89: The Man in the Iron Mask

In a highly requested episode, this week we’re focusing on the film starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio heading up an all-star cast in this classic interpretation of the Alexandre Dumas classic.

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About The Man in the Iron Mask

Did you listen to the Based on a True Story episode from last year about the movie Braveheart? If you did, you’ll remember we learned a bit about that movie’s writer, Randall Wallace.

Well, today we’re going to be learning about another movie written by Randall Wallace. No, it’s not 2002’s We Were Soldiers or 2001’s Pearl Harbor, both films Randall Wallace wrote—although we learned a bit about the latter for our Pearl Harbor Day episode with Corey Constable.

After he finished up Braveheart and a made-for-TV movie called Dark Angel, Randall Wallace adapted a book from the 19th century author Alexandre Dumas for the big screen. In addition to writing the screenplay, Randall’s directorial debut was for the film named after Dumas’ book of the same name and the movie we’ll be looking at today, 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask.

Learn the true story of The Man in the Iron Mask

The movie opens with a voiceover from Jeremy Irons’ version of Aramis. As he explains, some of what we’ll see in the movie is legend but then he goes on to claim one fact. That fact, according to the movie, at least, is that rioting citizens of France destroyed the Bastille and found a mysterious entry about a prisoner number 64389000—the man in the iron mask.

That is true.

The Bastille was originally built in the 14th century as a fortress to protect the city of Paris from attacking English during the Hundred Years’ War. By the time the 17th century rolled around, the massive fortress had a new purpose—as a prison.

With the French aiding the Americans during the Revolutionary War, along with a regressive tax system that punished the poor much more than it did the rich, the French people were fed up with King Louis XVI. On July 14th, 1789, citizens stormed the Bastille during the French Revolution in a revolt against the King’s abuse of his power. Today, July 14th is known as Bastille Day or French National Day.

While swarming the Bastille, the rioters found the rather strange entry referred to by the movie. The prisoner number might not quite roll off the tongue for a song like the prisoner ID number from another movie set during the French Revolution, Les Mis, but it was a prisoner ID number nonetheless: 64389000. At least, that’s how Jeremy Irons in the movie says it. But read as a normal number that’d be 64,389,000.

Now, I don’t know how they used to number their prisoners in 17th century France, but the first question I had when I saw that number in the movie was—could there really have been over 64 million prisoners? That’s a lot. Especially since many historians estimate the French population in 1789 was probably only about 28 million people.

As for the description for this prisoner number 64389000, the only description the rioters found during their storming of the Bastille was exactly what the movie says—the man in the iron mask.

Back in the movie, after this brief mention of the man in the iron mask, the text on screen tells us that our story today is going to be set in 1662. So even though the movie doesn’t tell us when the Bastille was stormed, we know from history that was 1789. That’s 127 years after the timeline of our story today.

So it’s in 1662 when we meet a few main characters, D’Artagnan as played by Gabriel Byrne, Porthos as played by Gerard Depardieu and the priest, Aramis, as played by Jeremy Irons. All of them former Musketeers in service to the King.

While we’re at it, we might as well bring in another former Musketeer in today’s story, Athos. He’s played by John Malkovich.

All of these are fictional characters created by the 19th century French author Alexandre Dumas. Perhaps the most popular of his books are what’s referred to as the D’Artagnan Romances. Their original titles are in French, of course, but in English we know them as The Three Musketeers, published in 1844, Twenty Years After, published in 1845 and Ten Years Later, published in 1847. That last book, Ten Years Later, was commonly published in three parts and the last of those three parts was known as The Man in the Iron Mask.

That’s the book that the movie was based on, so for the purposes of our comparison today that’d mean even though the four Musketeers we see in the movie were fictional characters, it’s not like the movie invented them. They’re just pulling from Dumas’ novel.

Oh, and it’s worth pointing out that one of those characters was actually based on reality. That would be the hero of the D’Artagnan Romances series of books—D’Artagnan. Even though he was heavily fictionalized for Dumas’ books, he was based on a real person named Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan.

