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MAN IN THE IRON MASK

COOL CAST MAKES MASK
People keep telling him it has the best cast they’ve ever heard of. But Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart) was so passionate about The Man in the Iron Mask that he had no problem attracting Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, Gérard Depardieu, John Malkovich and Gabriel Byrne to star in his directorial debut, reports RICK ADAMS.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The best because Louis XIV, the Sun King, was on the throne and France was at the height of her golden age, when her art, literature and architecture were the envy of Europe. The worst of times because beneath the glittering surface of the court lay abject poverty, held in check by the ruthless power of a tyrannical King.

By 1660, the age of chivalry is more a glorious memory than a reality in France, and its most famous champions, Aramis, Athos and Porthos, the three musketeers, have long since retired from public life. Only their leader, d’Artagnan, remains loyal to the tyrant king, bound to him by some mysterious and inexplicable allegiance.

This is the starting point for The Man in the Iron Mask, not so much freely adapted from as inspired by the famous 19th-century novel by Alexandre Dumas, and written for the screen by Randall Wallace, who wrote the multi-Oscar-winning Braveheart for Mel Gibson and here makes his directorial debut.

"The trend in movies today is to have one star and a supporting cast. I thought this could be one of the last great occasions to put an all-star group of people together" Russell Smith

"The trend in movies today," says fellow producer Russell Smith, "is to have one star and a supporting cast. What attracted me to this is the fact that it had an ensemble cast of actors. I thought this could be one of the last great occasions to put an all-star group of people together."

What drew the stellar cast - Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays both Louis XIV and also the mysterious masked man of the title; Jeremy Irons (Aramis), John Malkovich (Athos), Gérard Depardieu (Porthos, who else?) and Gabriel Byrne (d’Artagnan), plus Nikita star Anne Parillaud as the Queen and Judith Godrèche (Ridicule) in her first English-language movie - was Wallace’s irresistible enthusiasm.

Of course, it also helped that Malkovich had always wanted to work with Depardieu: with those two in place, the others proved easier to attract. "Gérard and John definitely were the magnets," admits Smith. Malkovich - who first read the script in November 1996 - found himself overwhelmed by Wallace’s commitment to the project. "The thing that really attracted me was that Randall was so passionate about it," says the actor, "and I knew he was going to get a great cast."

"I don't particularly believe in reincarnation, but I do believe that we relate to different ages, and I have a particular feeling for romantic times - times when people believed that you could put your life at risk for your honour" Randall Wallace

Nor did the fact that this was Wallace’s directorial debut deter him. "I had a better time on this than I’ve had in a long time," he enthused at the end of the 14-week shoot, which took in some of France’s finest castles and country houses. "Randall has a lot of passion and enthusiasm for this project, which makes up for anything that you do or don’t get because somebody is a first-time director. He’s very gentle and has a lot of humanity."

For his part, the writer/director explains his overwhelming belief in the project by referring to his affinity for the period in which it is set and the values it embodies. "I’ve always liked the classic writers," says Wallace, who studied religion at university, has a black belt in karate and had published five novels before he burst into the movie business with Braveheart in 1995.

"I don't particularly believe in reincarnation, but I do believe that we relate to different ages, and I have a particular feeling for romantic times - times when people believed that you could put your life at risk for your honour and that you had a responsibility towards other people; when what you did made a difference and you were accountable for it. That attitude seems to belong to a past age, and I have always liked the writers who embrace big romantic themes: writers like Dickens, Dumas, Pushkin, Tolstoy..."

"It’s not the first time we’ve seen the three musketeers, but it’s the first time that we have seen them slightly older. This film takes a much more poignant view of them" Gabriel Byrne

But, in the period in which The Man in the Iron Mask is set, codes of honour are beginning to be usurped by the pragmatism and cynicism of the first totalitarian state of the modern age. Aramis, Athos and Porthos have retired to the country. But, like a 17th-century Wild Bunch, they are drawn back into action to defend the things they still believe in, even if it means sacrificing their lives to do so.

