Louis Hayward and Peter Cushing film a scene for The Man in the Iron Mask.
The Man in the Iron Mask has a long cinematic history. There have been many screen adaptations of the classic 19th Century novel by Alexander Dumas, dating all the way back to 1909. This 1939 version plays fast and loose with the details of the book but has been very influential in subsequent screen adaptations. Several of which have copied the plot of this movie's screenplay rather than the original source material. This story concludes the adventures of d'Artagnan and his loyal Three Musketeers.
The movie begins with the birth of twin sons to King Louis XIII in 17th Century France. One son is declared the dauphin while the other twin is secretly sent away to be raised in Gascony by the King's loyal friend and confidant d'Artagnan. The movie then jumps ahead twenty years where fate brings the twins together. The despotic King Louis XIV is at first amused at meeting this identical stranger named Philippe, whom he fails to realize is his twin brother. Philippe is as heroic and noble as Louis is cruel and corrupt.
Once the wicked king learns the true identity of Philippe he has him imprisoned in the Bastille with the titular mask locked over his head. Philippe's comrades d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos come to his rescue with an assist from the beautiful Princess Maria Theresa of Spain, the king's betrothed. She steals the one key to the iron mask, which the king carries on a chain around his neck. All of this leads to a rousing finale that features an exciting chase on horseback and plenty of sword play.
The Man in the Iron Mask is equal parts costume drama and swashbuckling adventure. It features sumptuous sets and lavish period costumes. Director James Whale keeps the pace of the story moving briskly. The B&W cinematography is gorgeous. From a technical standpoint it holds up well and is yet another example of Hollywood firing on all cylinders in that greatest of movie years, 1939.
Louis Hayward – in what would be his most famous role – does a brilliant job playing both twins. He is equally good conveying the maniacal glee with which King Louis XIV wields his power and the more subtle goodness of Philippe. He clearly relished the chance to play two such juicy roles. But then how often does an actor have the opportunity to play both the villain and the hero? The nuances of his performance are such that you can tell which twin you are seeing by his demeanor and facial expressions. He also slightly alters the timber and cadence of his speaking voice.
The supporting cast includes an aging but still debonair Warren William as the dashing d'Artagnan and the ubiquitous Alan Hale as Porthos. Joseph Schildkraut is great as the king's equally evil - and even more cunning - adviser Fouquet. Joan Bennett has a few good scenes as the Spanish princess. The Man in the Iron Mask is also notable for being the movie debut of Peter Cushing. He acted as stand-in for Hayward in the scenes where the twins appear onscreen together and impressed James Whale so much he was given a bit part as a second officer in a scene on horseback.
In 1939 the Great Depression was history and the attack on Pearl Harbor was still safely in the future. The Hollywood dream factories were functioning at their absolute peak. Never before or since have so many classic movies been produced in a single year. The Man in the Iron Mask is yet another timeless classic released during that magical 12 month span.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1939)