The setting is the tiny Balkan principality of Lichtenburg in 1865 (very much like the mythical Ruritania of The Prisoner of Zenda). Lichtenburg is ruled by the young and beautiful, and much-loved, Grand Duchess Zona (Joan Bennett) but the real power is in the hands of the unscrupulous and brutal General Gurko Lanen (George Sanders). The Grand Duchess’s loyal prime minister sends her on a desperate mission to Paris to seek aid from the Emperor Napoleon III (a sensible idea since Napoleon III was much addicted to getting France involved in crazy foreign adventures). Unfortunately Gurko Lanen gets wind of the mission and is determined to prevent Zona from reaching Paris.
Sadly he has, initially, mixed success in his rescue attempts and Zona ends up back in the clutches of Gurko Lanen. And she discovers, to her horror, that he has plans to force her into marrying him. She is horrified. It’s bad enough that he’s a ruthless tyrant, but he’s also a commoner. In fact, a former peasant.
The plot has some pleasing twists and there are times when you really think that the hero can’t possibly get out of the mess he’s landed himself in.
Of course any 1940 Hollywood movie dealing with tyrannies would have been made with a strong political subtext. Fortunately in this case the point isn’t laboured too much and can be safely ignored and the viewer can just get on with enjoying the movie.
Louis Hayward makes a fine dashing hero and Joan Bennett is a perfectly acceptable and suitably haughty heroine. It goes without saying that the movie really belongs to George Sanders. He gives a splendid larger-than-life performance and he has the advantage of having by far the most interesting rôle in the film. Gurko Lanen is just a little bit more than a cardboard villain. As a peasant who has clawed his way to the top he has a convincing motivation for seeking power. And he is genuinely in love with Zona, and he does have reasonable grounds for thinking that her rejection of him has a lot to do with his humble birth. Even if it’s hard to actually sympathise with him we can at least understand what drives him.
This movie looks good (it was filmed in black-and-white) and it has some decent action scenes (and plenty of them), and of course some romance. As long as you don’t set your expectations too high The Son of Monte Cristo is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure romp and the performance of George Sanders on its own is enough reason to see this one. Swashbuckling fans should be quite satisfied. Recommended.