Now this is the one! I know there have been a load of remakes, and before this version a slew of silents, but of the lot, this version is the best. It’s 1934, it’s Robert Donat’s fifth film, he is on loan to America and don’t the accents just prove it…and his rôle, covering lovelorn youth and eager sailor, exhausted and desperate prisoner, and embittered, manipulative aristocrat, shows off his impressive range and ability to be both natural and sympathetic in them all. So sit back and enjoy the three films in one that make up The Count of Monte Cristo.
Old Jack and Tenuous Tony sat down to watch this on a Saturday afternoon. We needed a bit of adventure, the visitors having been particular hard work that day. I remembered that my Grandpa Gus took me to reruns at the local cinema, catching every release possible of this story, particularly when Grandma Victoria was raging against his clutter. So – a quality diversion for boys, then. Albeit, I’d rush to say, there’s a touch of romance in this version, used as a framing device.
So – Donat is Edmond Dantes. A happy sailor, he takes a letter from his dying captain. Napoleon wrote it (really, they pass Elba), and it has to go to a man in Marseilles. Being somewhere between adorable and stupid, Dantes doesn’t read the thing, but passes it on in good faith. And then shit happens. Dantes is betrayed and betrayed again. Jealous shipmate and frowny twat Danglars (Raymond Walburn giving good venality) hears the conversation with the dying captain and reports Dantes. The latter does his duty and gets arrested for it. He is taken to prison along with his so-called buddy Mondego (Sidney Blackmer giving good fiancée-fancying turncoat) and the magistrate consigns him to prison without a trial, or even testing his claim not to know what’s in the letter. And all this after we’ve met Dantes fiancée, the scrummy if low-eyebrowed Mercedes, Elissa Landi – giving off smarts and instinct over twenty years and two moments in a tree…
And then the film retreats to Donat’s cell for eight long years. It takes him a while to realise his visit to the cell isn’t leading to a real trial, and, as with real life, time passes with the growing of a beard. It’s quite long when there comes a tapping from behind the wall and Donat, not entirely sure how to talk any more, pulls out a slab and meets the face of a cheery, equally hairy old Abbé (O.P. Heggie is terrific – a roll of the eyes short of Monty Python‘s old fart on the beach). Donat shines with that hope he could do in a blink, as he realises he is “still young”. Only 28…pretty much Donat’s age in real life.
This is fun, you know. Proper fun. Boys’ own, I guess, but the love story is presumably there to get the traditional girls. The film winks at us at times – especially as the two men dig a tunnel out towards the sea. Donat pops up to the Abbé’s cell to discover his own lack of imagination: the guy has covered the walls in bits of every religion he fancies, created pens, candles and (go with it) matches. After a good many more years, things come to a head in the tunnel. The Abbé is crushed in a fall, the two get to his cell where he dies and – in a wildly unbelievable bit of luck and planning – the old man dies (he’ll be okay, Frankenstein awaits his blind hermit in 1935), gets sewn into a shroud, Donat uncuts and drags him down (weirdly) to Dantes’ cell, then nips back up and sews himself into the shroud…and gets thrown in the sea. All the digging was pointless.
I know! This is a real Saturday film! Turn off the logic and enjoy the emotions. You’re on Donat’s side from the start. He’s a good soul running the gauntlet of other people’s selfishness: that friend who wanted his girl, the shipmate who wanted his job, that magistrate who was a total dick. So when he escapes the sea, meets friendly pirates, and goes to find the massive treasure the Abbé gifted him, well…you want his middle years to be about revenge.
And, boy, does he get it. For who doesn’t get grumpier, colder and exhausted by the need for petty revenges by middle age? It’s enough to turn you grey. Or, as here, a strange kind of white, grey and…coiffed. Certainly for a man in his angry forties.
Old Jack heartily recommends The Count of Monte Cristo. There’s staged shame, a bastard driven to suicide, another to madness, a duel, a moment of intense, scintillating recognition between older Mercedes and this Count (not unlike a scene late in Fanaa (2006) – and vicious, delicious revenge. No wonder it was the nutters’ favourite film in V for Vendetta.
Watch Count for the joy of it. Donat, as you’d expect by now, is the heart of things, proving he is an international star of proper skill. He has claimed his rightful position. All pretenders, as he says at the end, up in the branches with Mercedes, twenty years and several lives passed, “get your own tree.” Or at the very least buckle your own swash.