Charles was, as the movie implies, the captain of the Musketeers of the Guard up until the Musketeers were disbanded in 1642. So that would’ve been about 20 years before the timeline in the movie.

Around that time, Charles stayed on as protector of the man he’d been working with before the disbanding, Cardinal Jules Raymond Mazarin. Even though he’s not in the movie at all, Cardinal Mazarin was incredibly powerful as he was the Chief Minister of France—basically he ruled France when King Louis XIII died in 1643 and his heir, King Louis XIV—the man played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie—was only five years old at the time. Technically Queen Anne, who’s played by Anne Parillaud, was the ruler up until King Louis XIV came of age, but it was Cardinal Mazarin who basically ruled France almost as if it were a co-monarchy between he and the Queen.

That lasted until 1661, when Cardinal Mazarin passed away. So the movie would be correct in not having him there in 1662. But that’d also give a bit of insight into why, in 1662, King Louis XIV would’ve been coming into power.

Oh, and there’s some rumors that Cardinal Mazarin and Queen Anne had a thing going on…even to the point of some rumors suggesting the two had been married in secret. But, of course, when it’s a secret kept by those in power, they do a good job sometimes of keeping those from the pages of history.

Back in the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of King Louis XIV is portrayed as a selfish leader who only seems to care about bedding women and not about the starvation that’s happening in his kingdom—starvation that the Jesuits claim are the result of the King’s unjust wars.

While the specific events and portrayals in the movie are heavily fictionalized, there’s enough truth there to say that this could be plausible.

To get a good understanding, we’ll have to find out more about Louis XIV before he rose to the throne.

Remember when King Louis XIII died in 1643? Well, when he did he had written in his will to have a regent put in power until his son could come of age. But that didn’t happen. Instead, his wife, Queen Anne, had the will annulled so she could become the one and only Regent of France.

Then she installed Cardinal Mazarin, who saw to most of the day-to-day administration while Queen Anne worked to try to change things around so that when King Louis XIV came of age, he’d have absolute power in a flourishing kingdom.

Part of that was to help negotiate the truce called the Peace of Westphalia. That put an end to what we now know as the Thirty Years’ War—a conflict from 1618 to 1648 between many European powers that, while it’s hard to verify exact numbers, is regarded by many historians to be one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history thanks to not only the war itself, but the disease and famine brought about by the war.

When that war ended, two more erupted for France. Well, I guess one of them started before the Thirty Years’ War ended, but it was brought on as a part of the French involvement in the war. That was the Franco-Spanish War, which went from 1635 to 1659. The other war erupting for the French was actually a series of civil wars we know as the Fronde between 1648 and 1653.

The Fronde was an attempt by French nobles to overthrow the King, including Gaston, Duke of Orléans, who was the elder brother of King Louis XIII. Since the movie doesn’t show much of King Louis XIV’s early life, we don’t see what his life was like there but if there was a reason for his acting the way we see Leonardo DiCaprio portraying him in the movie, it’s because of the Fronde.

You see, during these civil wars a young Louis, not yet risen to the throne, was broke and starving for much of the time. That was something many historians believe made young Louis harbor a bitterness against the people that he’d never forgive.

Cardinal Mazarin managed to overthrow the rebellion which did a few things. First, obviously, it stopped the riots and civil wars, but the French economy was decimated, leaving an even further gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Simultaneously, it cemented the monarchy’s authority. Technically, the coronation for King Louis XIV was on June 7th, 1654, but even though Cardinal Mazarin wasn’t liked by plenty of people at the time for his policies, the new King was afraid to question Mazarin’s authority—since he was essentially running much of France.

Mazarin passed away in 1661, though, and then King Louis XIV shocked everyone by breaking tradition and replacing Cardinal Mazarin as his chief minister with—no one. Louis himself would be the sole ruler, ordering others to only give him counsel if he asked for it.

