Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema
by Christopher Frayling
Reaktion Books, London, UK
256 pp, $35/£20
Young school‐children, when asked to draw a picture of a scientist, typically produce an image of a man in a white lab coat with wild eyes, dishevelled hair, and a test tube in his hand. This image comes, Christopher Frayling argues, from movies and television programmes, where it has been steadily refined—but little changed—over the course of decades. Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema, which begins and ends with children's images of scientists, is Frayling's exploration of the changing image of scientists in feature films: the first attempt to do for movies what Roslynn Haynes' From Faust to Strangelove did for literature. It is commendable in intent but deeply flawed in execution.
The subtitle and preface to Mad, Bad and Dangerous? promise a comprehensive, wide‐ranging view of the subject, which the book utterly fails to deliver. Virtually its entire treatment of films released since 1960 is jammed into a single 20‐page chapter. Swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones is missing, as are mathematical genius Will Hunting from Good Will Hunting, surgeon‐naturalist Stephen Maturin from Master and Commander, and four of the five main scientist characters from the Jurassic Park series. Comedies about scientists are also scarce: no The Man in the White Suit, no Desk Set, no The Absent‐Minded Professor, no Ghostbusters. Even the heart of the book—three chapters covering the mid‐1930s to mid‐1950s—is spotty. There are long discussions of 1930s' screen biographies such as The Story of Louis Pasteur, but not a word about the similar (albeit fictional) Arrowsmith. There is much about aviation‐orientated ‘boffin’ films such as The Dambusters and The Sound Barrier, but nothing at all about the equally important No Highway in the Sky.
These omissions are made even more frustrating by the inclusion of large chunks of tangential or irrelevant material. Wernher von Braun, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell receive detailed attention without any effort to show that they should be considered to have been scientists, rather than engineers or inventors. Discussions of Things to Come and Dr Strangelove say much about those films' presentation of science (and technology), but little about their portrayal of scientists.
When discussing the post‐1960 era, Frayling often seems out of his depth. He claims that James Bond's mad‐scientist enemies are often physically disabled, but by his second example is reduced to citing Ernst Stavro Blofeld's scar: a minor disfigurement of a non‐scientist that is visible in only one of the character's four main screen appearances. Frayling argues that post‐1960 interpretations of the ‘classic’ movie monsters of the 1930s were nearly all comedic, ignoring self‐consciously serious remakes such as Frankenstein: The True Story, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Mary Reilly (a retelling of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde through the eyes of Jekyll's housekeeper). Frayling's references to “the Star Ship Enterprise” and to “the Star Fleet” will ring false to students of the Star Trek universe, as will the out‐of‐context quote he uses to suggest that Captain Kirk is skeptical of mixed‐gender crews. He refers in passing to movies about “computer geeks, usually played by Rick Moranis”: a funny line, except that the geeks Moranis played in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Little Shop of Horrors, Ghostbusters and other films have no particular connection with computers.
Unfortunately, the proofreading and fact checking in the book is—there is no other word—atrocious. The famous British production designer is first “Ken Adams” then later (correctly) “Ken Adam”. The same carelessness turns senior NASA launch technician Gunter Wendt into “Gunther Vent”, astronaut Gus Grissom into “Gus Grisson”, author Nevil Shute into “Neville Shute”, and German rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth into “Hans Oberth”. The title of Madame Curie is incorrectly given as Marie Curie, and the American title of The Sound Barrier as Breaking Through the Sound Barrier. A quote from The Dambusters is rendered meaningless by the substitution of “dismissed” for “dismasted”. The accidental nuclear war in Dr Strangelove is attributed to a computer glitch rather than a mentally unstable general, and the death of trees on Earth in Silent Running to nuclear war rather than to environmental degradation. The name and date of the first US manned spacecraft are both incorrect and there is a curious reference to “samples” returned by the spacecraft of project Gemini, which operated solely in Earth orbit and thus collected none.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous? has its moments—Frayling's discussion of the biopic cycle of the 1930s and 1940s is especially valuable—but on the whole, the book frustrates more than it illuminates. It is neither comprehensive enough for scholars seeking a definitive survey, nor attentive enough to detail for film enthusiasts seeking a ‘good read’.
- Copyright © 2006 European Molecular Biology Organization
A. Bowdoin Van Riper is in the Social and International Studies Department at Southern Polytechnic State University, Marietta, GA, USA. Email: