A period romp with father and son combo Lloyd and Beau Bridges? Sounds like a good laugh. A Dumas adaptation with Cornel Wilde and Jose Ferrer as two aging musketeers? Sign me up. How about a camp catfight between Bond girl Ursula Andress and Emmanuelle’s Sylvia Kristel, with the latter meeting her future husband Ian McShane on–set? Throw in some randoms, say Alan Hale Jr (the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) for comedy, and maybe a freshly embalmed Rex Harrison for giggles, and top it off with Olivia de Havilland in her final screen role and what do you have?
1979’s Behind the Iron Mask is an utter shambles to behold. While Columbia Pictures were getting hip to the whole sci-fi thing with Close Encounters, they were also unwisely stumping up some cash to distribute this lavish Austrian palace shoot with an all-star cast of aging luminaries and over-confident upstarts. Experienced director Ken Annakin was brought in to add some professional steel, and when that didn’t work, to pep the whole thing up with some sexy interludes for his female stars. Thus Behind the Iron Mask falls between two stools; it’s not had the life of a proper movie by dint of several TV –unfriendly erotic interludes, yet the acres of tiresome chat would discourage all but the most determined voyeur.
The plot comes directly from The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, the third of Dumas’ s Musketeer trilogy; Beau Bridges plays the twins who have a claim to the French throne; Ian McShane is his adviser Fouquet, who everyone insists on calling Fooky to unintentionally comic effect. Kristel and Andress play romantic interests, while de Havilland has a couple of scenes as the boy’s Abbess mother. The recent obituaries for de Havilland make a great deal would how she broke glass ceilings in her battles with studios, but when your final three movies are Airport ‘77, The Swarm and Behind the Iron Mask, you have to wonder if her battles were worthwhile; these are not the inspirational choices of a woman keen to pass an inspirational torch to the next generations, but desperate, wrong-headed attempts to find some relevance to a numb-skull modern audience.
After viewing the whole leaden result, producers cut the sex-scenes out and released this in the US under the title The Fifth Musketeer to cash in on the success of the Richard Lester double-header; the version I watched is the full cut, and provides a glimpse into an alternate universe where audiences craved sexual interludes in mainstream films. It’s more dumb-ass than Dumas, but worth a look for those whose interest in films isn’t only confined to what’s good; this is awful, but exerts a certain interest to see an alternate universe direction that cinema did not go. Audiences didn’t want sex scenes in the family romps any more than they’d want orange juice poured on their morning cereal, and so Behind the Iron Mask has wisely been kept under lock and key since it’s initial, unsuccessful release.