It’s easy to see why some people (specifically mainstream movie critics) would have a problem with the 1998 film The Man In The Iron Mask. It shares more in common with the 1939 film directed by James Whale, and, like the 1939 film, less to do with Alexandre Dumas’ last half of The Vicomte de Bragelonne. There’s also a flair for bits and pieces of melodrama throughout Randall Wallace’s version, which can be welcomed for simplicity, but frowned on because it’s too heavy handed. Like the scene with the angry, starving mob at the gates. Someone throws a rotten fruit at D’Artagnan- and the crowd does gasp! Will the Musketeer army fire upon the crowd? Instead, D’Artagnan agrees that the food is rotten, and brings the issue up before young, brash King Louis XIV, who is bankrupting France with his unpopular wars. King Louis XIV is played by Leonardo DiCaprio as a cold hearted tyrant with the mental state of a spoiled child abusing the power granted him. In this version, it is revealed that D’Artagnan had an affair with Queen Anne, and that he believes the King to be his son. The young King knows nothing about the affair, but what he does know is that he has a twin brother, Phillipe (also played by DiCaprio) who, because of his bloodline, has been locked up and has his face hidden by an iron mask.

It is DiCaprio’s contrasting performance which won me over in this film, not to mention the enjoyment levels raised by supporting veteran actors Gérard Depardieu, Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich, but, dare I say it, the relationship levels of all:

Leonardo DiCaprio against Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Man In The Iron Mask'- brothers or symbolic duality?

The father-son dynamic.
D’Artagnan cannot directly tell the young King that he is his father, but he has hopes that Louis will cease at his indifference and become to grow into being a good King. Upon the discovery of Phillipe, D’Artagnan is shocked to know what Louis has done to his brother (and a son he never knew) and becomes torn on which is the son he would rather have. The King also sets up Athos’ only son Raoul to be killed in battle in order for Louis to have Raoul’s love, Christine, for himself, and has made an enemy of Athos because of it. Which also plays into:

The value and test of friendship
While D’Artagnan has assumed responsibilities as captain of the Musketeer army, Aramis, Porthos and Athos have grown tired of the King and choose to free Phillipe in order to ‘replace’ the King. Aramis seeks to redeem himself of a horrible mistake he made in putting Phillipe in the prison and mask, also, he sides with the people who are on edge of revolt due to the Kings policies. Porthos has also lost respect for Louis XIV. D’Artagnan has his loyalties divided again when asked to go to kill his old friends; they did not involve him in the plot because they suspected he would not go along with the plans.

Forbidden love

D’Artagnan also is reminded of his relationship with the Queen, and they both still have strong feelings for each other, but cannot have the past come out into the open, for fears of scandal. Also, Raoul is rather shy in asking Christine’s hand in marriage, when he has finally decided, he finds out that the King (who has many women in and out of his bed) has chosen Christine for his next conquest. Christine had expected the proposal from Raoul to come soon, but the tempting words of King Louis have an element of truth. What was Raoul waiting for? Raoul also gives up when he sees that he would have to challenge the King. But the King must pull a David-Bathsheba act in order to stop Christine from going back to Raoul.

Sometimes it isn't the walls that become a prison, but isolation and our loss of identity.

Inner struggles

While it is generally brother against brother, and even a bit of class structure on top of it, I come away with a different interpretation, and it is the primary reason why I wound up forgiving the film’s faults and enjoying the movie. There are two lines of dialog said by the brothers. One is from Phillipe, who says of his new freedom outside of prison, that he wore the iron mask, it did not wear him. The other is when Phillipe requests to his brother that he not be sent back into prison with the mask. His brother, the King has a response that cuts deeper than any knife:

“You will wear it until you love it!”

In the film’s trailer, it is ‘You will wear it until you die in it’, but I think the line change has more impact, and that, if I were to consider the context, we are seeing two sides to one character. I know that’s not what we see in the film, but think about this. Here we have a character so cruel, so selfish and spoiled that he even considers himself ‘like God’ that he nearly loses all composure at the mere sight of his exact opposite. That opposite had been living in peace until discovery, thrown by force into both a physical prison and a psychological one. By some this twin was even presumed dead or forgotten.

The final act of the film has one brother against another, with Louis attempting to stab Phillipe. D’Artagnan sacrifices himself to save the good son. The Musketeer army refuses further orders from the King; instead they have him and Phillipe change clothes and now King Louis wears the iron mask. It is then reported in an epilogue that after a period of time, The ‘Man In The Iron Mask’ was pardoned, so long as he lived in exile.

True friends and mentors are those that not only bring out your best, but also gain respect from others.

I know. Maybe I’m a bit far off on this. But I’ve seen many films which have characters responding to parts of their own personalities, both good and bad. I know that’s not what the film depicts. These are two brothers, divided by fate and jealousy. But the departure in the adaptation making D’Artagnan the father of both brothers, and D’Artagnan’s relationships with the other characters and how they contrast, seems to want to comment on a father’s best hopes for a son. Otherwise, D’Artagnan would not have died at the film’s end. His death is a triumphant redemption as a father, so it suggests. If he did not hide his relationship to the “bad” King, or better yet, have his trusted friends train him in the way they trained Phillipe, could there even be a movie? I don’t think the film has been given just due for being more of a character driven piece than a plot driven story. There is a lot going on in this film version, that has been taken for granted.