Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and many other swashbucklers, was once accused of raping French history. "Yes," Dumas replied, "but look how beautiful the children are." I don't know how beautiful they are, but they're certainly rambunctious, as if suffering from attention-deficit disorder. If Dumas' novels ever slowed down long enough for the reader to think, the entire oeuvre might collapse, like a sugar-cube model of Paris left out in the rain. But they never do slow down. They're as light on their feet as Aramis, Athos, Porthos and D'Artagnan--the four musketeers. All four show up in Dumas' 1850 novel The Man in the Iron Mask, which turns an acorn of truth into a mighty oak of more or less pure fabrication. Records indicate there really was a man in an iron mask who spent over 30 years in various French prisons, but who was he? And why did his face have to be hidden? Nobody knows for sure. Even Molière, whose plays took stabs at all the king's men, was eventually put forth as a candidate. (His death was faked, the theory goes.) But nothing rivals the explanation dreamed up by a certain Abbe Soulavie for its sheer ingenuity: The man in the iron mask was the twin brother of the man on the gold throne. Oliver Stone, eat your heart out. Like Stone, Dumas took this conspiracy theory and ran with it--all the way to the bank. He imagined a counterconspiracy in which the Three Musketeers, because they're fed up with King Louis XIV (the guy who said "L'etat, c'est moi"), come out of retirement and attempt to replace him with his better half. It's a sturdy idea, one that surely influenced Mark Twain when it came time to write The Prince and the Pauper. And there has been no shortage of Iron Mask movies, including one with Douglas Fairbanks and a 1939 version directed by Frankenstein's James Whale. But, to my knowledge, only first-time director Randall Wallace, author of the script for Mel Gibson's Braveheart, has taken Dumas' novel seriously. Perhaps under the impression that the pen is mightier than the sword, Wallace, who adapted the novel himself, has largely forsworn swordplay in favor of...what? Character development? I usually can't even tell the Three Musketeers apart, but I sure can this time. Aramis (Jeremy Irons) is the one who prays all the time. Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) is the one who farts all the time. And Athos (John Malkovich) is the one who won't stop talking about how much he loves his son. That last idea gets away from Wallace--something about the homoerotic spin Malkovich puts on the name "Raoul." Almost in spite of itself, the movie keeps veering off into comedy, as when a crowd of starving Parisians start hurling rotten vegetables at Gabriel Byrne's D'Artagnan, who, catching them on the fly, slices and dices them with his sword. "Ranch or bleu cheese?" I felt like shouting from Row 10, but D'Artagnan doesn't even smile. In his plumed hat and dashing cape, Byrne looks like Gilligan after Mrs. Howell has gotten ahold of him. And he acts like there's a really bad smell in whatever room he happens to be in. The most likely culprit, obviously, is Depardieu's fatuously flatulent Porthos. In a movie that takes itself quite seriously, Porthos is supposed to be funny, so of course he isn't. I got a bigger laugh just looking at the Musketeers' hair--Aerosmith circa "Sweet Emotion" except for Malkovich's, which goes all the way back to Jethro Tull's "Aqualung." Oh, and the accents, which stretch from the gutters of Paris (Depardieu) to the soybean fields of southern Illinois (Malkovich). Actually, they stretch farther than that. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays both the king and the would-be king, doesn't even try to sound like royalty, let alone French royalty. The closest his Louis XIV has gotten to Versailles is Venice--Venice Beach, that is. When Louis first sees his identical twin, I half-expected him to say, "Hey, bro." But back to hair: There's a wonderful scene when Phillippe, he of the iron mask, is released from his facial prison. I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say that this is a guy who's gone six years without so much as a light trim. Think Jean Marais in Beauty and the Beast. Better yet, think Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
In recent years, France has been coming out with lavishly produced, big-budget movies that draw on the country's richly romantic heritage--movies like Queen Margot, Colonel Chabert and D'Artagnan's Daughter. It's an attempt to beat Hollywood at its own game. And The Man in the Iron Mask is Hollywood's attempt to beat the French at beating Hollywood at its own game. Unfortunately, Wallace doesn't bring much to the gaming table. By movie's end, I was even annoyed by the clippety-clop of horses' hooves--that and the Musketeers' motto, which they utter at the drop of a hat. I kept hoping they'd get rid of "All for one, one for all" once and for all.