of being the directorial debut of Randall Wallace, the screenwriter for Braveheart, and it has a lot of his touches all over it. (He also wrote and produced it, so it’s very much his baby, to some extent.)
The Man in the Iron Mask is an adaptation of the third and final book of Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers trilogy, set years after the events of the first book, with the characters having aged and moved on with their lives, all but D’Artagnan having retired from the Musketeers. (Where’s the middle book? The only English-language film version of it is The Return of the Musketeers, Richard Lester’s loose adaptation from 1989 that itself serves as a sequel to a two-film adaptation of the first book. Your only other option is a Russian musical.) But King Louis XIV is nothing like his predecessor who the Musketeers fought for all those years ago; cruel and vain, he reigns over a France in chaos, uninterested in the plight of his starving people while he funds countless wars. When he orders Aramis to find and kill the leader of a rebel faction (who happens to be Aramis) and sends Athos’ son to die in battle so he can woo the latter’s girlfriend, Aramis ropes his fellow Musketeers into a plot to replace the king with Philippe, the secret twin brother of Louis who has been imprisoned and forced to wear an iron mask to hide his identity for years.
In terms of tone, Iron Mask is a little darker than Disney’s more light-hearted Three Musketeers adaptation from 1993, but make no mistake, it’s still very much a swashbuckler. It’s got jokes, drama, the whole bit. The cast obviously has all been changed around — instead of Keifer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen as Athos and Aramis, we get Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich, a pairing that does my head in; Gerard Depardieu also stars as Porthos, but no movie is perfect. Gabriel Byrne and his wood-carved face take the role of D’Artagnan, but he’s more of a secondary character in this story, as the film is mostly driven by Athos and Aramis, with Louis opposite as the petty, unwitting victim of their switcheroo plot. DiCaprio is brilliant as Louis — when he puts his mind to playing a villain it often results in some of his best work; conversely, his Philippe is meek and receding, shrinking so much he almost disappears from the screen, and yet it works to provide contrast to Louis’s more outgoing vanity.
As can be seen by not just Braveheart, but also We Were Soldiers (another mawkish Mel Gibson vehicle) and especially the propaganda flick Pearl Harbor, Wallace’s writing tends towards the hokey and jokey, despite the darker tone; sometimes it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, ultimately settling on being an adventure flick that at least reflects the sensibilities of the Saving Private Ryan era. The climactic scene is perhaps better directed than written, with some shots feeling like Renaissance paintings given form — but Renaissance paintings didn’t fuck it all up with overwrought dialogue.
Still, though, it’s not a bad film; the cast all make the best of the script they’re given, and Wallace’s production is usually pretty good (the masque ball is particularly fun to watch.) It’s a fun romp through a rough time in French history, with some decent music and good cinematography. And a bird poops on Gerard Depardieu — what more could you ask for?