Alexandre Dumas may well have been the most popular novelist of the 19th century; to be sure, along with Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, he stands among those 19th century novelists who retained their popularity best in the 20th century. His books, including The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Man in the Iron Mask (which comprise only a small fraction of his fiction) continue to sell, well over 100 years after his death. His influence over our popular culture is so widespread and deeply implanted that, five generations after his death, mass audiences throughout the world still understand the meaning of references to the Three Musketeers or the Count of Monte Cristo. If Dumas' work has endured, it's because it was written from truth and from reality, astounding as that may seem on its face. The author's life, and that of his father's even more so, reads like the plot of one (or more) of his novels, and to properly understand the writer and his work, one must first understand his father.
Alexandre Dumas was descended from a noble family: his grandfather, the Marquis Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, was a direct descendant of Norman royalty and a one-time colonel and Commissaire General of artillery. Davy de la Pailleterie left France in the 1760s for the West Indies and bought a plantation on the eastern edge of Santo Domingo. There, he fathered a child by an Afro-Caribbean slave, Marie-Céssette Dumas, whom he subsequently married; the child, born on March 27, 1762, was named Thomas-Alexandre. The boy was given the Marquis' family name and was raised in the West Indies until 1780, eight years after the death of his mother, when the Marquis returned to Paris. The son, then 18 years old, was of mixed-race, but this was not a detriment -- by all accounts tall and powerfully built, with a strikingly handsome face, he had no trouble attracting positive attention to himself. He entered the army, which his father considered beneath the dignity of the Davy de la Pailleterie family, and so he enlisted as a private under the name of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, taking his mother's family name. He became a trooper in the Queen's dragoon regiment and achieved the rank of corporal in 1792, marrying Marie-Louise Elizabeth Labouret that same year. By virtue of his horsemanship, swordsmanship, and bravery in battle, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas overcame the "disability" of his seemingly common origin and was commissioned an officer in 1792 -- his battlefield promotions before the year ended catapulted him from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in the cavalry. By July of the following year, he'd been elevated to general's rank, and he received the equivalent of two-star rank soon after. He rose from there to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Pyrenees, and by the mid-decade was one of the highest ranking and most famous generals in the French army.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas survived the tumult of Napoleon's ascendancy, mostly by virtue of his genial manner and his extraordinary record of bravery. By all accounts, despite having the responsibility of a wife and family -- a daughter had been born in 1793 -- he thrived on dangerous missions and seemingly impossible military tasks. Indeed, his generalship and his utility in that rank were limited, in that he tended to take the battlefield and the missions himself, rather than delegating those tasks to others or working through intermediaries and lower-ranking officers. The rank did provide him with prestige, respect, and wide renown atop the stories of his exploits, and he had a winning personality as well as a common touch that endeared him to the soldiers and the civilians around him -- even as a military governor, often one of the most thankless jobs an officer can have, he managed to charm the civilian population he was to control. But it was as a swordsman and as a leader in personal combat that he was best known to the French; he was a true fighting general, unable to stay away from the battlefield, which accounted for his being twice wounded. The French sang his praises, while their enemies of the era, the Austrians, called him "the black devil."
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was an inspiring figure: in modern American terms, he was like George Patton, Davy Crockett and, most tellingly, one of his own future son's literary creations all rolled into one. His luck finally ended after a falling-out with the emperor while serving in Egypt; ironically, the elder Dumas was taken prisoner not in a battle but, rather, after being reassigned back to France when the ship that he was aboard was caught in a storm and forced to land in an enemy port. The resulting imprisonment, which included an extended attempt at poisoning him, broke his health. Once released, he found himself out of favor with Napoleon, bankrupt, and without a commission in the army; however, he was able, on his return home, to father a second child by his still-vibrant wife. A son, Alexandre Dumas, was born on July 24, 1802. The general died in 1806 at the age of 44, leaving behind an impoverished wife and two children.
By every account, Alexandre Dumas was as physically stunning as his father -- though his skin was lighter than Thomas-Alexandre's, he had hair that marked him as being of mixed-race heritage and an impressive physique that was thought of as "African." He was bigger and stronger than most of the boys of his age and had a dashing, outgoing personality even as a child, as well as a keen sense of adventure -- he loved tramping through forests, playing soldier, and imagining himself in the kinds of exploits that he'd heard about concerning his father. He was also very sensitive to the treatment that his father had received at the hands of his captors and also from the emperor after his release; from the time Dumas was old enough to think, he not only had a passionate yearning for justice, but a keen sense of the importance of righting the wrongs around him. His best known books would deal with these themes, and also with disloyalty and abandonment, soldierly comradery, and personal honor and its redemption.
