Lately I have been watching a series of documentaries about English history. Specifically, I finished a good three parter on the downfall of King Charles I, so later that day I decided to watch The Man in the Iron Mask (1998). About forty-five minutes into it, I texted my girlfriend that I had made a terrible mistake. I have seen worse historically based films, but not many. It is not as laughably bad as 2018’s Robin Hood, but it is pretty close. Actually, reviewing this catastrophe that I am sure is making poor Alexandre Dumas spin in his French grave is kind of exciting, personally. Since theaters have been closed due to COVID-19, I have mostly been watching mainly films that I know I enjoy. With The Man in the Iron Mask, while I remember watching it in my younger impressionable days, I did not recall it being this bad. Thus while scrolling through Amazon Prime’s offerings, and given my recent documentary viewings, I landed on this suggestion and said, “Why not?”
Not long after beginning The Man in the Iron Mask, I said aloud, “Hey, movie, what the heck is going on?!” Do not worry. I was not raving to an empty room. My friend did not understand it either. In fact, during a scene where Phillippe (Leonardo DiCaprio, who also plays King Louis XIV) is gazing at the moon and I remarked, “Hey, I thought he was the Sun King,” he replied by saying that was King Louis XIV. He thought the film (somehow) was about King Louis XVI. The film is about a plot hatched by the Three Musketeers to replace the despotic secretly King Louis XIV with his twin brother Phillippe. It is Phillippe who is being held in prison with the titular adornment. It is hard to tell this at first, though. It starts with leading the audience into thinking there is some phantom Jesuit plot and the king wanting to claim Raoul’s (Peter Sarsgaard) fiancé Christine (Judith Godrèche) for his own. Those are red herrings if there ever were ones. Attempting to stop them (at first) is the famous D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), a renowned swordsman and soldier sworn to protect the king at all costs. His secret, though, is his love for the queen mother, Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud). In one of the dumbest (particularly historically speaking), obvious, and derivative plot twists, it turns out that D’Artagnan is the father of the royal twins. Thus when he finally acts against the ruler he had so faithfully served, it is to defend both his sons . . . somehow. I guess the real King Louis XIV is just too much of a problem because Phillippe ends up replacing his brother and France is saved.
That is the basic plot of The Man in the Iron Mask. There are some other things that happen, like the Three Musketeers training Phillippe in being a king. That is a long sequence, and is a main problem with this film. When a movie is this bad, I begin to theorize what went wrong with the story. I have no clue if this was actually the case (overwhelmingly likely not), but I believe that writer and director Randall Wallace had never read any of Dumas’ work and did zero historical research. Instead, he gathered a bunch of historians and literary experts in a room and they all shouted ideas at him at once while he frantically jotted them down, and this became the script. How else can you explain the starts and grinding halts in the film’s action? There are also some comically awful parts of it. I had a hearty guffaw when, early on, D’Artagnan manages to throw his sword from several yards away (and through a running fountain) and spear a would-be assassin of King Louis XIV. There is also the elementary school play-level set design. When we finally get back to the person who the title claims the film is about, he is held in a prison off the coast. It is night, but the clouds look like they are made of paper and the moon appears to be a lightbulb. I could hardly believe my eyes, it looked that cheap. A later background reminded me of something from Plan 9 from Outer Space. That is not a good thing as it is considered to be one of the worst movies of all time. The last item that needs critiquing is DiCaprio’s performance. This was before his yelling phase, though he does do some anyway. It is just very jarring to hear his midwestern-ish accent in the mouth of one of the most famous monarchs of all time, and it took me out of the movie almost immediately.
I will give The Man in the Iron Mask credit for one thing: it does not ruin Catholicism. One of the Three Musketeers, Aramis (Jeremy Irons), is pictured praying the Rosary in his first scene. He is also supposedly a Jesuit. I say supposedly because while at first he dresses somewhat like a member of the Society of Jesus, he quickly doffs that clothing in favoring donning a more swashbuckling set. But at least this time the Jesuits are on the side of the good guys and not some menacing secret group as is seen is so many other movies and is suggested early on in this one. The characters also seem to genuinely care about their faith, the birth of the royal twins being the result of an extra-marital affair accepted.
If you want to laugh at history, then by all means watch The Man in the Iron Mask. The good treatment of faith really is not worth your time. The education of Phillippe is meant to be worldly, not necessarily Godly. The plot does not make too much sense, although it is clear enough what the Three Musketeers are trying to accomplish. There is a bit of skin flashed in parts, which could be done without. There really is nothing to recommend this one.