The Iron Mask is a 1929 silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks. It is one of many film adaptations of Alexandre Dumas's novel The Three Musketeers, drawing plot elements from that novel but taking most of the plot from Dumas's sequel The Vicomte de Bragelonne. The film is also a sequel to Fairbanks's 1921 film The Three Musketeers. It was directed by Allan Dwan.
In this one Fairbanks returns as D'Artagnan, and he and the Three Musketeers are having swashbuckling fun in 1638 France. Meanwhile, King Louis XIII is thrilled by the birth of his son and heir, the future King Louis XIV. The situation is immediately complicated when the birth of the boy is followed by the birth of a second boy, an identical twin brother. Cardinal Richelieu, fearing that the presence of two twin sons of the king raises the threat of dynastic instability and war, packs the second child, Phillipe, off to the country to be raised in secret. D'Artagnan's lover, Constance, was the lady-in-waiting at the birth, and for this Richelieu has his dragon Count De Rochefort send Constance away to be imprisoned in a convent. D'Artagnan tries to rescue her but fails to arrive before tragedy strikes. Richelieu in turn breaks up the Musketeers, ordering Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to their home properties while assigning D'Artagnan to be a guardian of the boy Louis. De Rochefort has his own schemes, however, which involve a switcheroo of twin brothers.
The Iron Mask was one of the last major silent films released in Hollywood. It was Douglas Fairbanks' farewell to both the silent film medium and the action-adventure films that he had been making throughout The Roaring '20s. Fairbanks had no enthusiasm for talking films, and in any case he was 46 years old in 1929 and aging out of the action film genre. Fairbanks dabbled in talkies, making five films before he retired in 1934, but never made an action film again.
- Ambiguously Gay: D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers sleep in the same bed. All for one and one for all, indeed.
- And the Adventure Continues: As indicated in the last dialogue card. After D'Artagnan's soul leaves his body and joins his friends up in the heavens, Porthos provides the page quote (see above). And then they turn their backs to the camera and run off to seek that "further adventure".
- Bittersweet Ending: D'Artagnan and the Musketeers all die, but their spirits are still chasing adventure in the afterlife, and the rightful king has been restored to the throne.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: See Tableau below.
- The Cavalry Arrives Late: D'Artagnan and the Musketeers arrive seconds too late to stop Milady de Winter from fatally stabbing Constance.
- The End: Inverted. After the spirits of D'Artagnan and the Musketeers go scampering off in search of their next adventure, the last title card, right before the film ends, says "The Beginning."
- End of an Age: Both in-story and in a meta sense. The film, while being a fun, zippy adventure like all of Fairbanks' other swashbucklers, is also filled with a sense of loss and times passing. The Musketeers are growing old and gray, but they still have enough life for one last adventure. In a meta sense, of course, the same was true of Douglas Fairbanks and the silent film era. As noted above, Fairbanks conceived of this film and made it as his farewell to silent movies and the action film genre.
- Evil Twin: Phillipe, who is shown throughout to be mean-tempered and vicious. Even if he does have a gripe about being pushed aside, imprisoning his brother and trying to poison his mom is not cool.
- Flynning: Lots of classic swashbuckling swordfights.
- Funny Background Event: D'Artagnan is standing in the street, talking to his girlfriend Constance who is looking down at him from a second-story window. While they are playfully flirting, a woman in the background can be seen dumping a chamberpot from her own second-story window, onto the head of a pedestrian below.
- Heroic Sacrifice: As the Musketeers are whisking Louis away through the sewers of de Rochefort's dungeon, with Mooks in hot pursuit, they run right through a powder room. Porthos uses a torch to blow up the gunpowder, killing himself, but blocking the passage and giving the others time to get the king away.
- His Name Is...: Both Constance and Cardinal Richielieu die (of a stab wound and of natural causes, respectively), just as they're trying to tell D'Artagnan about "the other one".
- In the Back: How Louis kills D'Artagnan, after D'Artagnan returns with the rightful king in tow. He picks up a knife from the dinner table and stabs D'Artagnan in the back.
- Irony: "Sire, you are twice as great as I thought you were", says Cardinal Richelieu to the king, after finding out that the queen delivered twins.
- Killed Offscreen: Presumably the fate of Milady de Winter, last seen being taken away as the Musketeers promise to deliver her to the executioner.
- Kill 'Em All: D'Artagnan, all three of the Musketeers, de Rochefort, Richelieu, and Constance all die over the course of the movie. The only main characters still alive at the end are Louis and Phillipe. This is also the only film Douglas Fairbanks ever made where his character dies in the end.
- Locked in the Dungeon: This is the fate of the real Louis XIV when his brother seizes the throne and has him put in an iron mask and imprisoned.
- Man in the Iron Mask: Phillipe was hidden away but allowed to live in comfort, in a chateau with servants. When he replaces his brother he has Louis fitted with an iron mask and clapped in a dungeon. This is a change from the Dumas novel and from later film adaptations, in which it's Phillipe being held in a dungeon in an iron mask by evil King Louis. In this version, Louis doesn't even know his brother exists until Phillipe shows up to replace him.
- Mutual Kill: Athos and de Rochefort's duel ends with them fatally stabbing each other.
- Pietà Plagiarism: Seen when D'Artagnan cradles Constance as she dies.
- Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: Phillipe doesn't even try to be subtle about this, switching his goblet with his mother's right in front of her. But he's the king (or rather he's usurped the king), so she feels compelled to drink it.
- Poison Ring: Phillipe has and uses one of these.
- Princeling Rivalry: To be fair, it must be irritating to see your twin brother get to be King of France while you are spirited off to the countryside to do nothing.
- Rightful King Returns: Louis XIV, returned by D'Artagnan in the end.
- Suddenly Speaking: Douglas Fairbanks, in a meta sense. While Fairbanks insisted on making The Iron Mask as a silent film—in fact, with the primitive nature of sound recording in 1929, making a stunt-filled action movie like this would have been impossible—he did concede to insert two talking scenes in which D'Artagnan addresses the audience.
- Tableau: The film opens with Fairbanks and the other Musketeers posed in a tableau vivant that resembles a portrait. Then Fairbanks jumps down from the tableau and gives a spoken prologue in which he invites the audience to come with him on an adventure. The second half of the film opens with a similar tableau, this time with Fairbanks alone, moving the action forward 20 years.
- Time Skip: Four years to show Louis being groomed for kingship while Phillipe has become an awful brat out in the countryside. Then twenty more years to the second part of the story, wherein Count De Rochefort launches his plan to substitute Phillipe for Louis.
- The Usurper: Phillipe, impersonating his brother Louis XIV.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There was a real "man in an iron mask" who was held in French prisons from either 1669 or 1670 until his death in 1703. Speculation as to his identity continues to this day, although the best guess is that he was jailed for something he knew rather than who he was. And d'Artagnan was a real guy, although the stories of his life were already heavily fictionalized even before Dumas got to them.
- Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Averted in this case, as de Rochefort gives a perfectly reasonable explanation for not having the real Louix XIV killed—the fact that the king is still alive gives him control over Phillipe.