I bet you never saw Olivia de Havilland’s last theatrical picture. I bet you didn’t know it was a swashbuckler set around the time of Captain Blood. I bet you didn’t know she played a queen and the key to solving the plot of the film. Do you want to know why you don’t know?
After her Academy Award run of the late 1940s, Livvie tried everything to remain relevant. Screen, stage—nothing went according to plan. Into the 1960s she sought to reinvent herself with the shocker, Lady in a Cage and then she took over Joan Crawford’s role in the follow up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, this one called Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Like all actresses from the Golden Era, she had an ever more difficult time finding good parts in decent pictures, which is what led Miss Bette Davis to make everything from Baby Jane to Return from Witch Mountain—it was a living.
OdeH lay low from 1964 until the 1970 Harold Robbins Eurotrash feature, The Adventurers. There she became the best thing about the picture, playing a 40-something cougar to young Bosnia/Herzegovina leading man Bekim Fehmiu. If you think about a Bosnia/Herzegovina leading man in a Hollywood picture, the problems with The Adventurers become pretty obvious pretty fast, and speak to the dearth of parts for Miss deH and the questionable judgment she brought to bear when something did come her way. She even showed some flesh this time around, much to the mortification of some of her admirers.
If you weren’t yet born in 1970, you missed a hell of a brouhaha when Airport hit big screens, and by 1972 turnstiles were spinning madly as The Poseidon Adventure capsized its way to box office history. Suddenly, the all-star disaster epic was in vogue. Olivia saw aging Helen Hayes claim an Oscar for Airport and Shelley Winters nearly follow that path for Poseidon. From there, Livvie watched Earthquake shine the spotlight on aging sexpot Ava Gardner and MGM ingénue Monica Lewis, and The Towering Inferno do likewise for Selznick discovery (and wife) Jennifer Jones.
Meanwhile, on a separate track, swashbucklers came back in vogue with Richard Lester’s irreverent version of The Three Musketeers, shot in 1973 and released in 1974. Of all people, Raquel Welch scored biggest this time, winning a Golden Globe for her wacky Constance. Livvie had to get in on this gravy train and gain back some relevance. After all, she was then in her youthful 50s with a lot yet to offer the motion picture world. Then she got what seemed to be her break with a role in Airport ’77, sequel to the huge Airport 1975. Yes, work was work, but what a thankless part, with endless reaction shots in her passenger seat aboard an airliner that sinks to the bottom of the ocean, and then a less-than-flattering dunking during the ocean rescue. I’m on your side, Livvie, but, it’s hard to look good with a couple tons of water smacking you in the face.
Airport ’77 did well, not as well as the previous two, but well enough. By this time Hollywood was groping for disasters with which to imperil all-star casts, and somebody at Livvie’s old studio, Warner Bros., decided that bees hadn’t been done and bees are scary and why don’t we do bees? Hence, The Swarm. This time Olivia shared screen time with Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray, but fans of the great dual Oscar winner had a hard time watching her get stung to death, her face eaten, as the bees rampaged. Never mind that these days killer bees have since been proven to exist, and they really are scary. Way scarier than those depicted by Warners of Burbank. And how strange must it have been for Olivia de Havilland to return to the studio she so desperately sought to sever herself from 35 years earlier? Oh the ghosts she must have brushed past during production since so many of her colleagues had by then passed, including Errol Flynn.
Which brings us to the little-known swashbuckler that became Livvie’s swan song in feature pictures. It must have looked like a godsend in 1976 when the idea first came up. Behind the Iron Mask, based on Alexandre Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask, would be lensed in Austria by Director of Photography Jack Cardiff and directed by Ken Annakin, veteran of Disney pictures and some all-star hits, including Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.
Behind the Iron Mask would feature 60-year-old former fencing champion and veteran Hollywood heartthrob Cornel Wilde as D’Artagnan, Oscar winner for his Cyrano (a brilliant swordsman) Jose Ferrer as Athos, and Alan Hale Jr. as Porthos. In a 1952 Howard Hughes picture for RKO named Sons of the Musketeers, Cornel Wilde had portrayed the son of D’Artagnan and Alan Hale Jr. had played the son of Porthos. That in itself was a kick because his dad, Alan Hale, had portrayed Porthos in the 1939 version of Man in the Iron Mask.
So here was Alan Hale Jr. back in a role that had been in the family for 40 years. And into this cast was invited Olivia de Havilland—Alan Hale’s co-star on so many Warner Bros. hits—to portray Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII and mother to wastrel Louis XIV and his good-hearted twin brother, Philippe.
How freakin’ great is this? Olivia must have thought, to cavort with a veteran cast that also included Rex Harrison and old Warner Bros. contract player Helmut Dantine. But a funny thing happened on the way to swashbuckling glory. Actually, a series of funny things. The script stank. The key role, that of Louis/Philippe, was given to Beau Bridges, an actor with zero romantic appeal. The director couldn’t figure out how to approach the material. The audio was bad, even by European standards. The producers decided to shoot a European version featuring nudity for the two leading ladies in the picture, Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame and Ursula Andress, who was ready and willing to show off her still formidable 43-year-old body. Unfortunately, some of the plot was embedded in the nude scenes and so when they were cut for U.S. audiences and a PG rating, the picture didn’t quite make sense. And finally, those same infallible producers changed the name of the picture to cash in on the success of The Three Musketeers and its sequel The Four Musketeers. The picture that was shot in 1977 as Behind the Iron Mask now carried the U.S. title The Fifth Musketeer, which made no sense, and Fifth was launched in limited U.S. release in 1979 after sitting around a good while and sank so far and so fast that if you blinked, you missed it. The run on cable TV was similarly short, and if I hadn’t happened upon a late-night run of Ursula Andress pictures on Turner Classic Movies this past week and DVRed Fifth in its pre-dawn run, I would never have thought of The Fifth Musketeer again.
I told myself that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I remember. But, oh, my friends, it is. In 1979 I was appalled that the swords were made of obvious plastic, as if from the Marx toy factory, and for the especially dangerous scenes, and I kid you not, the swords were made of rubber so, I guess, to keep the advancing-in-age musketeers from hurting themselves or skewering an Austrian extra. The dubbing sounds just as horrendous today as it did back then, and the musical score is an offense to musicians everywhere.
Livvie shows up in three scenes for a total of about six minutes of screen time, in a nun’s habit. You should probably be aware you’re in for a rough time as an actress when the script calls for you to be amidst a 30-year vow of silence. But she does pipe up to vouch for her son Philippe at the climax of the picture, one of too-few lines for the actress who launched Errol Flynn, became the Maid Marian of all time, brought Jack Warner to his knees, and earned two Oscars in four years and should have claimed a third for her most daring picture of all, The Snake Pit.
So there you have it. Olivia de Havilland ended her screen career in a costume picture, which is how she started it. But it’s a picture with maybe five great moments that remind us how talented these actors were in their prime, and how much they still had to offer in the right hands and the right vehicle, which this most certainly was not.
Note: Portions of the European version of Behind the Iron Mask are available on Youtube. Although they are dubbed in French, these segments allow a glimpse into this picture that should have been one for the ages.