Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of romance, adventure and revenge in 1815 begins with boyhood friends Edmond Dantes (the humble, virtuous son of a clerk) and Fernand Mondego (the spoiled son of a nobleman, who is insanely jealous of Edmond) seeking medical care for the captain of their merchant ship. They risk life and limb by rowing to the isle of Elba, home of exiled French general Napoleon Bonaparte. During their brief stay, Napoleon asks the naïve Edmond to carry a letter back to France. He obliges. But after returning home, being promoted by his employer and reuniting with Mercedes, his true love, Edmond is betrayed by Mondego and several co-conspirators eager to benefit from framing him for high treason. Scurvy shipmate Danglars gets his post. Mondego will eventually get Edmond’s fiancée. And Villefort, chief magistrate and son of the vocal Bonapartist who was to receive the fated letter, preserves his political career.
Despite being an innocent pawn, Edmond finds himself sentenced to rot in the Chateau D’If, a dank, dark fortress that makes Alcatraz look like the Four Seasons. He faces his fate with a deep sense that God is with him, much as the Lord was with Joseph in Genesis 39. But after four years, Edmond begins to doubt any heavenly interest in his plight. That’s when Faria, a Chateau D’If veteran of eleven years, tunnels through Edmond’s floor in a failed escape attempt. He’s a man of God who refuses to let Edmond’s faith die—and educates him in various subjects—as the two spend years covertly chiseling toward the outer wall. Together, they unravel the frame-up that cost Edmond his freedom, causing the young man to burn with anger and a lust for revenge. When he is finally liberated from his cell, Edmond heads home. With newfound (unexpected) wealth and steely determination, he dons the moniker Count of Monte Cristo and manipulates events in an attempt to bring his enemies to justice.
positive elements: In the opening scene, Edmond defies protocol and puts himself in danger to save a man’s life (his compassion is rewarded). Friends come to one another’s aid during a fight. Distinctly spiritual elements favor a Christian worldview [see "Spiritual Content" for a development of this theme]. During his years of imprisonment, Edmond learns from Faria’s examples of faith, gratitude, patience, generosity and perseverance. Forced into a knife fight by a band of pirates, Edmond subdues and spares the life of his rival, who repays his mercy by becoming Edmond’s servant. When Faria gives Edmond a treasure map, he makes him promise that he will use it for good. Unlike most modern tales of vengeance (films like The Godfather, First Blood, The Crow or any number of horror flicks involving a scorned psycho with an axe to grind), this one finds Edmond seeking non-violent retribution in most cases. Envy, greed, jealousy and even vengeance itself are portrayed as unbecoming character traits that cannot satisfy the longings of the soul. We also see that wealth is empty without true love, family, friends and a noble vision for life. In fact, the person of Fernand Mondego is a study in what not to become. His scheming, womanizing, gambling and selfish disregard for his family’s emotional needs all help to define Mondego as evil personified. Edmond’s toast to Albert implies that trials build character, and reflects the truth of 1 Peter 1:6-7 ("What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes").
spiritual content: There are frequent, reverent mentions of the Lord. Throughout the film, we witness the evolving faith struggle of Edmond, who early-on acknowledges God and even clings to Him during his first months in prison, only to wrestle with doubt as years pass and his situation remains unchanged. On the wall of his cell, a previous tenant has carved the words GOD WILL GIVE ME JUSTICE, which is referenced several times (it stops a suicidal Edmond from hanging himself) and is, in fact, the final image shown before the end credits. Indeed, God does take care of Edmond despite the mocking tone of Dorleac, the sadistic atheist presiding over the prison. One way is by introducing him to Faria, the man he comes to know as Priest (he is a repentant soldier burdened by the memory of having carried out an order by Napoleon to burn a church full of people). Upon seeing the sky for the first time in 11 years, the old man thanks God. Faria shows kindness to Edmond and points the bitter young man back to the Lord. A wonderful exchange begins as Faria reminds a vengeful Edmond, "God said, ‘Vengeance is mine.’" Edmond says, "I don’t believe in God," to which Faria replies, "It doesn’t matter. He believes in you." Later, Mercedes also reminds Edmond of what his heart knows to be true about the omniscience and omnipresence of God. In the film’s closing moments, Edmond sees the emptiness of revenge and admits, "You were right, Priest," adding, "This I promise you and God: All that was used for vengeance will be used for good."
sexual content: Mondego playfully tells Mercedes, "Make love to me," aware that her heart belongs to Edmond. She refuses, accusing him of collecting romantic trophies and claiming she will never be one. Silhouettes of a man and woman are seen swimming in the moonlight. There is an unfortunate premarital sexual encounter between Edmond and Mercedes, but it is handled discretely, shown to have consequences, and is exceedingly relevant to the plot. We learn that Mondego, unapologetically, has had numerous mistresses during his loveless marriage to Mercedes, who wed him on the rebound after hearing that Edmond had been executed. Following Edmond’s return, he and Mercedes are shown in bed together (while Mercedes’ heart never left Edmond, this is still an adulterous fling).
violent content: Quite a bit, though it’s not excessively graphic. British soldiers fire pistols at Edmond and Mondego. We see a flashback of a man being ambushed and shot twice at close range in an alleyway. Eager to watch two men fight to the death with knives, a band of smugglers pit Edmond against a member of their crew who has fallen out of favor. Dorleac takes great pleasure in administering a brutal anniversary lashing to each of the prisoners at Chateau d’If (Edmond’s back is badly lacerated). Mondego fires his pistol at Edmond, only to strike an unintended target. A tunnel cave-in leaves a man dead. Edmond kills Dorleac after the men are thrust over a tall cliff and into the sea. Vicious sword fights draw blood. On two occasions, men get run through with swords (Mondego duels with the husband of one of his mistresses, killing the man without a shred of remorse). We are informed that a forlorn character has hanged himself. Another attempts suicide by putting a pistol in his mouth, but nothing happens when he pulls the trigger.
crude or profane language: Expressions such as "bastard," "hell," "my God," and "damned" appear, but none are used as profanity. Mondego calls his wife a whore.
drug and alcohol content: Mondego drinks constantly. We frequently see him with a bottle in his hand, and actually get introduced to him while he’s in a slightly tipsy state. Mondego and Edmond share a celebratory glass of wine. Mondego imbibes along with a scorned first-mate as they plot to remove the thorn in their flesh. Edmond toasts Albert at his birthday party.
conclusion: These days, action films rely far too heavily on gaudy special effects and dopey catch phrases, and far too little on intelligent scripts and interesting characters. Just ask director Kevin Reynolds. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way. His widely derided, extremely expensive 1995 dud Waterworld had lots of pyrotechnics and slam-bang activity, but it sank like a stone at the box-office because it lacked heart. Reynolds has more than redeemed himself with The Count of Monte Cristo, an adventure tale that succeeds because it ultimately isn’t about action. It’s about people. It’s about issues that transcend a high-speed chase or an explosion. It has heart. And that’s what makes the action matter. This, plus beautiful scenery, solid performances and Reynolds’ smart pacing make his romantic period thriller work as pure entertainment, as well as an above-average conversation starter for parents and mature teens.