The family's situation improved somewhat as those still loyal to the late general or to his wife's family quietly interceded on their behalf. When he grew a little older, Dumas turned down the chance to take his grandfather's royal name and some part of his property, believing that it would be the height of disloyalty to his father and everything that Thomas-Alexandre had stood, lived, and worked for, were he to become a Davy de la Pailleterie rather than a Dumas. They survived, in part, with help from his mother's acquisition of a license to sell tobacco, and one of their customers was Auguste Lafarge, who was to befriend Dumas and introduce him to the world of poetry, theater, literature, and Parisian society. Dumas worked as a clerk as an older teenager and young man, but his heart lay with equestrian skills, with which he was prodigiously blessed, and with fantasies of adventure and acts of derring-do. He learned through his grandfather's legacy something about royal life in the decades before the revolution; from teachers, friends and acquaintances, he became skilled in poetry and writing, and from the young men and women drawn by his startlingly exotic good looks, he acquired the social skills that the family's reduced circumstances had denied him the opportunity to learn earlier in life. The women couldn't resist his charm, and Dumas supposedly left a string of would-be (and consummated) conquests behind him before his mid-twenties; he could charm the younger nobles whom he occasionally encountered socially, yet he had a wild, free spirit that almost made him seem even more the rustic that his upbringing and woodland trampings suggested.
Dumas' first theatrical works, written in conjunction with Adolphe de Leuven, dated from 1820 and 1821. With his first success on stage in 1829, the historical drama Henri III et sa cour, he started becoming widely known. He was involved with the Revolution of 1830, but it was primarily as an author that Dumas was recognized, through works such as Anthony (1831) and La Tour de Nesle (1832). As a novelist, Dumas didn't come fully into his own until 1844, with the publication of The Three Musketeers. One can safely say that the character of D'Artagnan was loosely based on his own background and family history, and perhaps his father's exploits as well, while his perceptions of friendship and loyalty as expressed in that book and its sequels, Twenty Years After (1845) and The Vicomte de Bragelonne (1848-1850), seemed to stem from the loyalties that people felt toward his father. The elder Dumas was clearly one of the key models for the character of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo (1845), which was not only successful as a book (with an English translation following a year later), but also as a play, adapted by Charles Fechter in 1848, with James O'Neill famously playing the lead. Those became Dumas' most popular works and they made him a wealthy man, though they were strongly disliked by literary critics of the day who, in their turn, loved his plays. He, thus, had a two-tiered career, loved by the public on several continents for one body of work and adored by the critics and intelligentsia at home for another.
Dumas' total output included hundreds of plays, novels, and stories, including rewrites of other authors' works (copyright was a very different matter in those days), among them The Nutcracker, based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, which he turned into a fairy tale that Tchaikovsky subsequently used as the source for his ballet of the same name. Outside of France, however, it was as an author of adventure stories that Dumas became one of the best known writers in the world after 1844. He never made any claims for the accuracy of the historical details in his stories, but they have become so well-known through retellings and screen adaptations over the ensuing 160 years, that most people's perceptions of such a genuine historical figure as Cardinal Richelieu are rooted in Dumas' The Three Musketeers, rather than in any actual biography of the 17th century nobleman and cleric. Richelieu has, thus, been consigned to that same odd corner of popular culture "villainy" occupied by such figures as England's Prince John and the composer Antonio Salieri, as represented, respectively, in the Robin Hood legends and the film Amadeus.
Dumas' books were also an influence on countless authors around the world, including Mark Twain, who emulated Dumas' brand of fiction in The Prince and the Pauper and japed at it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. More than 130 years after the author's death, phrases such as "One for all and all for one" are still almost universally understood and recognized from his stories of the Musketeers, thanks to numerous screen adaptations of their exploits. In the 1890s, more than 20 years after his death, Dumas' only real rival appeared on the literary scene in the guise of Anthony Hope, another author of adventure novels and plays, but this only served to extend the Dumas legacy.
Dumas died in 1870, long before the advent of motion pictures, but his fiction has served as the official basis for over 100 screen adaptations from 1898 through 2002 and beyond. Actors from Douglas Fairbanks Sr. to Leonardo DiCaprio have starred in film versions of his work. Among the dozens of movies based on Dumas' books, notable productions include Fred Niblo's 1921 silent version of The Three Musketeers, which established Douglas Fairbanks Sr. as a hero in costume adventure films; Edward Small's 1934 production of The Count of Monte Cristo, starring Robert Donat; the 1939 version of The Man in the Iron Mask, produced by Small and directed by James Whale, starring Louis Hayward; Edgar G. Ulmer's 1946 film The Wife of Monte Cristo, starring Lenore Aubert and Martin Kosleck, which may be the most interesting of the group for its mix of offbeat casting, rich portrayals, deep passion, moody atmosphere, and breezy pacing; George Sidney's 1948 MGM version (in Technicolor) of The Three Musketeers, starring Gene Kelly; RKO's 1951 At Sword's Point, directed by Lewis Allen, starring Cornel Wilde and Maureen O'Hara; and Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1975). The Small production of 1934, Ulmer's movie, and the two Lester films probably best captured the essence of the books, while the Lester movies veered a little too broadly between slapstick comedy and serious drama. Also worth seeing, as a burlesque of Dumas' work, is Bud Yorkin's Start the Revolution Without Me, which managed to parody every previous version of The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, etc. Dumas' son, also named Alexandre and usually referred to as Alexandre Dumas (fils) (1824-1895), was also a celebrated novelist and dramatist of the 19th century. His work, however, has been less popular than that of his father in the century since his death.
~ Bruce Eder, All Movie Guide