Oh, and the movie never mentions this, but King Louis XIV ended the Franco-Spanish war with an arranged marriage between the King and Maria Theresa of Spain on August 26th, 1660. She was the daughter of King Philip IV of Spain.

So a pretty big difference between what the movie shows and history is that by the time 1662 rolled around, King Louis XIV was married to Maria Theresa.

Oh, and on November 1st, 1661, King Louis XIV and Maria Theresa had their first child together—also named Louis. He’d be the first of five children the two had, although most of them didn’t make it to adulthood. And that’s not to mention plenty of other kids King Louis XIV had outside of his marriage.

For example, he had another five kids with one of his mistresses named  Louise de La Vallière. We don’t really know exactly how many others there were, but we do know there were quite a few other mistresses we know about and surely more that we don’t. It’d seem that while the movie didn’t show Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of King Louis XIV having kids during the time of the film, or even being married…the whole idea of his loving to seduce women was true.

And since he was the King, I have a feeling his position did much of that seduction for him. Or perhaps a better way of saying that is…I have a feeling all of those mistresses didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Meanwhile, the economic situation in France was fairly accurate in the movie. They don’t show much of it, but we get the idea that it’s not good—and while it was emphasized for the sake of the movie, that’s sort of true.

After King Louis XIV took personal and full control of the French government after Mazarin’s death in 1661, France had a debt of about 60 million livres.

Now it’s virtually impossible to calculate that accurately into U.S. dollars since, well, the U.S. dollar wasn’t around in 1661. And it doesn’t help that there were multiple livres of varying values—none of them really standardized to today’s monetary standards—used in France up until the 1700s. But as best as I can tell, one livre would roughly be about $10 to $20 in today’s USD.

So that means the French government’s debt could’ve been over a billion dollars in today’s money. Nowhere near the $20.5 trillion dollar national debt in the U.S. today, but still…that’s a lot of money. Especially considering back then there wasn’t printed paper money like we have today—that didn’t come about in France until 1701.

Going back to the movie, there’s a major plot point that occurs when Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of King Louis XIV falls for a woman named Christine Bellefort. She’s played by Judith Godrèche. The only problem with this is that Christine is in love with—and in a relationship with—Raoul, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who is the son of John Malkovich’s character, Athos.

So according to the movie, the King sends off Raoul to the front lines to essentially be killed so he can take Christine.

That’s all made up.

Both Christine and Raoul are fictional characters. Not to mention that Athos, as we learned, is also a fictional character.

That leads us to probably the biggest plot of the entire film—the man in the iron mask itself.

According to the movie, the basic premise of this plot is that the three Musketeers, Porthos, Athos and Aramis, want to swap King Louis XIV with the man in the iron mask, who we find out is the King’s younger twin brother, Philipe. As you can probably guess, since they’re twins, Philipe is also played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

To do this, they make the swap at a ball when everyone is wearing masks. But it’s foiled by D’Artagnan, who refused to join the plot due to something we think is his oath of loyalty at first. But then, after Philipe is released from his iron mask to the surprise of D’Artagnan, he ends up revealing he’s actually the father of the two boys.

All of that is made up.

Or is it?

As we learned at the beginning of this episode, the prisoner known as the man in the iron mask was definitely real. But was he Philipe, the King’s younger brother kept hidden from the world? And were the twins swapped out, a selfish ruler replaced by his selfless twin brother?

Well, that’s the fun behind this whole story.

You see, we don’t really know the full truth, so I can’t say for certain how historically accurate the end of movie is.

What we do know from history is that while the storming of the Bastille that the movie mentions in the beginning might’ve been one of the first indications of the prisoner to the public, it’s not the first time he was mentioned. This is an excerpt, translated into English of course, from the diary of a French Lieutenant stationed at the Bastille named Etienne du Junca:

Thursday, September 18 (1698), at three o’clock in the afternoon, M. de Saint-Mars, governor of the château of the Bastille, made his first appearance, coming from his governorship of the Isles of Sainte-Marguerite-Honorat, bringing with him, in his conveyance, a prisoner he had formerly at Pignerol, whom he caused to be always masked, whose name is not mentioned; directly he got out of the carriage he put him in the first room of the Bazinière tower, waiting till night for me to take him, at nine o’clock, and put him with M. de Rosarges, one of the sergeants brought by the governor, alone in the third room of the Bertaudière tower, which I had had furnished with all necessaries some days before his arrival, having received orders to that effect from M. de Saint-Mars :  the which prisoner will be looked after and waited on by M. de Rosarges, and maintained by the governor.

