First the TV series, then the movie, then the book, and now the actual movie, one of several based on the book. It’s The Count of Monte Cristo, starring Richard Chamberlain and Tony Curtis, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. The book, by Alexandre Dumas, was published serially from 1844 to 1845, and there are multiple motion picture adaptations, this one being made for TV in 1975. Apparently NBC made two versions, one running 119 minutes for the European market and the other running 105 minutes for the American market. I seem to have the European version, and for that we need to be thankful, because additional compression of Dumas’ 601 pages would have invited additional ruin. Here’s my assessment.
If you have ever seen photos of the wreckage of a long railroad train, one where the train collides with something, causing a massive pileup, then you get the picture. The cars are not compressed end-to-end, but they pile one onto the other, and they get reversed end-to-end and turned upside down. There is scant semblance of the order that was. That is what happened when movie producers attempted to fit Dumas’ potboiler of a plot into less than two hours. I will explain and in doing so will recap the plot in comparison to the book.
The movie starts exactly as the book, as exactly as artistic freedom and presentation constraints allow. Commercial sailor Edmond Dantes (Chamberlain) returns from a successful Mediterranean voyage, as successful as could be expected seeing that his captain has died and was buried at sea, leaving 19-year-old Dantes in charge. In the port of Marseilles he is welcomed by the lovely Mercedes (Kate Nelligan), a Catalan girl who is to be his bride the following day.
But Edmond has rivals. One is a M. Danglars (Donald Pleasence), the supercargo (person responsible for the shipper’s goods), who considers he should have been promoted to captain instead of Edmond. Also there is Fernand Mondego (Tony Curtis), a local Catalan, supposedly a cousin of Mercedes and a rival suitor to Edmond. Here is a meeting at a place where wine is served close by the home of Edmond. The third person at the table is a neighbor of Desmond, a M. Caderousse (Alessio Orano). He is not a party to the scheme to frame Edmond—he’s so drunk (in the book) to hardly know what is going on. His initial crime is one of omission. He knows of the scheme, but he allows Edmond to be framed and does nothing, at first.
In the book, Danglars proposes to write a phony note, saying what a great joke it would be if this note were discovered and if it pointed to Edmond as a Bonaparte collaborator. The setting is the time Napoleon escaped from his Elba prison and sought to overthrow the monarchy. Danglars has his joke (in the book) and discards the crumpled note, leaving for Fernand to retrieve the note and to take it to the authorities as real.
Edmond and Mercedes are about to be married when the police rush up to arrest him. He is taken to a local official, Gérard de Villefort (Louis Jourdan), who sees that Edmond is falsely accused. But the note refers to a letter Edmond is supposed to deliver. Edmond hands over the letter, never having read it. Villefort unseals the letter. It implicates his father, Noirtier de Villefort in the Napoleonic plot, naming many others, besides. This knowledge has the power to immensely elevate de Villefort’s career, but only if its existence is kept secret. The way to keep the secret is to tuck Edmond away for life in a place where the sun does not shine. He burns the incriminating letter and prepares to execute Edmond’s doom.
Only after he has been carted away does Edmond discover he is being sent to his doom in the scurrilous prison Château d’If in the Marseilles harbor. And behold, the producers used actual footage of the infamous place.
Edmond spends 14 years there, the first few in solitary. Eventually he detects another prisoner chiseling at the stone works. Eventually the two connect up, and the two spend the remaining years of Edmond’s imprisonment collaborating on a plan to escape. The other prisoner is a priest, Abbé Faria (Trevor Howard). The character was apparently a real person, but not the priest in prison with Edmond Dantes. Anyhow, the priest, before he was carted off to the Château d’If for being a royalist, discovered the location of a papal treasure of vast proportions and hidden away for centuries. He promises Edmond to share it with him after they escape. He also uses their time together to teach the simple sailor all the wisdom of the world. Then he dies.
Edmond, thinking quickly, waits for the jailers to sew the body into a bag. Then he switches places with the corpse, stowing it in his cell. The high point of the plot is here, when the guards throw the sack, with Edmond inside, into the sea. Edmond cuts his way out of the bag and is picked up by some smugglers.
He throws his lot in with them, and is readily accepted, since he is a first rate navigator. His travels eventually take him to Montecristo, an Italian island between Corsica and the mainland. There Edmond recovers the vast treasure and uses a small part of it to purchase the island, having himself declared the Count of Monte Cristo.
Edmond uses the ensuing ten years establishing himself as the Count of Monte Cristo and setting up his revenge on his betrayers. For the first time in his life he comes to Paris, where all of them now live, having used the intervening 24 years elevating themselves to great wealth and power, mostly by nefarious means.
