I’m always happy to watch a fun swashbuckler of a film, and I watched a pretty good one last night: The Count of Monte Cristo, released earlier this year and now out on video. I don’t know how accurate the film is with respect to the original novel by Alexandre Dumas, but it’s a highly enjoyable film nonetheless, with impostors to French aristocracy, Napoleonic conspiracies, swordfights, grand celebrations at a beautiful chalet complete with the mysterious host’s entrance via balloon, a treasure map, a naive hero imprisoned by people who know his innocence, the hero’s imprisonment and subsequent escape from a horrible French jail, a never-forgotten love who has married the hero’s best friend in the hero’s absence, and so on.
The story opens as a group of sailors land on a Mediterranean island at night, seeking immediate medical aid for their captain, who has taken sick. Unfortunately, the island is Elba, originally intended to be the final resting place for Napoleon Bonaparte in his exile. Napoleon gives one of the sailors, Edmond Dontes (James Caviezel), a letter which he is to give to one of Napoleon’s friends, and Dontes — somewhat stupidly — agrees. He is discovered before he can deliver the letter, and he cannot even read it, being illiterate; however, this is enough for a shady police officer to have him taken to a prison island where he spends a number of years, despairing of ever having his freedom again — until another prisoner, a priest played by Richard Harris, tunnels up into his cell. “I knew the outer wall would be in one of two directions,” the priest says. “I sadly chose the wrong one.” Harris and Dontes dig anew, and during the months that they dig Harris teaches Dontes how to read, how to think, and how to fight. It will come as absolutely no surprise that Dontes does finally escape, at which point he seeks revenge against those who wronged him. Along the way he picks up some unexpected allies, wheedles his way into French aristocracy, and uncovers more plots that were the real reason for his betrayal. All of this leads up to the final confrontation with his main adversary, who — of course — had once been his best friend.
Very little that happens in The Count of Monte Cristo is a surprise. The film is solidly traditional, with candlelit studies and cavernous French baths and those typical prisons with long, winding staircases punctuated by heavy oaken doors with equally heavy iron locks. Watching this film, one expects Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power to walk onto the screen to do lethal duel against Claude Rains or Basil Rathbone. This is not an indictment. Sometimes one wants the solidly familiar, and this film delivers it with good acting, witty dialogue, excellent photography, solid production design, and brisk pacing. The film is never boring, avoiding the danger of delving too deeply into political machinations.
There are only two real flaws in the film. First is the score by Edward Shearmur. It is decent music, big and orchestral, but it’s not terribly distinctive. There is no central theme to unify the score — at least none that I could detect, or remember after the film was over. The other flaw is in the film’s climax, which doesn’t so much build as arrive — and then the obligatory last fight between hero and villain is a bit disappointing. This is the type of film that screams out for one of those wonderful Errol Flynn swordfights in a dark castle, moving from room to room, into and out of complete darkness, at one point with the combatants fighting offscreen while their gigantic shadows duel against the wall. Here, the fight takes place outdoors, with some flashy camera movement that is distracting, and then it is over rather quickly. But those are really the only flaws, and they don’t detract from the film’s otherwise high level of entertainment.
Now that we’ve seen that a good swashbuckler can still be made, maybe my favorite old, dead genre — the pirate film — can be resurrected (Cutthroat Island notwithstanding).