For our purposes today, we can glean a few things from this. First, the man in the iron mask came to the Bastille from Pignerol.

Do you remember in the movie when we see the exterior of the prison that Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of the prisoner is kept in? It’s basically a fortress surrounded by water on all sides.

Well, neither Pignerol nor the Bastille looks like that. Pignerol is in the modern-day city of Turin, Italy. However, we know this was a prison for the French because in 1661, right after Cardinal Marazin died, King Louis XIV sent Nicolas Fouquet there to be imprisoned. He’s not in the movie at all, and we haven’t talked about him but Nicolas Fouquet was the Superintendent of Finances in France up until he was imprisoned by the King in 1661. He stayed in prison at Pignerol until his death in 1680.

Although if I were to speculate, the prison we see in the movie looks more like the Bastille, which makes sense because there’s even a couple times when the film mentions the Bastille. But that’s located in Paris—not surrounded by water on all sides.

And as we learned from Lieutenant du Junca’s diary, the man in the iron mask didn’t arrive at the Bastille until 1698.

Oh, and by the way, King Louis XIV died in 1715. So I suppose some could say that if Louis was switched out for his hidden younger brother, Philippe, maybe that could be true.

Except that Philippe wasn’t hidden.

He was a real person, born on September 21st, 1640 as the younger brother of King Louis XIV.

Do you remember Gaston, the Duke of Orléans? I mentioned him briefly as King Louis XIII’s brother and the one who was a leader of the Fronde rebellions. Well, Gaston was killed in 1660 as a part of the rebellion and when he died, Philippe gained his title as Duke of Orléans.

So he wasn’t locked away in some prison cell somewhere. In fact, with reports of Philippe’s effeminacy and homosexuality, many historians believe in the context of the day most nobles in France didn’t see him as a serious threat to King Louis XIV’s hold on the throne. For example, Philippe often wore female clothing to balls and there were some rumors that his first sexual encounter with another man was with Philippe Jules Mancini, none other than the nephew of Cardinal Mazarin.

Lieutenant du Junca would mention the mysterious prisoner again in his diary, and with this new entry we’d gather some new information:

On the same day, November 19, 1703, the unknown prisoner, always masked with a mask of black velvet, whom M. de Saint-Mars, the governor, brought with him on coming from the Isles de Sainte-Marguerite, whom he had kept for a long time, the which happening to be a little ill yesterday on coming from mass, he died to-day, about ten o’clock at night, without having had a serious illness; it could not have been slighter. M. Giraut, our chaplain, confessed him yesterday, is surprised at his death. He did not receive the sacrament, and our chaplain exhorted him a moment before he died. And this unknown prisoner, kept here for so long, was buried on Tuesday at four o’clock p.m., November 20, in the graveyard of St. Paul, our parish; on the register of burial he was given a name also unknown. M. de Rosarges, major, and Arreil, surgeon, signed the register.

Did you catch what the new piece of information was? Well, there’s the date that he died of course, November 19th, 1703. But I’m referring to the line that this unknown prisoner was always masked with a mask of black velvet. Not iron.

Of course, as you remember from the beginning of this episode, as the story goes, when they stormed the Bastille they uncovered a prisoner listing him as the man in the iron mask.

Before Alexandre Dumas’ novel, the French writer and historian Voltaire was the one to perpetuate the idea that it was an iron mask when he wrote in 1751 that the mask had a, “…movable, hinged lower jaw held in place by springs that made it possible to eat wearing it.”

