The complete set of episodes of this rarely seen 1950's period adventure serial gets a welcome DVD release in the UK from the always reliable Network Releasing, and makes for some enjoyable swashbuckling nostalgia viewing that plays much like a cosy children's Saturday morning matinee feature condensed into wholesome 25 minute chunks. An Anglo-American co-production between Lew Grade's Incorporated Television Programme Company Ltd ( ITC) and the Television Programmes of America, Inc (TPA), the first twelve episodes of the series were filmed in Hollywood studios before the whole production upped and moved sticks to Elstree in London for the rest of the series' run. It was one of many rip-roaring historical adventure serials at the time to be produced by Lew Grade, and like them it was aimed at a younger audience, although production values remained quite high. Shot on 35 mm film, "The Count of Monte Cristo" looks at times extremely plush and glossy with lots of energetic outdoor sequences complementing the detailed art direction and the impressive studio sets of the interiors. The series is of a very high standard for the era; each episode is beautifully scored with rousing, romantic music from a full orchestra and the costume designs conjure the requisite early nineteenth century ambiance perfectly.
Each week the episode features a self-contained storyline, and, as would be the case with ITC's cold war spy series "Danger Man", the stories are set in a variety of locations, although this series confines events to Europe. Of course, over the span of 39 episodes, watched in close succession (as these were for the purposes of this review), the budgetary short cuts become slightly more glaring. Much as was the case with Hammer Films, who often saved on production costs by recycling standing sets on successive movies, the same sets do indeed tend to crop up again and again, especially on the majority of the episodes shot in the UK. No matter which part of Europe the Count and his faithful friends happen to be travelling through, the same Inn interior and the same studio-bound cobbled streets tend to reoccur. As do a succession of tasteful drawing room interiors and gambling houses. If you look out of the windows of those European drawing rooms, you'll sometimes see exactly the same painted backdrop visible as well! Guest stars also reappear with some frequency (another tendency one would find in early "Danger Man" episodes); for instance, Patrick Troughton crops up about three times as a succession of dubious foreign dignitaries or drunken sailors over the course of the series run. Nevertheless, this continues to feel like a high quality adaptation and, in its attractive British-shot episodes especially, actually does convey a similar mood to the late fifties/early sixties Hammer Gothics.
"The Count of Monte Cristo" started its long life, of course, as an 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas, also author of "The Three Musketeers" and "The Man in the Iron Mask". In the original story, a young merchant sailor by the name of Edmond Dantès finds himself imprisoned in France's infamous island fortress prison, The Château d'If, after being framed for treason. He spends the next twelve years of his life plotting revenge against the conspirators who ruined his life, and after befriending the aged Abbe Faria, comes into possession of knowledge of the whereabouts of a fabulous horde of wealth on the isle of Monte Cristo, situated off the coast of Italy. Dantès then sets about forging a new identity for himself: the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. Reborn into French high society, he sets about taking his revenge, becoming involved in a series of incredible adventures.
There have been numerous film adaptations and TV serials based on Dumas' story over the years, but this one is not a re-telling of the original tale as such. Instead, the events of the show are set in the mid 1830s during the July Monarchy, and see George Dolenz (father of Monkee, Micky Dolenz) playing a dashing though rather bland, if not unlikable, middle-aged Dantès -- now comfortably placed and with some degree of influence in the court of King Louis-Philippe. Dolenz makes a suave, accented hero with a nimble line in fencing skills, whose alternative identity is fully accepted in French society from the off.
It should be mentioned that, though these episodes can be played almost in any order, the series' original pilot story, and all the other Hollywood-made episodes, have been placed after those shot in the UK in the running order as arranged on this 5-disc set. This makes for slightly garbled continuity with regard to some aspects of the series, which we'll come to again later. The first American-shot episodes (all confined to the latter half of the set) do refer to the events of the original novel, and there are even a couple of lengthy flashbacks, once of which depicts a heavily-bearded Dantès during his time in the Château d'If, and another which refers to a period spent with the group of smugglers who rescued him after his initial escape. Both of these sequences are the prelude to stories that revolve around the Count's past coming back to haunt him.
But, in the main, the individual episodes require very little knowledge of Dumas' story: instead they tell of an aristocrat with untold wealth who devotes his spare time to uncovering injustice and corruption where ever it may raise its head, and who goes about righting wrongs. Thus, the stories are mostly tales that tell of dynastic plots against various European monarchs or they are stories about corrupt politicians, military officials or policemen involved in murder plots, military coups or embezzlement schemes. A favourite theme echoes the fate of the younger Edmond Dantès by having the Count appealed to by a (usually beautiful) fiancee or relative of an old friend, beseeching him to help clear the name of a loved one who has usually been framed in a nefarious plot of some kind.
