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W.S. Van Dyke
In 1865, General Gurko Lanen is dictator of "Lichtenburg" in the Balkans. Rightful ruler Zona hopes to get aid from Napoleon III of France. The visiting Count of Monte Cristo falls for Zona and undertakes to help her, masquerading as a foppish banker and a masked freedom fighter. The rest is rapid-fire intrigue and derring-do. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Thirteen years after making this film, in which he played the villainous ruler of a fictitious country called "Lichtenburg" (an obvious combination of the real-life small countries Lichtenstein and Luxemburg), George Sanders played a sympathetic role in the musical "Call Me Madam," also set in "Lichtenburg." See more »
It is almost invariably a bad sign when the villain of the piece utterly steals the show in the first ten minutes - even when said villain is played by the inimitable George Sanders. I was seriously tempted to give up on this film before the eponymous Count had made his (delayed) appearance; indeed, memory suggested that on a previous occasion I had actually done so. To have missed the remainder of this charming film, however, must now rank as one of my most serious misjudgements so far!
George Sanders is superb as the ruthless Gurko Lanen, but a performance of this calibre in the role of the villain holds the danger of overbalancing the film in the absence of a totally outstanding performance on the part of his opponent. But the introduction of Louis Hayward's slender, charming Monte Cristo as an outsider into the cliche'd Ruritanian mix proves to be the vital spark that not only saves the film but catapults it to rank as a joyous classic of its genre. As Gurko Lanen sardonically observes, it is an adversary with a sense of humour who is dangerous.
No-one could claim originality for the plot. There are strong echoes of 'The Mask of Zorro' to be found, as our well-born young hero alternates the pose of a fop - suffering the scorn of his ladylove - with the role of masked defender of the downtrodden masses. But expectations are constantly subverted; like its title character, the film has the endearing knack of not taking itself too seriously.
This is one hero, for all his skill, who has been known to lose when launching himself gaily into battle against overwhelming numbers of his rival's henchmen; who takes his nom de guerre at the whim of a moment from the banner heading of an underground news-sheet; who shrugs off his enemy's imprecations and his lady's upbraiding both alike, with a merry grin; who clearly takes enormous enjoyment in sending himself up by playing the part of a foppish banker to deflect General Lanen's suspicions. In a nod to the Dumas original, the tool that gains him access to the General's plans and confidence is the prospect of a banking loan from the fabled Monte Cristo fortune, and despite his title the young Count is able to point out that, like Gurko Lanen, Edmond Dantes the elder was a self-made man.
For, if the hero is not entirely infallible - and all the more likeable for it - neither is the villain entirely without our sympathy. As we see in the opening scenes, Lanen is neither a fool nor a coward, and despite his cultured suavity he is the son of a stonemason, and proud of it; a gifted peasant who has dared to aspire, first to the rulership of his tiny country, then to the hand of the greatest lady in the land, the Grand Duchess herself. It is not a romance that the audience can possibly favour - the would-be suitor is too old, too brutal, too jaded to be a suitable match for young Zona - but it is hard not to wince at the haughty manner in which his courtship is dismissed. To this viewer at least, the proposal sounded genuine, evoking the old proverb that 'if she would not take him, still the lady might make him' - but any possibility for redemption is lost by the all-too-evident contempt of the Grand Duchess for the low-born upstart General.
(And I never could see why Baron von Neuhof's arrest for plotting to bring in Louis Napoleon's troops in order to return his own faction to power gets dismissed as "trumped-up charges", when Lanen's last-ditch resort to a similar bargain with the Tsar is trumpeted as a vile betrayal of his country....)
It's obvious from the start that this is one villain who is going to give the hero and his allies a run for their money; and so he does. Monte Cristo's flattery doesn't fool the General for an instant, though he is prepared to tolerate the fop as long as he remains useful, and the identity of the spy who ultimately betrays 'The Torch' has been skilfully established from the very first scenes. As soon as Lanen's suspicions are aroused he contrives, with only a little manipulation of those most loyal to his audacious guest, to discover both his secret identity and his concealed escape route in time to have him arrested and thrown in jail.
Ruthless and resourceful to the very last, Gurko Lanen keeps us gasping as he gambles everything to achieve his aims. Yet above all, it is Louis Hayward, in the irrepressible part of Edmond Dantes the younger (surely a kindred spirit of Simon Templar?) who really brings the picture to life. It will take all the wit and daring of an opponent as ingenious and endearing as the Son of Monte Cristo to stop the General... with a little help from Zona, who at the crucial moment yet again subverts the genre by saving herself!
Bloopers are few, although the Grand Duchess' achievement in adhering side-saddle behind her rescuer on the rump of a galloping horse is little short of miraculous, as is the apparent availability of sticky tape in 1865 for silencing the mouth of the Russian ambassador! During Lanen's balcony speech, a distant off-stage voice can faintly be heard prompting him line by line; while it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that the character would have had a prepared speech 'cued' to him in that situation, I somehow doubt that this was intentional :-)
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