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Leo and the Old Boys

Young heartthrob DiCaprio teams with some aging Musketeers in a 'Mask' heavy on the melodrama.

March 08, 1998|Richard Covington | Richard Covington, based in Paris, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

PARIS — No one ever accused Alexandre Dumas of letting bothersome facts get in the way of a swashbuckling tear-jerker. The hugely prolific French master of melodrama was as handy at taking liberties with history as the Three Musketeers were adept with their swords.

In spicing up "The Man in the Iron Mask" with his own daring plot twists, director and scriptwriter Randall Wallace, who wrote the script for "Braveheart," out-Dumases Dumas.

The only historical certainty about the real-life Man in the Iron Mask was that he ended up dying in the Bastille on Nov. 19, 1703. Conspiracy theorists have been arguing his true identity ever since, with Voltaire the first to weigh in with the anti-monarchical bombshell that the Mask was none other than Louis XIV's brother.

The film, which opens Friday, stars John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu as the aging Three Musketeers--Athos, Aramis and Porthos--with Gabriel Byrne as d'Artagnan. Leonardo DiCaprio--in his first role since his heartthrob breakthrough in "Titanic"--plays the double role of the heartless King Louis and his secret twin brother, Philippe, the Man in the Iron Mask. Judith Godreche plays the king's unwilling mistress, Christine, and Anne Parillaud is the long-suffering queen, Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis and Philippe.

Suffering through the rainiest June in 137 years, the MGM/UA production, which was shot last summer, slogged through location shoots in three of the most spectacular chateaux in France--Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fontainebleau and Pierrefonds--and re-created the Bastille and the storm-tossed Brittany coast on eight sound stages at Arpajon studios an hour's drive south of Paris. "It was a war," says first-time director Wallace, only half in jest.

Rebecca Pollack, the executive vice president in charge of production at MGM/UA and daughter of director Sydney Pollack, initially suggested that Wallace make a film of the Dumas novel. Pollack was the studio executive who said yes, when everyone else in Hollywood rejected it, to the scriptwriter's bloody tale of a legendary Scottish martyr who gets disemboweled.

Quicker than you can say 'All for one and one for all,' Wallace dived into Dumas' sprawling saga. "If Rebecca asked me to have a look at 'The Man in the Iron Mask,' then absolutely I'd have a look," says a grateful Wallace.

He came away from his reading perplexed. "Even when I pored over the comic book as a kid, I couldn't follow the plot," the director recalls. "What you do remember is that iron mask, what a horrible fate and powerful poetic image it is."

Instead of Dumas' convoluted plot, Wallace homed in on the faded heroes' feelings of irrelevance and the fear that their best battles lay behind them.

"They were experiencing a sort of Musketeer midlife crisis," he says. "With everyone asking me how do you follow 'Braveheart,' I felt I could identify with their dilemma."

In this script, the plot is mercifully simplified, with Wallace the former seminary student casting notions of chivalry, honor and sacrifice into high relief. Thirty years after the Musketeers valiantly battled Cardinal Richelieu and the wicked Milady to protect King Louis XIII, they have all gone their separate ways. Aramis, now the vicar-general of the seditious Jesuit order, unites them to rescue the imprisoned Man in the Iron Mask and to install him as monarch in place of his evil twin, Louis XIV.

"Once all of us believed in service, in the idea that we give our lives to something greater than ourselves," says Athos. "We all have one great dream--of finding and serving a king worthy of the throne," he explains to the unmasked Philippe, trying to persuade him to become that worthy king. Only d'Artagnan remains inexplicably loyal to the treacherous Louis and, as a harrowing sword fight explodes in the Bastille, is forced to choose between duty and his sense of justice.

Filming "The Man in the Iron Mask" was indeed no picnic. At times, the director thought he might have a new French revolution on his hands. Once, he even wrote a friend, a former Army colonel who served in Vietnam, for advice on how to handle troops in wartime. "Pick your own morale out of the mud first," the colonel advised him.

Says Wallace: "When it's raining and you're losing light and your crew is cold and hungry and wants to go home and you're falling behind in your schedule and the studio's worried and everywhere you look there's panic in everybody's eyes, that's when nobody is thinking about whether they're making a great movie, they're thinking about wanting to get their paycheck. You're the only one thinking about a piece of something you really thought was unique."

It was the historically incorrect pink piglet that turned the tide. In a scene in a garden party, d'Artagnan foils a stolen kiss between Louis and the innocent Christine by releasing a piglet being chased around the grounds. Just when Wallace felt pressured to scrap the scene, he got a call from the studio urging him to keep it.

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