Mad, Bad and Dangerous - The Scientist and the Cinema
by Christopher Frayling
(Reaktion Books 239 pp £19.95)
reviewed by Roz Kaveney
Of all the arts, film is most completely the child of science. Technologies like stage-lighting or the construction of a better pianoforte change theatre and music forever. Film is impossible without a proper understanding of how we see the moving image, or the chemical composition of a substance to hold that image. Yet somehow the image of scientists in the movies is no better than that of lawyers or cattle rustlers.
Christopher Frayling's account of cinema's long ingratitude towards science is intermittently insightful, reasonably comprehensive and too concerned about the failure of film to educate children in the desire to be scientists. It is deeply regrettable that not enough children understand what a scientist is or does, but it is no more the job of Hollywood to teach them, than it is the job of a symphony orchestra to persuade them not to smoke.
If, as Frayling demonstrates, technicolour biopics have reduced the struggles of great scientists to handy plot formulae, it is no more than they have done for every other field of human knowledge and endeavour. Paul Muni played Pasteur one month, Emile Zola the next. And yet, the mythicized cinema version of the lives of Pasteur or Madame Curie have inspired people, not because they are accurate but because they are good stories. Frayling has a deep and inappropriate unhappiness with Hollywood's tendency to turn history into three-act structures of convenient length. This is as useless as to complain that the emotion of love is too complex for the fourteen- line strait-jacket of a sonnet.
He is also, perhaps, too unhappy with the irrational side of story - if Rotwang, in Lang's 'Metropolis', has a metal claw, it is because at a level deeper than logic, knowledge has to be paid for. Rotwang, like many scientists in movies and other fictions, lives on the threshold between the actual and the dreamed because he is between worlds - part of him is alive and another part is dead. It is when we are all of us going to die that Kubrick's crippled Dr Strangelove can suddenly walk.
Inevitably, in a book which compresses ten decades of cinema, there are mistakes Frayling makes and stories he should have told and did not. He is entirely wrong, for example, in his description of the conspiracy which provides the nine-season story arc of 'The X-Files' as conducted by scientists; all of its key players - the Cigarette-Smoking Man who may or may not be Mulder's real father, for example -, are members of the intelligence community or the military industrial complex. A television show much condemned for its kneejerk credulity nonetheless had at its centre Dana Scully, a woman scientist of such pure intellectual rectitude as to make the teeth ache.
There are other mistakes here. Ash, the scientist in Ridley Scott's 'Alien', is not a cyborg, but a robot; if he appears still encumbered with lust for Sigourney Weaver, it is because Ash is aware of being a pure instrument and is self-aware enough to resent it. But this has to do with his status as a robot, a thing conscious of being made, not his apparent profession as scientist. If Frayling had wanted an actual evil scientist, the fourth film in the cycle 'Alien Resurrection, would have given him a particularly malign one. A critic who describes the alien itself as a giant prawn is perhaps not the most acute of observers.
He spends much time, rightly, on the compromises that H.G.Wells was obliged to make in getting Alexander Korda to transfer his vision of scientific utopia, 'Things to Come', to the screen. For once, Frayling accepts that Wells was not always right and that Korda's commercial instincts were rarely wrong. However, he entirely omits the extent to which Arthur Bliss's music was seen by both men as intrinsic to the film, and an innovation, and to which Korda, Wells and Bliss fought over practicalities. This is especially unfortunate given the extent to which Bliss's grand march created the template for much sf movie scoring ever since.
Frayling is happiest with the various films of the British war effort which show scientists as home-grown eccentrics rather than sinister wild-haired exotics. There is nothing uncanny about Barnes Wallis or the hero of Balchin's 'Small Back Room'; in British films, a chap can have a tin foot without its making him unheimlich.
When Frayling gets on to Nigel Kneale's Quatermass films and television series, his instinct fails him. Elsewhere Kneale is suspicious enough of science, but here it is the clear-eyed arrogance of his hero that saves England from variously fungoid and squishy alien imperialisms that are clearly metaphors for the greater powers of the 1950s. If commercial imperatives made the filmed Quatermass American, the same cannot be said for the television shows; he is the ultimate boffin, the scientist as British patriot. (The same can be said for the various monster-fighters played by Peter Cushing in Hammer films or of Dr. Who.)
Frayling attributes to the cinema a neurosis about scientists and intellectuals which is a feature of Middle America and pre-fascist Germany. His statistics - so many evil geniuses, or forgetful savants, to so many clean-limbed mathematicians or down-home inventors - place forgotten horror films on a level with minor classics. In the end, the only way to consider this matter is with cold reason, and Frayling panics here like a doomed peasant in a creature feature.