In his groundbreaking series Hollywood, Kevin Brownlow chose 1929's The Iron Mask not just as Douglas Fairbanks swansong as a silent swashbuckler, but as a swansong for the entire silent era, and it's hard not to agree with him: it may well be the most perfect silent swashbuckler of them all. It's as if everything that had ever been learned in the silent years had been poured magnificently into this one picture, resulting in as vivid, spectacular and enjoyable an entertainment as you're ever likely to find on any movie screen. After filming finished, Fairbanks said that with the coming of talkies the fun had gone out of movies, but there's plenty of fun here, with great stunts, stirring adventure and moments of comedy that really work while the bittersweet sentimental ending, at once sad and triumphant as the musketeers are finally reunited, won't leave a dry eye in the house.
Like Fairbanks' version of The Three Musketeers eight years earlier, it's not the most faithful of adaptations - this time round it's the good twin who initially reigns as king and his bitter brother who plots to usurp him and put him in the iron mask so that D'Artagnan can restore the natural order rather than stage a benign coup - but the film does include many of the darker elements of Dumas' earlier novel that were skipped over in the earlier film as Milady gets her revenge. Yet the film does a fine job of balancing the light and shade, making a wildly entertaining film that's also surprisingly affecting when it needs to be. Not everything is perfect, with William Bakewell really overegging the pudding as the evil twin in a performance that's pure panto, while the spoken introduction with Fairbanks breaking out of a tableaux to address the audience in a spoken prologue is perhaps more successful in the thought than the execution, but so much here works so very well you can forgive it its failings.
And what a difference just eight years makes between the two films. The cast may have changed - different Musketeers (aside from Leon Barry's Athos) and king this time round, though Marguerite De La Motte's Constance returns as does Nigel de Brulier's Richelieu, in a much broader performance - but it's the massive strides in filmmaking that really stand out. Where in the original film director Fred Niblo managed to hide the not terribly interesting sets somewhat by marshalling his limited number of extras well and giving them all something eye catching to do, this is a much more elaborate affair, with beautifully designed sets and thousands of extras to populate them, and Allan Dwan's fluid and often kinetic direction always makes the most of the considerable resources at his disposal. Fairbanks even hired Maurice Leloir, the French illustrator of the most popular edition of Dumas' novel to design the film alongside William Cameron Menzies, and the film is gorgeously shot, the prison scenes making atmospheric use of the kind of giant shadows Michael Curtiz would later make his signature shot in his Errol Flynn swashbucklers. You can even spot legendary fencing master Fred Cavens as one of Richlieu's ruffians and future director Robert Parrish as a page.
Sadly, Kino's Region 1 DVD of the restored version doesn't impress as much as it should. While the film was lovingly restored by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, the DVD seems to suffer from excessive Dolby Noise reduction in places, giving it a soft look or blurry motion in places (nowhere near as overt as in the print broadcast on Channel 4) that detracts from the otherwise excellent work. Unlike the various public domain versions that use the shorter 1952 reissue prints that replaced the original captions with Douglas Fairbanks Jr's narration - with Junior even dubbing his father's spoken introductions - this is the only release offering the original silent version in all its glory, complete with captions and a new score by Carl Davis. There's also a lengthy extract from the `talkie' reissue version for comparison as well as several outtakes of the stunt and fight sequences, a gallery of production art and copious and detailed notes taken from he programme for the film's London Film Festival screenings. It may not be the best possible version of the film thanks to the problems with the transfer, but it is definitely the best on the market, and the film is just so splendid that it still comes very highly recommended. Films like The Iron Mask are just too magical not to make some allowances for. More than eighty years on it's still the best film I've seen all year.
This is Douglas fairbanks last silent film, in which (Spoiler alert) his character D'Artagan becomes a heavenly imortal at the end of the movie .A sequel to the Three Musketeers and a spledid watch is guarateed