As a result, says Wallace, the film is "about men who had once been in an age of glory - of their own personal glory - and had been famous. But they are past their best days and have lost the feeling that they had when they were young - the feeling that they could change the world. Now they are forced to recapture a sense of the same excitement and the same passion for honour that they once had."

"It’s not the first time we’ve seen the Three Musketeers," notes Gabriel Byrne, "but it’s the first time that we have seen them slightly older. This film takes a much more poignant view of them. The dreams they had for themselves and for the monarchy are beginning to disintegrate."

The touchstone for the events which unfold in The Man in the Iron Mask happened some 22 years earlier, on a night in 1638, when Queen Anne of Austria gave birth to the long-awaited heir to the French throne - but also, secretly, to a second child, who was subsequently spirited out of Paris and incarcerated in a fortress off the coast of Brittany.

"I thought it was a thundering good tale" Jeremy Irons

By 1660, the young king has established an iron rule, with the court and the nobility more or less alone in living the Golden Age while the people of France starve. Louis’ lust for military glory has also earned him powerful enemies among the Jesuits.

Finally, when Athos’ son, Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard), falls foul of the King - who lusts after his fiancee, Christine (Judith Godrèche) - and is sent to his death on the battlefield, Athos vows vengeance, enlisting Aramis and Porthos to fight once more alongside him. Only d’Artagnan remains loyal to the King - an allegiance which apparently drives a wedge between the old partnership. Athos’ plan is replace the King with his banished twin, who has been hidden from the world behind an iron mask, so close is his resemblance to Louis XIV.

The film was shot in the summer of 1997 entirely in France, with studio work done at Arpajon, outside Paris, where The City of Lost Children was filmed. Chateaus were reconstructed or dressed down, hundreds of authentic 17th-century costumes assembled for the major fête scene (shot at Vaux-le-Vicomte, a magnificent estate built by the same team that later created Versailles), with the medieval quarter of Le Mans standing in for the old streets of Paris, which have long since disappeared.

"I thought there were not a lot of movies like this. It’s about valour and passion and honour, as opposed to this machismo thing that’s going on right now with films" Leonardo DiCaprio

The Man in the Iron Mask is, it must be said, a historical fact, his existence testified to by a record discovered when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. "Prisoner number 64389000," it said, "the Man in the Iron Mask." No amount of historical research has been able to reveal his identity, although the supposition made by Alexandre Dumas in his famous novel - that he was a royal twin removed from Paris to prevent factional infighting over the succession to Louis XIII - is apparently not the front-runner among theories these days.

Nevertheless, this is the idea that Wallace has borrowed from Dumas, together with the central characters and the overall background to his story. Otherwise, however, he has invented the sequence of events in the screenplay pretty freely - as Jeremy Irons discovered when he decided to read the original novel.

"I never got all the way through it," he admits, "but I read enough to realise our story was very different from the book." Irons had no such trouble getting through the screenplay. "I thought it was a thundering good tale," he says. "I wanted to be involved in it."

Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays the dual role of the King and the man in the mask, had a similar reaction. "I thought there were not a lot of movies like this," he recalls. "It’s about valour and passion and honour, as opposed to this machismo thing that’s going on right now with films. There’s a lot of appeal in it and the story is so complex. It has so many twists and turns and you really get wrapped up in it. When I read the script, I couldn’t put it down."

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"It also helped that Malkovich had always wanted to work with Depardieu"

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"The thing that really attracted me was that Randall was so passionate about it" John Malkovich

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"I have always liked the writers who embrace big romantic themes: writers like Dickens, Dumas, Pushkin, Tolstoy..." Randall Wallace

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"It’s the first time that we have seen them (the three Musketeers) slightly older." Gabriel Byrne

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"When I read the script, I couldn’t put it down." Leonardo DiCaprio

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