That would seem to go against Lieutenant du Junca’s diary which, whenever historians tried to match things up to other entries, always proved to be correct with what we could prove.

So now you’re starting to get a sense for how the deeper you dig into this story, the more questions you end up having than answers. For example, if it were just a velvet mask, why wouldn’t the prisoner lift it from his face? Well, some reports suggest there were a pair of soldiers stationed by the prisoner’s side at all times ready to shoot him if he were to pull off the mask.

Oh, and in the margins of that diary entry, Lieutenant du Junca tacked on this bit of information:

I have since learnt that they called him M. de Marchiel on the register, and that forty livres was the cost of the funeral.

M. de Marchiel. That’s what was on his death certificate, but was that his real name?

Maybe. Maybe not.

To add yet another layer of mystery, historians point to this excerpt from St. Paul’s church which reads:

On the 19th, Marchioly, aged 45 years or thereabouts, died in the Bastille, whose body was buried in the churchyard of St. Paul, his parish, the 20th of the present month, in the presence of M. Rosage [sic], major of the Bastille, and of M. Reglhe [sic], surgeon major of the Bastille, who signed.

[Signed by] Rosarges, Reilhe

So now we have another name, Marchioly.

Some historians suggest that perhaps this was a misspelling of the name Mattioli. That would be a reference to rcole Antonio Mattioli, who was a minister to Duke Charles IV of Mantua and someone who we know was kidnapped and imprisoned by King Louis XIV in 1679. That was done for some double-crossing that the King wasn’t too happy about.

Where was he sent to prison? You guessed it, Pignerol. So that’d line up with Lieutenant du Junca’s mention in 1698 that the man formerly imprisoned at Pignerol was moved to the Bastille.

But King Louis XIV was known to have imprisoned a lot of people during his reign for a wide variety of reasons—pretty much on a whim. So even if the timing lines up for Mattioli, that’s hardly proof.

Especially since Mattioli died in 1694. Or, at least, that’s the date we have of his death.

And of course we know about the theories that the prisoner was the twin brother of the King. But, of course, we already know that’s not likely true as Philippe wasn’t hidden from the world.

Another possible suspect as to the identity of the mysterious man in the iron mask was a man named Eustache Dauger. Again, we don’t really know if that was his real name. Some suggest that perhaps he was an assassin. Still others think perhaps Dauger was involved in some political scandal that King Louis XIV wanted to have extinguished.

Many historians say that was almost certainly a false name. In a letter written from the secretary of state to the governor of the Bastille, Saint-Mars, the order came that Saint-Mars must be the one to feed Dauger. In addition to that, “You must threaten him with death if he speaks one word except about his actual needs. He is only a valet, and does not need much furniture.”

A valet?

Yup.

But whose valet was he? That’s the tricky part.

Maybe he was Mattioli’s valet, arrested near Dunkirk as some reports indicate the location of the mysterious prisoner’s arrest being.

Still other theories suggest he was the valet for Nicolas Fouquet. If you remember, he was the Superintendent of Finances who was imprisoned by the King in 1661.

Just a couple years ago, in 2016, historian and professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, Paul Sonnino, released his book in which he claims to have solved the mystery.

That book called The Search for the Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Story is a great read that I’d recommend picking up if you want to dive into way more detail than we could ever hope to here.

So who does he believe Eustache Dauger was the valet for? None other than Cardinal Mazarin himself. Summing it all up in an interview for Live Science, Sonnino explained:

What I was able to determine was that Mazarin had ripped off some of his huge fortune from the previous king and queen of England…Dauger must have blabbed at the wrong time. He was informed, when arrested, that if he revealed his identity to anyone, he would immediately be killed.

Oh—and during the final sequence of the movie we see the grave of D’Artagnan, who so bravely died at the very end of the film.

If you remember, the character of D’Artagnan was the only one of the four main Musketeers in the film to not be completely fictional? He was based on Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan. Well, the real D’Artagnan died on June 25th, 1673—well over a decade after the timeline of the movie.

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