The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo - 1975In 1844, Alexandre Dumas started serializing The Count of Monte Cristo. It was kind of his War and Peace—a novel with so many characters, you need a chart to keep track of it. Really! Wikipedia provides one: Count of Monte Cristo Relations. And even the highest resolution version is hard to read. But let me say what should not be a controversial statement: he’s a whole lot more fun to read than most of the English writers of that time who I admire.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a revenge story. And everyone loves a good revenge story—especially filmmakers. So the book has been turned into a film countless times. In fact, David Goyer (a really typical and talentless film director) is working on one as we speak. In his case, I doubt that the problems of adapting the book to the screen will really matter. The book has roughly 50 major characters, but I suspect a modern Hollywood interpretation of the film will only be guaranteed to have: Dantes is wrongly imprisoned, escapes, becomes Count of Monte Cristo, and kicks some major ass. Will he wear a shirt with MC emblazoned on it? Time will tell.

But in 1975, a big-budget (for the time) version of the book was made for television starring Richard Chamberlain. And yes, it changes a number of things in the book, but overall, it is about as close as you could get in under two hours. And perhaps most important, it doesn’t lose the thematic basis of the book, which is that vengeance changes a man. The Count of Monte Cristo is not Edmond Dantes. There is a lovely scene at the beginning of the film where Dantes will not turn over a thief to the authorities, “I wouldn’t imprison any man who is used to the freedom of the sea, sir.” Wonderful foreshadowing, of course. But the scene contrasts nicely to a later scene where the Count watches approvingly as the same man his killed. (The details are completely different in the book.)

The film has quite a cast. In addition to Chamberlain, who almost defined this kind of made-for-TV drama, there was Trevor Howard, Donald Pleasence, and Tony Curtis. Howard is really great as Dantes’ prison companion, Abbe Faria. But what most stands out, and I really am not trying to be mean here, is what a limited actor Tony Curtis is. In the final scene between Curtis and Chamberlain it is especially obvious. All I could think was, go back to what you do best: Some Like it Hot and The Great Race. His performance as Mondego was an embarrassment. One final point on acting: this film is from that wonderful period when no one cared about accents. I actually kind of like it. Few things are as annoying as watching Leonardo DiCaprio trying to do an accent.

When I was a kid, I watched this version on television—probably on its premiere. My mother was not only a lover of old books, but I think she had a crush on Richard Chamberlain. And why not? The man has it all, except, in the case of my mother’s crush, any interest in women. But does that matter, anyway? The great thing about such crushes is that they will go unrequited by definition. Anyway, I loved it as a kid. But I didn’t get the more important aspects of the story. It was just great to watch the man so badly abused get his revenge. The funny thing is that having watched it last night, it was still all that and I still delighted in it. But it was also more. It was inspiring because justice was done, but also sad because no amount of justice could bring back the idealism of the young Dantes.

I highly recommend watching it. And it is available for free on YouTube. I will say what I usually say: it is much better than what you probably will watch:

Afterword

Wikipedia had the following to say about Richard Chamberlain’s personal life:

Chamberlain was romantically involved with television actor Wesley Eure in the early 1970s. He resided in Hawaii with his partner, actor-writer-producer Martin Rabbett, from 1976 to 2010, and whom Chamberlain had legally adopted to protect his assets. Rabbett and Chamberlain starred together, among others, in Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, in which they played brothers Allan and Robeson Quatermain. In the spring of 2010 Chamberlain moved from Maui to Los Angeles because of work possibilities, leaving Rabbett in Hawaii, at least temporarily. Chamberlain was outed by the French women’s magazine Nous Deux in December 1989 at the age of 55, but it was not until 2003 that he confirmed his homosexuality, in his autobiography, Shattered Love.

I think it shows an amazing amout of progress that the entry does not start with, “Chamberlain is gay.” Or, “Chamberlain was outted in 1989.” The thing is, even in the 1970s, we all assumed that Chamberlain was gay. I remember my mother remarking that it was a shame that all the great looking men were gay.

By the way, I just looked up the net worth of Chamberlain: $20 million. That’s not bad and about what I think we can all agree that a man of his enormous success should be worth. So I looked up Leonardo DiCaprio’s net worth: $200 million. DiCaprio is in no way more successful in his time than Chamberlain was in his time. Our winner-take-all markets have become even more winner-take-all. It makes me think of the line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” The actors just get smaller but their paychecks just get bigger.

0 thoughts on “The Count of Monte Cristo

  1. There is a damn interesting story about Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre. He was born in Haiti to a French father and slave mother. Educated in France, he learned all the gentlemanly arts (reading, writing, sword fighting) and joined the military after his small-time aristo dad went broke.

    Apparently Dumas Sr. was a natural at soldiering, a commandingly huge presence with leadership skills and tremendous physical strength (think a less wealthy George Washington.) He rose quickly and became a significant general in the revolutionary army (which, in the beginning at least, was committed to racial equality, although that later changed.)

    He fell out of favor with Napoleon (too charismatic? Too principled? They just didn’t like each other?) and, when he was captured at sea by Neapolitans, ended up in jail, and lingered unaided by former friends — just like the Count of Monte Cristo. According to writer Tom Reiss, both the Count and the sword fighting Musketeers were based on Dumas Sr:

    [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Count:_Glory,_Revolution,_Betrayal,_and_the_Real_Count_of_Monte_Cristo#Reception]The Black Count[/url]

    I don’t like to know TOO much about artists (after all their personal life is what they transcend with their work) but apparently Dumas was open about being inspired by his dad’s rise & fall. And who wouldn’t be, with a dad like that!

  2. @JMF – Very interesting! I don’t mind knowing about the writers, I just try not to let their lives spoil the work for me. Like Hemingway! Or Shakespeare!

    But think of Cervantes. He was very proud of his military career. And I think that [i]Don Quixote[/i] came out of his annoyance with the way that people glorified these mythic heroes. (I make this argument myself about the way films have made real acts of heroism seem trivial.) At the same time, he seems to have loved the books because he knew the genre well.

    I got into a comment argument last night on [i]Rolling Stone[/i]. It started badly but became kind of interesting. I brought up Shakespeare (in a political argument–I’m kind of proud of that). He mentioned that Shakespeare was the original "tea-bagger" (a name he seems to have embraced) because he was always in trouble for not paying his taxes. I pointed out at I’d read a few biographies of the man and had never heard such thing. He provided a terrible reference to an academic who was speculating. The only legal trouble that it seems Shakespeare ever got into was poaching from a rich land owner, which sounds more like the original Tea Party folk than the "tea-baggers." But I took great delight in telling him that Cervantes was a tax collector. And why? For the same reason people work at the IRS: he needed a job. A lot of the "tea-baggers" forget the ultimate lesson from Talking Heads:

    Some civil servants are just like my loved ones
    They work so hard and they try to be strong

    Although often taken as ironic, it was never intended to be.

  3. "Although often taken as ironic, it was never intended to be."

    Opposite of the Heads’ "The Big Country," which is ironic and often taken seriously. Thank whatever deity you wish that the Heads didn’t appear in our era. Can you imagine what the right-wing blogosphere would have made of them?

  4. @JMF – Exactly! I was even thinking of that song as I was writing that comment. People widely misunderstood the song, even though the lyrics clarify the matter at the end where he says:

    I’m tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
    I’m tired of travelling, I want to be somewhere.

    They were a very conservative band. That is: conservative in the traditional sense of the word. Conservative in the way that I am proudly conservative. Today, of course, conservative means "reactionary."

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