The Man in the Iron Mask (1939)

D: James Whale
S: Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett, Warren William.

Though James Whale may have seemed an exceedingly odd choice to direct a screen version of Alexandre Dumas' classic novel following a string of hits including Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein, his exuberant visual style well suits a jingoistic tale of derring do. It is often forgotten that Whale helmed the 1936 version of Show Boat, and though the marriage of form and content exemplified in his horror films was nigh on perfect, he was not incapable of turning his hand to other material with some skill.

Louis XIII faces a difficult choice when his Queen gives birth to twin sons. There can only be one King, after all, and either one boy must die or one must be hidden away for both his own sake and the sake of France. The King entrusts the jilted Dauphin to longtime right hand man D'Artagnan (Warren William), who, along with old friends Athos, Porthos and Aramis, raises the boy as his own in a remote rural community. But when the new King Louis (Louis Hayward) grows to tyrannical maturity under the tutelage of a self-serving advisor, he becomes aware of his brother, Philippe, and tries to use him to avoid assassination and to continue his immoral pursuits with a lady in waiting while his double courts the Infanta of Spain (Joan Bennett). But when Philippe begins to assert his influence over the affairs of state, Louis has him imprisoned in the Bastille wearing an iron mask which obscures his features. Can D'Artagnan and the Musketeers ensure that France is ruled by a good and just man rather than a tyrant?

The wartime allegory is unmistakable, and the surprisingly tragic climax is a clear appeal for support for the French nation at an important time in geopolitical relations. But even after the original political context has become irrelevant to its reception, The Man in the Iron Mask is a well told yarn with a very busy plot which keeps you involved and featuring strong performances. Hayward is very impressive in the dual role of Louis/Philippe, deliciously wicked as the former and earnestly admirable as the latter. Bennet also plays quite an important role in the drama and holds her own well in this essentially masculine swashbuckler (even given a not undue camp reading based on Whale's own well publicised sexuality). The Musketeers are somewhat sidelined to Louis/Philippe and D'Artagnan, but when they do take to the action, they swashbuckle with the best of them.

This is the kind of film which is 'old fashioned' by definition, but one which is made with skill and which offers many pleasures to a contemporary audience (especially in light of the more recent version). Despite its jingoistic ending (characteristic of several films of the era), it balances drama, humour and action quite well. It is not The Adventures of Robin Hood, but it offers very reasonable entertainment for those disposed to the genre in the first place and for curious fans of the director.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.