Alexandre Dumas pere is synonymous with swashbuckling historical adventures like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask.
His name became SO associated with swordplay and intrigue that even a Dumas novel like The Corsican Brothers, which in reality lacks any true action elements, has long been adapted as if it’s a swashbuckler. That has always involved altering the original story beyond recognition, which is why no two Corsican Brothers movies bear much resemblance to each other and can’t even seem to agree on a time period.
That’s a shame since plenty of other novels by Alexandre Dumas are loaded with action and historical intrigue yet have been largely overlooked when it comes to movies and television.
GEORGES (1843) – Published just one year before The Three Musketeers, this novel is not only a rollicking adventure full of action, romance and double-crosses but it deals with racial issues in such a way that you would have thought it would have been adapted for film four or five decades ago. The title character uses his sword to fight slavery!
Set on Ile de France (Mauritius) the tale centers around Georges Munier, the mixed-race son of mulatto plantation owner Pierre Munier. In 1810, during the Napoleonic Wars, the British invade Mauritius and the white land-owners – led by the snobbish Malmedies – refuse to let Pierre fight at their side to expel the British due to his skin color.
Pierre leads an army of his own slaves against the Brits, driving them off and saving the white French army from destruction. Despite this he is still snubbed and accorded no recognition because of the racism of the French plantation owners. Neither Munier’s money nor his military accomplishments matter to them.
Later in 1810 the island falls to the English but even this does not penetrate the snobbish haze in which the white landowners wrap themselves. Pierre’s much lighter-skinned sons Georges and Jacques, who are still children, are looked down upon by the Malmedies and the other landed families.
Munier sends his sons off to France to be educated in a more conducive environment. Their light skin lets them pass for all-white so the two brothers thrive in Paris. Jacques takes to a life at sea while Georges becomes skilled at swordsmanship, hunting and bedding ladies.
When he returns to Mauritius in the 1820s Georges is simply assumed to be white and becomes a bon vivant and ladies’ man, even defeating racist plantation owner Henri Malmedie for the affections of the beautiful Sara. He has since had a falling-out with his older brother Jacques, who has become a pirate and a slave-trader, which infuriates Georges since he has grown to hate that vile institution.
Georges organizes an armed slave revolt against the white population on Mauritius. The revolt is well on the road to success (think Haiti with Georges as a mixed-race Toussaint L’Ouverture) but is halted when a rival rebel/ slave leader, jealous of Georges’ success and battle-savvy, betrays him to the whites.
The revolt is put down and Georges is sentenced to death. On the day he is scheduled for public execution his brother Jacques and his men attack, rescuing Georges, their father Pierre and Georges’ true love Sara. Georges, Jacques and the pirate crew defeat and sink a pursuing British warship and get away for good.
CAPTAIN PAMPHILE (1839) – Though this Dumas novel with an anti-slavery theme came years before Georges I’m listing it second because its marauding hero starts out just fine with slave-trading but comes to view it differently later. This makes it a bit harder for modern readers to relate to the protagonist at first.
The dashing Captain Pamphile is a swashbuckling rogue who has sailed the seas for years, in war and peace, preying on warships and other vessels. A true mercenary he even engages in black-birding (slave-running) when his finances require it.
Always open to any dirty deeds which pay well, Pamphile gravitates to the faddish new industry that is hot with all the well-to-do and stylish people in Europe in the late 1820s and early 1830s: collecting menageries of exotic animals from around the world to show off to one’s guests.
Captain Pamphile’s skills at theft and smuggling make him one of the best at hunting, catching and stealing the world’s most exotic animals away to live as pampered pets in Paris and elsewhere.
As the story moves along Dumas subtly uses the expected narrative device: Pamphile can’t help but notice the way the exotic pets get treated far better than human slaves, not just by their eventual owners but also in terms of the more humane conditions under which the animals are transported across the sea.
And given the hypersensitivity of many 21st Century readers I’m pointing out that the “better treatment” often accorded to the pets is purely from the 1830s point of view. And especially compared to the treatment of their slaves. (Remember the many accounts of Nazi Death Camp guards having pets they treated better than their human victims.) PETA members should avoid this novel.
And though the title character never quite has a “Han Solo Moment” he retains a certain black-humored, amoral appeal in the Harry Flashman sense.
Today Captain Pamphile – like Georges – would be handled in a ham-fisted way if adapted for the screen so it’s a shame it wasn’t dealt with long ago. This novel and Georges should be at least as widely adapted as The Three Musketeers.
LA DAME DE MONSOREAU (1846) – A collaboration with Auguste Maquet. The title refers to the beautiful and fascinating Countess Diana de Monsoreau and her illicit romance with the novel’s male lead, Louis de Clermont de Bussy d’Amboise. Both characters are real but naturally Dumas and Maquet take the usual poetic license accorded to historical fiction.
Louis is remembered as a larger than life figure in the court of French King Henri III. He was a deadly swordsman who thumbed his nose at many of the King’s courtiers while laughing at jealous husbands and tailor’s bills as he romped his way in and out of countless beds. He could get away with this because he was the favorite of King Henri III’s younger brother, Francois, the Duke of Anjou.
Even Francois’ patronage was good for only so much, since Henri wielded all the true power and considered Francois a potential rival. While fighting on various battlefields and in assorted duels Louis also walked that tightrope at court, where on any given day one miscalculation or one insult taken too far could bring about his ruin.
One of our main character’s female lovers was Princess Marguerite de Valois, who was King Henri’s sister as well as being a daughter of Catherine de Medici. (This guy had a definite death wish, didn’t he?) The title Countess, Diana de Monsoreau, became another one of the married conquests of de Bussy d’Amboise and – in this novel, anyway – the true love of his life.
Actual historical accounts claim that when Louis and Diana’s affair reached its height her jealous husband sent TWENTY MEN to kill our horny hero. Louis fought them and survived the attack but was horrifically wounded. He hoped for aid from his usual savior, the Duke of Anjou, who instead killed Louis. The reason for this betrayal? He too was in love with Diana de Monsoreau.
There’s nice 1570s atmosphere but of course Dumas and Maquet didn’t have today’s freedom to delve into Louis’ bisexuality. La Dame de Monsoreau has been adapted but nowhere near as many times as it deserves.
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