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The importance of Alexandre Dumas on cinema

In one telling moment during Quentin Tarantino‘s excellent Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz‘s King Schultz points out Calvin Candie’s hypocrisy. He models himself on the French literature that formulates his library, forgetting that Alexandre Dumas was himself a writer of colour. “Alexandre Dumas,” he intones, “is Black.” 

Dumas’ writing formulated the modern-day lexicon, and although you may be unfamiliar with his work, you will undoubtedly know some of the films that were adapted from his novels. In many ways, he was France’s equivalent to Charles Dickens, as he championed the everyday man in a collection of blinding texts, each one more incendiary than the one that came before it. 

La Guerre des femmes was his final work, which remains strangely unadapted at the time of writing. And that’s a shame because it boasts many of the trappings of his more celebrated works, which were eventually re-written for the big screen. 

If you’re British, you are no doubt aware of Richard Lester’s jaunty version of The Three Musketeers, which laced Dumas’ probing text with a type of humour that was decidedly Milliganesque. Considering that the director had collaborated with Spike Milligan on a number of occasions previously, this wasn’t a far-reaching conclusion to come to.

“At the time when we were starting to do the duels,” Lester admitted, “the first thing I do is get books on the history of medicine at that time, and the history of architecture or whatever you can find out about ordinary people lived, what they grew. In duelling, almost all of the Hollywood duels were invented by mostly Hungarian fencers who were ex-Olympic fencers of the 1920s and 1930s, and they all used very small swords, and they would parry on their back foot.”

It’s possible to discern from the above interview a fondness for the swords spectacles of the past. Lester isn’t the only person who drew inspiration from the French doyen of drama, as can be seen in Ridley Scott’s startling The Last Duel. Adam Driver’s character seems to embody the proclivities of Dumas’ oeuvre, soaking up the imprints as if jumping directly from the text onto the big screen. 

It was more of a spiritual adaptation than a genuine one, but some directors have been unable to faithfully reproduce the work onto the big screen. Take The Man in the Iron Mask, a plodding, pedestrian re-working of Dumas’ most interesting addition to The Musketeer canon. It starred French actor Gerard Depardieu, but the film limped accordingly, never hitting the heights of its impressive text. 

Depardieu actually played the author in  L’Autre Dumas in 2010, which galled members of The Council of Black Associations of France. The author, they pointed out, was the grandson of an enslaved Haitian, and identified as a “negro” in private conversation. It was an unfortunate example of “white-washing”, and could have been easily avoided by casting a French-speaking Black actor. 

Indeed, that is an issue with many of the adaptations, as they primarily use caucasian actors to flesh out the world. Interestingly, the 2014 BBC1 series cast a bi-racial Porthos, as if acknowledging the importance of the writers’ personal milieu in The Musketeers.

Could the world enjoy a Black cast adaptation of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo? Personally, I don’t see why not. France, like England, has harboured a diverse population in its history, meaning that there are perspectives and voices that could and should be shared on celluloid. 

If we can watch a bouncy rendition of Le Prince des Voleurs, translated into a 1940s American backdrop, then surely there’s an appetite for a movie starring a more diverse audience. And considering that Les Compagnons de Jehu has yet to be adapted for the big screen, this might be a chance to deliver a compelling new picture starring an accomplished actor of colour.

Out of all the big-screen adventures that bear the French writer’s name, La Reine Margot is the most distinguished, capturing a portal between the lilting text and the needs of an audience burning for a riotous action film for the 1990s. 

But it’s an uncompromising feature, so Dumas beginners should start with Lester’s work, and work up towards the more idiosyncratic film. Compiling a series of stirring vignettes, the portrait offers a visual companion to the characters the predominantly live within Dumas’ work. All for one, and one for all.

10 Alexandre Dumas books adapted for the screen

  • The Iron Mask (1929)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)
  • The Corsican Brothers (1941)
  • The Prince of Thieves (1948)
  • Lady in the Iron Mask (1952) 
  • The Three Musketeers (1973)
  • The Four Musketeers (1974)
  • The Count of Monte Cristo (1975)
  • La Reine Margot (1994)
  • The Musketeer (2001)