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Sunday, 29 October 2017

Review - Television Movie - The Count of Monte Cristo (1975)

Note: I’d intended this week’s post to be the third in my series on approaches to genre, but I couldn’t resist the urge to write this review of what ranks among my favorite Dumas dramatisations.

Few stories are as ingrained into popular culture as Alexander Dumas's seminal saga of revenge The Count of Monte Cristo. Wronged Marseilles sailor Edmund Dantes is falsely condemned to over a decade in the Chateau d'If, escapes with the help of friend and tutor Abbe Faria, and discovers a promised stash of unimaginable wealth on the little island of Monte Cristo. As the Count, and under a wealth of other aliases, Dantes sets about exacting a slow and calculated revenge on the men responsible for his ruin. The original book is a literal brick to read, but has spawned multiple adaptations, pastiches and parodies, and is ranked among both Dumas's (and his ghost writer partner August Maquet) greatest works and among the great works of literature.

There are over twenty separate adaptations in existence across multiple languages, including a stellar four-part BBC radio adaptation with Iain Glen taking the role of the Count. There are three notable movie adaptations, but the one I'm focusing on for this review is the Emmy award-nominated 1975 television movie with Richard Chamberlain in the lead role. This adaptation has the unenviable task of fitting the basics of a book coming in at nearly 400,000 words (the size of four standard modern books combined) into the modest span of 105 minutes, or one hour and forty-five minutes (116 minutes/nearly two hours in Europe).

The first thing to note is that this isn't a faithful transcript of the novel, but an adaptation of its salient points. This means that nearly every subplot has been cut, leaving the bare bones of the original novel's narrative. In this case, it's a plus, as many people probably need a graff to keep track of what's going on from one chapter to the next. Despite its meagre runtime, the movie does an admirable job of communicating the novel's plot, and succeeds in being more faithful to the original story than either the 1934 black and white adaptation or the more action-oriented 2002 version. There are clear influences from the 1934 version, from motifs to direct lifts for particular scenes, but the original novel's bleak tone is maintained. Dantes isn't a hero, he's a man out for revenge. And in this story, revenge is served very cold indeed. The cut subplots help keep the movie's pace at a breathless speed, and while there are multiple artistic liberties with the sequence of events, they don't stop it being an enjoyable romp through one of the great revenge plots of our time.

The casting has some mixed results. The lavish direction of the production shows in the actors brought on board, but it's difficult to be entirely convinced by Tony Curtis as Count Fernand Mondego, and some of the other performances come off as over-the-top. The other leads and major supporting roles are surprisingly good despite some occasionally laughable French accents; a shoutout must be given to Louis Jourdan in the role of Gerard de Villfort, who both brings a smile to the face and makes us relish the character's downfall. Chamberlain does a good job with Dantes, both in his innocence and his life as the Count, showing a gentlemanly grace combined with his cold-hearted determination to be avenged upon his foes. Those who only know Chamberlain for his roles of Aramis in The Three/Four Muskateers and 20 Years Later and his dual role of Louis XIV/Phillipe in the 1970s version of The Man in the Iron Mask will be surprised at how dark and tragic his performance is.

The production values are unquestionable. The location shoots and costume design give a sense of authenticity regardless of any anachronisms the expert might pick up. Set design invokes the renewed decadence of France during the 19th century following Napoleon's defeat, and many of the costumes reflect the gaudy designs present among the French elite at that time. The music, composed by Allyn Ferguson, is suitable sweeping and dramatic, even though it's totally at odds with the music they were actually playing at the time. But then, we didn't complain about Dmitri Tiompkin's work on The Fall of the Roman Empire. It just works, regardless of what the era's music was actually like.

To summarise, this movie is a good adaptation of Dumas's novel, but it's not the most accurate. In fact, only the BBC radio dramatisation's come anywhere close to being an accurate adaptation, and even then it cut bits out and made alterations to some events. This movie is a good introduction to this story that's become part of the Western zeitgeist, with some fine performances, its fair share of camp, and a lavish presentation and production. A good movie for those into classic period drama or the work of Dumas, but maybe less appealing for those who prefer a purer approach to adaptation.


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