The book explains that Mercedes waited 18 months before giving up on Edmond and marrying Fernand. They have a son. In the meantime Fernand has gone to the Battle of Waterloo with Napoleon, only to sell out to the British for a healthy sum. He has continued his double-dealing, next with the Spaniards and finally, as a French officer, betraying an eastern prince for a healthy sum.
Villefort has risen to position of the king’s procurer, and Danglars has become a prominent banker. Not shown in the movie is the life trajectory of the sodden Caderousse. Dumas has the count visiting this wretch, now an innkeeper on the road to the Pont du Gard, in disguise. He gives Caderousse a chance to redeem himself, giving him two large diamonds, supposedly from an unknown benefactor. Caderousse shows his true character when a Jewish dealer comes to the inn to purchase one of the stones. Caderousse and his wife murder the Jew and keep the stone, but the wife is killed in the fracas. Caderousse is caught and imprisoned, ultimately to be redeemed by the count in a scheme to employ him in the further destruction of his enemies.
Here the count arrives at the office of Danglars the banker, where he opens a stately account. He eyes his enemy, undetected, and schemes his revenge.
The count goes to one of the telegraph stations of a system that was established in France at the time, shortly before it was superseded by electric telegraphy. The stations use a system of semaphores to relay messages from one station to the next station down the line. He bribes the operator to send a false message, telling of the return of King Carlos to Spain.
Danglars has arranged for himself to have privy to these messages ahead of authorized parties, and he uses this information to make shrewd bets on the markets. The false message causes Danglars to short the Spanish bonds, and his major clients follow the lead. When the message is revealed to be bogus all his clients demand repayment, and Dalglars is ruined.
Hint: in the book Danglars flies the coop with five millions in cash and heads for Italy. There the count tracks him down and has some bandits kidnap him and hold him for ransom until almost all his money is gone. Then Danglars is left to live the remainder of his life. In the movie the banker puts a bullet through his head.
Villefort’s life, since his betrayal of Edmond, has been one of shady dealing and sordid misdeeds. He has gotten a woman pregnant and has arranged for her to give delivery in secret. Then he took the child and buried it in the garden behind the house, telling the woman the child had died. The movie has the woman dying, as well. Only, one of the count’s smuggler friends was a witness to the deed, and he rescued the baby. The baby was ultimately lodged with an unfortunate couple, growing up to become a pathological criminal who murdered his adoptive mother. He has subsequently been imprisoned with Caderousse. Apparently in their escape Caderousse had double crossed this son of Villefort, and the count works to bring the two into meeting one another. He watches as Caderousse is murdered and the son of Villefort is arrested.
At the trial, the son of Villefort uses information supplied to him by the count to disgrace Villefort, who is the prosecutor.
The count next contrives to make public Fernand’s betrayal of his charge and the murder of the prince he was sworn to protect. He also sold the prince’s wife and daughter into slavery, where the mother died. The count since purchased the daughter in a slave market and made her his ward.
Mercedes’ son, Albert, swears to fight the count in a duel with pistols. Mercedes knows Albert will be killed, and she convinces Albert of his father’s duplicity. the two men meet in the Field of Mars (in the movie only), where each party fires harmlessly, signifying the matter is settled.
Fernand is brought to answer charges, and at the hearing he presents testimonials to his loyalty in the affair. Then the princess, Haidee (Isabelle De Valvert), comes forward and attests to seeing Fernand murder her father and of his selling her and her mother into slavery. She presents documents of the transactions.
Fernand challenges the count to a duel right there in the chamber and is defeated, being forced to yield or die. He is taken off in disgrace to face charges. In the book he puts a bullet through his head.
As each of his enemies is destroyed Edmond counts, “One… Two…” I watched for this in the book but I saw it only at the time of Caderousse’s death. Maybe a closer look will reveal the movie is true.
Both the book and the movie show Mercedes leaving Marseilles to join Albert, serving in the military in Africa. In the book there is an outlandish episode involving Maximillian, son of Morrel, and the daughter of Villefort. Her stepmother has attempted to poison her, and the count has secretly intervened, faking her death until the final three pages of the book, where she and Maximillian are re-united in the grotto on Montecristo. The count sails off from the island with Princess Haidee, apparently to be his wife.
The moral is made that revenge is double-edged. Edmond has exacted it to its fullest, and it has brought him down, as well.
Wikipedia notes that cutting the plot to 119 minutes required leaving many of the book’s characters out. See the item for a complete listing. Read the book if you have the time. It’s a bucket list item. Gone there, read that.