The Count of Monte Cristo: a thoroughly distinguished swashbuckler

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.

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

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.

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

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.

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

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.

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

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.

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

robert-donat-count-of-monte-cristo

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.

This post is part of the Swashathon, hosted by the wonderful Movies Silently. Be sure to check out all the posts to join in with the swashbuckling fun!

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16 thoughts on “The Count of Monte Cristo: a thoroughly distinguished swashbuckler

  1. I think I need to give this book another chance. I read it quite quickly, and I think the number of character names cluttered the storytelling for me. I like the idea of Donat in the role, as I think he could pull off both charm and menace quite well. I was annoyed by the more recent version of the film, which had so much potential (and some beautiful men) but didn’t quite gel for me.

    1. The book is pretty confusing, luckily I had a print with a character tree in it (maybe that’s cheating!)
      Glad to hear you’re not a fan of the more recent version, it was a great let-down and almost a relief to watch this version (even though it’s not without flaws and I seemed to have a poor quality copy).

  2. Fascinating stuff! Reading it just after writing my little piece on The 39 Steps (about which you were very generous, thank you very much) a parallel come to mind on the pacing, I think a lot of that comes from the novel (too long in the castle, get on with escaping man….), perhaps the makers of this were too wedded to the source material whereas Hitchcock was more than happy to bin the majority of Buchan’s novel?

    I also agree that, despite doing some great stuff, it feels like we missed out on some of Donat’s potential. In both this and 39 Steps there’s something of the Cary Grant about him.

    Odd bit of historical trivia by the way, I believe that Britain used to have something along the lines of Chateau d’If (chuck inconvenient people there and leave them to rot) running on Jersey until it was determined that habeas corpus applied outside the UK too.

    1. I wish I had watched this as a kid, I think it would’ve been that bit more magical and I might not have noticed the lack of real swashbuckling! Donat really gets you on side though, even when his revenge seems morally dubious!

  3. Thanks so much for joining in! I am a huge fan of the original novel but have not yet gotten to this adaptation of it. I will have to check it out, especially since the career evolution of Rowland V. Lee (silent leading man to sound director) is a side project of mine.

    1. Thanks to you for hosting! Yes, I’d like to see more of Rowland V. Lee’s films, both talkies and silents. I like to compare how the same director tackled the evolution of sound. This one does have some ‘silent’ elements, although it’s difficult to know if that’s the result of acting style or direction!

  4. I’ve not read the novel, nor have I seen this version. I did watch one version on TV when I was a kid – I think it was the 1974 version – and I found the film so depressing, I developed a life-long aversion to the story. However, I think I would really like this version, despite any flaws, because – you know – Robert Donat.

    I didn’t realize Donat only made one film in the U.S. He likely would’ve been great in Captain Blood, but we really did need him for The 39 Steps.

    Great post, and perfect choice for this blogathon!

    1. I actually haven’t seen the 1947 version, but whilst researching this post it seemed that the general consensus was that it’s pretty dull. Don’t expect too much from this – as swashbucklers go it’s pretty uneventful, but I prefer the ending to the original novel. Usually I’m not a fan of Hollywood-ised climaxes, but I do think that it’s for the better!

  5. I saw this film when it was subject of a #TCMParty. I really enjoyed it, and, surprisingly, the scenes in the prison were the ones that stuck with me. The old man was a cool character – and the heart of the whole plot. Still, I think the fencing scene could have been better – maybe it was Donat’s asthma?
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    1. Those scenes are very harrowing (although maybe it’s the beards?). The Abbe really reshapes Dantes’ character and is the reason for all his actions once he manages to escape prison. And I hadn’t thought about how Donat’s asthma might impact his physical ability…. let’s hope it was that, otherwise it is one of the poorest fencing scenes in a swashbuckler I’ve ever seen!

  6. I loved the book, but I was unaware of this version. I love Robert Donat so this will be a treat! Thank you for unearthing a lovely gem and as for poor fencing, at least your film HAS fencing action! Funny The Count of Monte Cristo is another one of those titles that immediately comes to mind when you say “Swashbuckling!”
    -Summer

  7. Thanks so much for this! It is, as usual, superb. I had heard of Donat’s passing on Captain Blood, but I hadn’t seen the Hollywood film he did instead. I’m thoroughly intrigued. Regarding the beards, for me it is the utter lack of facial hair in some scenes that makes me queasy. Donat should always have a mustache, at the very least!

  8. Hi Girlsdofilm. I first encountered the story in a Classics Illustrated comic book. I thought it was pretty cool. Later I read the book. Then I saw this version. I love Robert Donat’s voice and would be happy to rent it for a while. I agree that the pace is a little relaxed for a swashbuckler, but I still enjoyed it. Excellent review.

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