A perfect combination of the experimentation of the French impressionist directors of the time, and the requirements of the structures of mainstream adventure films, Henri Fescourt’s Monte-Cristo is a remarkable achievement. Adapted, of course, from Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Montecristo (completed in 1844), it was cinema’s final super-production; the last of the silent historical big budget dramas.
Before directing it, Fescourt had made over 70 films, including his previous 32-reel long large-scale adaptation of Les Misérables (1925). He was not only known as a reliable filmmaker but was also one of the most popular of its time. The fact that he is not as celebrated, or as well-known, as he should be today is due to the fact that Monte-Cristo, long thought to have been his greatest cinematic achievement, was presumed lost for decades.
Monte-Cristo‘s is arguably the greatest revenge story of all time. The film, which takes place at the start of the 19th century, is that of hero Edmond Dantés (Jean Angelo), a young merchant sailor granted succession of his captain Leclère. He returns to Paris to marry his fiancé (Lil Dagover); however, he is suddenly arrested for treason, and imprisoned at Chateau d’If, a Napoleonic Alcatraz. Here, he meets Abbé Faria (Bernhard Goetzke), also imprisoned on the island. He deduces that a number of conspirators, headed by his rival Fernand Mondego (Gaston Modot), betrayed him. Faria also inspires his escape and guides him to a fortune in treasure, which Dantés use to re-invent himself as the wealthy and mysterious Count of Montecristo. As the Count, Dantés re-enters Paris to take revenge on those who conspired against him. Fescourt used four cameramen for each scene to add movement and make the most of his locations. Many of them were real locations from Dumas’s story, including Chateaux
Fescourt used four cameramen for each scene to add movement and make the most of his locations. Many of them were real locations from Dumas’s story, including Chateaux d’If. The gritty scenes are quite naturalistic and create an intriguing contrast with the more lavish ones depicting the wealthy Parisian world of the 1930’s. In these latter scenes, the work of Boris Bilinski truly shines; this is particularly true of those scenes at the Paris Opéra and at the ball at Montecristo’s palace. For the most
For the most part, Fescourt remains loyal to the original novel, which is captivatingly full of unexpected twists and outrageous coincidences. He is also quite ingenious in bringing to the screen parts of the novel that are rarely seen in other adaptations, and binding subplots together, condensing them in a way that conveniently shortens them but at the same time adds a compelling dramatic background to the revenge story: this is particularly true of the story of Dantés’ son.
Monte-Cristo is, indeed, quite an achievement. Despite its four-hour length, it is never boring. Despite being large-scale, none of its aspects are overbearing, and a sort of naturalism balances its more mainstream spectacle requirements. Lucien Wahl, a critic of the time, said it best when he deemed Monte-Cristo “variety but not eccentricity; unity but not monotony.” – ★★★★
MONTE-CRISTO | 1929, France | Adventure | Director – Henri Fescourt / Produced by – Louis Nalpas / Written by – Henri Fescourt (based on the novel The Count of Montecristo by Alexandre Dumas, père) / Cinematography by – Henri Barreyre, Maurice Hennebains, Gustavo Kottula, Julien Ringel / Editing by – Jean-Louis Bouquet / Starring – Jean Angelo, Lil Dagover, Gaston Modot, Jean Toulout, Henri Debain, Pierre Batcheff, Robert Mérin, Bernhard Goetzke | Running time: 218 mins.