Thursday, March 19, 2015


MYTHICITY: *fair,*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*

In my ruminations on the original Alexandre Dumas novel, THE CORSICAN BROTHERS, I mentioned that I had already reviewed two "Corsican Brothers" films on my film-blog, and said, in part:

I suspect that these two swashbucklers-- one done straight, the other as a jokefest-- borrow their main tropes not from the book but from the influential 1941 Hollywood film starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., summarized here.  IMDB asserts that there were seven previous filmizations of the Dumas story, but none of them have become celebrated by film-fans, so I think I'm correct in suspecting that the Fairbanks film is the primary model for the films from 1953 and 1984.  The makers of the Fairbanks version were probably aware that the film-audience's strongest association with Dumas was his novel THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and so I surmise that the 1941 film was given a "Musketeer-ization" to make it more palatable to lovers of buckled swashes.  

I've finally had a chance to see the 1941 film for the first time in some thirty years, and even without viewing any earlier versions, I think it very likely that this is the first major cinematic treatment of the Dumas tale. While the novel only describes Corsican families wiping out one another in the distant past, the George Bruce-Howard Eastabrook plot hinges on one Corsican family, the Colonnas, attempting to wipe out the other, the Franchis, at the very moment of the titular brothers' birth. Various helpers loyal to the Franchis make sure that the twins-- originally born conjoined, but surgically separated by a doctor-- are also raised separately, so that the head of the Colonna family (Akim Tamiroff) can never suspect their existence. The brother Mario is parented by an aristocratic couple with no children, while the brother Lucien is raised in the wild forests of Corsica with a tribe of bandits. Neither sibling knows of the other's existence, but one of them, Lucien, sometimes has mysterious pains or pleasures without knowing why. Later, as adults (both played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), they learn of their shared history, which includes the revelation that Lucien has been receiving impressions of his brother's experiences, though the somatic connection is not a two-way street. Having been told that their true parents were slain by Colonna, both men decide to pursue their own vendetta against the corrupt nobleman and his family.

The main plot, then, is less in the line of THREE MUSKETEERS and more along the lines of umpteen "lost heir to the throne" narratives. Usually there's only one heir, be it a male or a female, who must reclaim the stolen legacy. But because the core idea of Dumas' story involves twins with a quasi-psychic connection, this means that there must be two possible heirs, which brings into play a trope of sibling rivalry foreign to the original novel.

I should note that in the novel, the brothers are Lucien and Louis, with the former representing the fierce natural state of the tempestuous Corsican people, and the latter being a bookish type who has no skill with firearms and seeks to help his people through his study of the law. The only contemporary violence in the novel is that Louis is killed when a Parisian gentleman maneuvers Louis into fighting a duel. Lucien experiences Louis' injury and death, and so journeys to Paris, where he shocks the Parisian with his likeness to the slain Louis, and then wins a subsequent duel with his brother's killer.

In a loose sense, Lucien is still the "wild brother" and "Louis," rechristened Mario, is still the "mild brother"-- but this time, both of them are highly capable with sword and gun. Mario is the brother who gets the privileges of an aristocratic tutelage-- including training in swordsmanship, first illustrated when he comes to the defense of Isabelle, a lady who will later become his fiancee. Lucien, rather than feeling intense closeness to Mario, resents the other's existence, as well as the fact that he Lucien was constrained to live a hardscrabble existence-- a resentment that would be impossible with Dumas' Lucien, who preferred the bracing life of a hunter and forester (though admittedly not a bandit). Further, Lucien feels some of Mario's sentiments toward the Lady Isabelle, and falls in love with her before he even meets her-- which leads to some interesting thoughts about his not knowing what part of him is real, and what is a reflection from Mario.  Eventually Lucien even tries to make love to Isabelle, breeding a falling-out between the brothers, and when Mario is captured by Colonna, Lucien waits until he thinks Mario is dead before he unleashes his rebel forces against the Colonna stronghold. But it's Lucien, not Mario, who perishes in the final conflict. The ending references the climactic situation from the novel, in that Colonna, thinking that he's killed both Lucien and Mario, gets a major start when he sees Mario alive.

Though this 1941 film hails from the same period that gave us some of Hollywood's classic swashbucklers, including Fairbanks' own 1937 film THE PRISONER OF ZENDA, CORSICAN doesn't quite have the same verve as the best of the best. Some of this may stem from the direction of Gregory Ratoff, who spends a lot of time with talking-heads scenes. Not that the actors are sinless. Ruth Warrick as Isabelle makes a fairly dull leading-lady, whose charms are targeted by Colonna as well as by Lucien and Mario. Tamiroff's Colonna blusters as the Franchis decimate his allies, but he makes a poor villain, in part because all of his thinking is done for him by his aide Tomasso. Fairbanks' Mario is a suitably pleasing aristocratic hero, but for Lucien the actor's rendition is less than subtle, reduced to a lot of tortured gnashing of teeth.  The action-scenes are competent but undistingushed, even the concluding sword-fight, wherein Tamiroff is pretty transparently doubled.

The most interesting "myth" of the film is essentially a take on Esau and Jacob, with Mario as the noble, selfless brother and Lucien as the selfish, somewhat brutal brother. Arguably the film reverses Dumas' theme: while the French author valorizes the passionate virtues of rural Corsican life, the American film seems to be staunchly on the side of the cultured aristocrats-- though this may be more a matter of imitating earlier films, rather than an actual sociopolitical stance.  After wading through some of CORSICAN's slower moments, I find that I prefer the more low-rent BANDITS OF CORSICA, even though in essence it simply recapitulates the Ratoff film's plotline with fewer talking heads.

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