There are often, what might be called, 'evil masterminds' at the heart of these stories whose true identities turn out to be someone most unlikely. A couple of episodes try to develop a beautiful but ruthless female foe for the Count - the Duchess of Maastricht; plus there are secret criminal organisations (The Carbonari) and devilish, sinister aristocrats, and rakes and libertines galore, all of whom the Count eventually brings to justice with his usual debonair flair. Not surprisingly, with the sheer amount of episodes on view here, a clear formula becomes apparent eventually: a criminal plot or injustice will be set up in the first five minutes of the episode. The Count will be appealed to for help. He'll set up a trap to expose the culprit. He or one of his friends will be captured; and each episode will end with a bout of energetic fisticuffs between numerous henchmen and the Count's two retainers --and a fencing duel between the Count and the main villain.
The dashing Count is aided in his weekly exploits and rip-roaring adventures by two friends who are always willing to take part in his schemes and plans, helping to restore justice both in his home country and on their travels across the rest of Europe. Neither one of these characters appear in the original novel. The diminutive assistant Jacopo is a colourful ex-smuggler who at one point in his early association with the Count had his tongue cut out of his head, rendering him mute! He appears in every episode and was played by the American actor Nick Cravat, an ex-acrobatic performer who, in his early career, formed one half of a trapeze act with Burt Lancaster. The two were childhood friends who also co-starred on film at least nine times. Cravat apparently had a broad Brooklyn accent which he could never overcome. It is this fact which explains the large proportion of mute characters the actor portrayed on screen during his film and TV career. Cravat's performance in Monte Cristo is actually one of the highlights of the series. An extremely physical performer, no doubt in no small part due to his training as an acrobat, Cravat gives a performance that relies, essentially, on silent movie acting techniques where facial expressions and physical mannerisms have to do his talking for him. Almost every story will at some point involve the wily Jacopo having to give the Count a mimed explanation of something he has previously witnessed. In the inevitable punch up with the villains at the climax of each episode, Cravat's physicality will almost always come to the fore: he will invariably get a chair smashed across his back at some point in the affray, and the actor throws his entire body into his punches in an almost comical display of enthusiasm, like a tiny tornado whirling around the periphery of the viewers sight line (which will be the Count -- in one of his stately fencing duels with the number one bad guy, usually) and adding a great deal of colour to what would otherwise soon become a fairly perfunctory plot device for bringing each story to a close.
This set kicks off with the batch of episodes made at Elstree studios and which comprise the majority of the total -- about twenty-six out of the thirty-nine. The first story in this run furnishes the Count with a second assistant: a Spanish guard who switches sides and helps the Count protect the Spanish Queen and the Infanta when the dead King's brother Don Carlos threatens to take the throne for himself. Rico was played by Robert Cawdron, and is both the brawn of the trio and an interlocutor for Dolenz to converse with, thus forwarding the plot (a role which can't be fulfilled easily by the silent Jacopo). Often he doesn't appear to be doing very much but standing in the background making up the numbers, but his large frame has presence and he brings a likable authority to a sometimes thankless role.
After his introduction in this first story, Cawdron appeared for the rest of the series run, but the twelve American-made episodes featured two different actors fulfilling a similar plot function but who are in fact actually meant to be two different characters. The pilot episode introduces Fortunio Bonanova as Mario, who is referred to by the Count, along with Jacopo, as one of his oldest friends. Bonanova, for what ever reason, only appears in three episodes though. Another actor, Henry Corden, who looks almost exactly the same but is in fact a different character named Carlo, takes over in episode five. Strangely, Corden appears in two episodes before being given an apparent introductory episode which also provides an explanation for Mario's disappearance: he's been murdered (off screen) - shot in the back by an arrow on the island of Sardinia, thus embroiling the Count in yet another adventure! Interestingly, though Corden and Bonanova both look very similar in physical appearance to Cawdron's Rico, whom they both precede, it is Rico who gels the most convincingly with Cravat and Dolenz, and the British episodes seem far superior to the initial Hollywood ones, with strong interplay between the three leads, better stories and a more romantic, Hammer-esque atmosphere.
This likable series appears in its entirety across five discs on the Network set, with the fifth disc also featuring an extensive photo gallery of stills. The video quality of the episodes is amazingly good for a series made in the mid-'50s. Most of them boast quite a nice sharp black & white image. The mono sound is also mostly good, although some of the episodes feature much background crackling and one or two others have slightly below par audio, although they're still perfectly listenable. The pilot episode (which appears at the start of disc 5) is the poorest-looking out of all of them and looks as though it might have been sourced from a 16 mm copy of the original; but it still bears up remarkably well given the age of the series.
The set provides entertaining light viewing and features some well-made costumed adventures and simple but effective storytelling.