The Man In The Iron Mask

The Man In The Iron Mask (1997)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Gerard Depardieu, Leonardo DiCaprio, Judith Godreche, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich
Extras: Commentary Track, Alternate Mask Concepts, Conceptual Drawings, Theatrical Trailer

Hollywood once was synonymous with spectacular adventure movies, filled with heroic characters, breath-taking stunts, exotic sceneries, atmospheric settings, and stunning costumes. The actors were high-profile icons and their entertaining swashbuckling adventures fun to watch. It almost seems a lifetime ago. Lately, Hollywood seems to have degenerated into an endless pit of flat films without logic or plot, created simply to satisfy visceral desires with overblown special effects. At least, most of Hollywood has – but here is a brand new Hollywood film that tries to revive the adventurous spirit of all those glorious costume films: "The Man In The Iron Mask". Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio), King of France, is an eccentric spoiled brat who takes what he wants and does what he likes. Crowned King of France at the age of four, he turns into a tyrannical emperor in his early twenties and he watches his people die of starvation while he celebrates with decadent parties inside his glittering castle in Versailles. Well protected by his bodyguards, the Musketeers, led by the infamous D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), he believes he is omnipotent and indestructible.

Three men are preparing a plot against the King however. They are the glorious Three Musketeers Athos (John Malkovich), Porthos (Gerard Depardieu), and Aramis (Jeremy Irons), retired from service when Louis’ unsympathetic, excessive reign began. They swore to serve their country and their King, yet even their loyalty to the crown has come to an end. For years a mysterious prisoner has been held captive in the dark cells of the King’s jail. He is France’s only hope for survival and the Three Musketeers vow to free the prisoner and confront the King with the only person he fears. Based upon the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, the film exhibits an unbelievable love for detail, which is evident throughout the production. The film’s authenticity and visual presentation is simply stunning. Shot entirely on location in France, the film brings the royal court of Versailles during the 17th century to life with astounding finesse, carefully copying locations, costumes, sets, etiquette and mannerisms. All this would be worthless without a proper cast, but the film just keeps stacking them up. Starring first rate actors as the Three Musketeers immediately establishes credibility within the ranks. They have become older and disillusioned from when last we saw them. They have changed their lives, but they still have the spirit to fight for their beliefs. Jeremy Irons is the prudent, profound Aramis, who takes the lead to re-assemble the famous Three Musketeers. John Malkovich as Athos has turned into an impulsive avenger since the King purposefully sacrificed his son in a battle, and Gerard Depardieu is the somber and lovable Porthos, more concerned with ending his own miserable life than in the events going on around him. The three are a strong team that conjures images of the Three Musketeers of previous films, and with Gabriel Byrne as the loyal, torn D’Artagnan on their side they show the world what heroes are made of. Leonardo DiCaprio is King Louis XIV, the juvenile emperor of France, and his snobbish portrayal perfectly matches the character he is playing. Louis went down in history for his notorious clinging to the etiquette and mannerisms in court, and DiCaprio was reportedly trained at his own request for the film to establish this flair of snobbish nobility. Overall, the effort paid off; the filmmakers have managed to create a highly entertaining and enchanting tale of intrigue, love, and murder in the best spirit of Hollywood.

The film is not exactly faithful when it comes to historical facts, which could be looked upon as its major downfall. Since it has been created for sheer light entertainment purposes, I believe it could be neglected in this case however. In his early age in this film for example, Louis was already living in Versailles, while in fact, he moved there only at the age of 44. Before, Versailles was merely the King’s hunting lodge and hardly as splendid looking as portrayed in the film. He also was not exactly the tyrant the film protrays and went down in history as the "Sun King", the emperor who had the longest reign in European history, ranging from 1643 to 1715. His reign brought absolute monarchy to unknown heights, while he fought most of the other European countries in four wars. Especially the part of his reign portrayed in this movie, was dominated by the chief minister Cardinal Mazarin, who does not even appear in the film. Later Louis reigned personally and innovatively – which could be partly due to the events portrayed of this film – if they weren’t fictive – while his last years of rule were beset with political and religious problems. When he died on September 1, 1715, his great-grandson entered the throne and became known as King Louis XV. Louis XIV was clearly one of the most extraordinary political personalities in European history and many of his achievements are still visible today, like the beautiful castle Versailles and many of the contracts he signed with other European countries.

MGM Home Entertainment released "The Man In The Iron Mask" in a <$PS,widescreen> transfer as well as in a <$PS,pan&scan> transfer on the disc’s flip side. The beautiful <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer restores the film’s original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is extremely detailed and rich. Beautifully rendered, it is far superior than the <$PS,pan&scan> version of the film that substantially crops the image on both sides of the screen. The film contains gorgeous set decorations and a very intricate production design, bringing this 17th century spectacle to life. Over 1400 costumes have been used for the production of this film and each one of them is a fine piece of contemporary craftsmanship. Intricate and eye catching, they help a lot to bring the life in the royal ranks to life. It is a pleasure to see these colorful costumes and set designs faithfully reproduced on your TV screen on this DVD release. The colors are extremely faithfully rendered and exhibit no signs of bleeding or noise. The compression is flawless, as you would expect from a new film transfer like this one, with deep, solid shadows and plenty of detail throughout.

The film boasts a dynamic <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack that gives the required visceral impact to many of the film’s action scenes. Nick Glennie-Smith wrote a lush orchestral score for the film that nicely blends with the movie’s overall tone. It contains strong baroque elements and contemporary arrangements that help in establishing the film’s atmosphere. The soundtrack is very well balanced and makes good spatial use of the surround field, creating a bustling, active aural base for the images. The film comes fully dubbed in English and French, contains English captions as well as French and Spanish subtitles.

If you liked Richard Lester’s "The Three Musketeers" and other films along those lines, you will not be disappointed in "The Man In The Iron Mask". It captures the spirit of those films and brings it to life for the nineties.

Boasting a solid, all-star cast gives the film the liberty to stick with established and tried formulas without turning them into cheap clichés. You will see all the swashbuckling swordfights and stunts you loved and imitated when you were young brought back to life in this furious and colorful action adventure of valor.