Robert Donat is the swashbuckler that almost was. A dislike of Hollywood – coupled with crippling asthma – meant that he made just one film in the US, taking the lead role of Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). His decision to opt out of the title role in Captain Blood (1935) launched Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling career, but also gave Donat the opportunity to take what would become one of his best-loved roles: Hannay, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). Yet despite that role, I still pine for the Donat that might’ve been, the Donat that’s apparent in his role as Dantès.
As swashbucklers go, The Count of Monte Cristo (directed by Rowland V. Lee) is a fairly mild affair. Yes, it’s set in Western Europe (mostly France), is loosely based on historical events and features a heroic character, but there’s limited evidence of fencing, just one swordfight and no damsel in distress. But what it does have is impeccable credentials: the 1844 novel on which the film is based was written by the swishiest of swashbucklers, Alexandre Dumas. Had Dumas – who also penned The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After and The Victome de Bragelonne (which includes the sub-plot Man in the Iron Mask) been alive in the 1930s, he would surely have churned out fast-paced, historically inaccurate screenplays for Hollywood all the time. Clearly Donat wasn’t the only almost-was.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic tale of vengeance. Captain Dantès is imprisoned without trial in the Chateau d’If, accused of treason after being caught delivering a message from an exiled Napoleon. Solitary confinement lasts almost eight years; he is forbidden to make contact with his attorney or his fiancé Mercedes who, believing Dantès to be dead, marries his rival Count Mondego. One day, Abbé Faria, a fellow prisoner, breaks into Dantès’ cell through a tunnel he has been digging – he enlists the younger man’s help and begins to educate him. Abbé dies before the escape route can be completed – but not before revealing the location of a vast hidden treasure to Dantès. After his own escape, Dantès goes to collect his fortune; the riches enable him to buy his way into smart Parisian society, masquerading as the Count of Monte Cristo. But Dantès isn’t after the money – he is in it for revenge, to bring down the three corrupt men that unjustly imprisoned him and continue to infiltrate French society.
Dumas’ novels have been adapted for the screen many times, with varying degrees of success. Although not without its flaws, Rowland V. Lee’ version works better than others because it relies heavily on the source material (although the ending was Hollywood-ised) and doesn’t demonise the villains or celebrate the hero. The characters remain relatively normal, trapped in webs of their own making but always remaining believable. In the films beginning scenes Donat’s sailor character feels under-developed (perhaps deliberate, considering his supposed youth), but this is balanced by his role as the count, which is by turns likeable and sinister. Revenge is a dish that can be cooked for too long – the cool and even-tempered Donat articulates the perfect blend of personal vendetta and public service. Some of the acting is exaggerated and the gestures borrow heavily from silents – unsurprising considering that’s where Lee made his start, and The Count of Monte Cristo was released just six years after the introduction of talkies. Old habits die hard.
Indeed, The Count of Monte Cristo’s biggest problem is pace. It’s just too languid to truly be a swashbuckler. Set aside Dantès extended jail scenes that need to convey monotony, the whole film moves slowly. Dantès’ revenge is a long game, he builds traps that play into the flaws and personality traits of each villain – this isn’t about instant gratification. Even the sword fighting scene feels low-energy, and a pistol duel comes to late to convey real excitement. Indeed the most animated segment is a courtroom segment where Dantès, after initially refusing to provide his own defence, unexpectedly takes the stand to ensnare his final villain, Raymond De Villefort (Louis Calhern). He gives an impassioned speech, forcing De Villefort to reveal his true colours and, in the process, clears his own name.
In terms of swashbuckler film history, The Count of Monte Cristo is often overshadowed by showier pieces from the same era. After all, the genre was popular not for its moral message, but because it offered unbridled fun and escapist entertainment. Dantès’ crusade isn’t as light as Flynn’s Robin Hood or Captain Blood and, although the distinguished count is as heroic as they come, there’s something serious and intrinsically personal about his crusade. But this film – much like the original novel – is worth sticking with. Once the Count’s long-laid plans start to come to fruition the ‘fun’ comes not from adventure, but from watching the downfall of villains who totally deserved what was coming to them. The Count of Monte Cristo might not break new ground in the swashbuckler genre, but it remains one of the best adaptations of Dumas’ novel.