Volume 10, Issue 2: Ex Theatris
The Man in the Iron Mask
Directed by Randall Wallace and Russell Smith
United Artists, 1997
Reviewed by Michael Collender
The writer who brought us
Braveheart is back, and this time he directs. Out of the blocks you should know this
film, like most Hollywood films, takes liberties with the plot and characters from the source material, in this case the
novel by Alexander Dumas. Often literary Pharisees complain that a film takes liberties with its inspirational codex.
But no one complains when Shakespeare or other masters of literary craft do the same.
So the discussion here will be more about craft than historical accuracy, since the true identity of the man in
the mask is still a mystery. Dumas wanted to write a thrilling book and so we will concern ourselves with whether
or not this was a thrilling movie.
Most of today's films rely on effects and explosions to move the audience, often with a protagonist fighting a
chain of bigger and bigger challenges, the last being the biggest (i.e.
Twister, Mortal Kombat, et yada).
The Man in the Iron Mask moves a story through character and plot. Decisions work the film. The young king of France takes the fiancee of
Raoul, one of his Musketeers, who then conveniently dies in battle like Uriah. Athos, Raoul's father and an
original Musketeer, now filled with rage at the king, desires vengeance. Aramis, also one of the four Musketeers, now a
priest, wants to depose the king for reasons similar to those found at the end of book four of Calvin's
Institutes. D'Artagnan, bound by conscience to protect his king, opposes Aramis, Athos, and Porthoshis faithful friends. The literary
stage is set for a great conflict.
I cannot say more about the plot. Since the story differs somewhat from the novel, I will spoil it for everyone.
But you should know this film has some great moments. One such moment begins when Christine, the fiancee of
Raoul, discovers the king's treachery with her former love. She becomes convicted in conscience of her fornication with
the king and tells that king of France in his own bed that both he and she will be damned for their sin. At which the
haughty king draws her close and tells her no, she will go to hell for her sin, but he will not. For he has been ordained by God.
The film has many great lines and the conflict pulls on themes that will be more common to those familiar
with the reformed theological controversies over the right to rebel against a tyrant. Wallace, himself a Christian,
studied religion at Duke university.
Refreshing though it may be to see a story-driven movie in an age of jolting drivel, the film still suffers from
"writer-who-directs" disease. This should be distinguished from "director-who-writes" disease which some may have
seen break out in theaters playing Titanic. When a writer directs, the film generally possesses some story grip. But
often audiences that would have been slapped by the
unstated are in fact grabbed by the neck and pressed against
nuance. The "moments" of the film tend to be contained in the dialog when they could be
represented by the dialog. In this film, the overstatement is made bearable by great actors like Jeremy Irons
(The Mission), John Malcovich (In the Line of
Fire), Gabriel Byrne (The Usual
Suspects). But we the audience need to see characters making choices, and the shots
should be chosen to best represent the moving story.
This brings us to the second symptom of writer-who-directs disease. Often in such films the camera will
seem to have been set up just to capture actors speaking lines. In film, the good artist must choose the best elements
to represent what he wishes to depict. Visually he must exercise over the scene his God-given responsibility, his
own delegated sovereignty. This means he must not just show us what happens, but choose the best way to tell the
story with what he shows. In this short article I do not have room to tell you about the wimpy coverage in the prison
scene with the man in the mask banging his head against the bars; or the scene of the horse riding by; or the many
other scenes which were not used to their full potential. Oh! there were so many, it hurt to watch. Films must be
judged for more than language and modesty.
On that note, one last criticism. For some bizarre comic relief Gerard Depardieu's posterior (a frightening
sight to be sure) makes so many appearances, that it is listed as a separate character.
Aside from all this, the film was enjoyable. On a night almost three millennia ago, a crowd of Greek
families, surrounded with darkness, sat in the flickering light of an Ionian fire to hear a young, stammering, bard's first
chanting of Homer's epic. His listening audience enjoyed the story, wincing with great frequency for its delivery. But they
were encouraged, knowing that he would get better with each successive telling. And so we look forward to Wallace's