Attack of the 20ft boffins: evil geniuses of the screen

Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema
November 11, 2005

It is probably true to say that so far as the cinema is concerned, scientists have not been well represented. There are a few (generally American, of course) who rescue the world from threatening disasters, such as asteroid strikes, but most are evil, mad or both. This is understandable from the film producer's point of view; as box-office attractions, Rotwang and Dr Fu Manchu are much more effective than Louis Pasteur or Marie Curie. But over the years, this has given a somewhat unbalanced impression.

This is well brought out by Christopher Frayling, rector of the Royal College of Art in London and chairman of the Arts Council of England. In the very earliest days of the movies, things were different, because nobody could take the films seriously. George Méliès was the great pioneer, and some of his films survive; in Le Voyage dans la Lune , we can still watch as his projectile reaches the Moon and the astronauts go outside, open their sunshades and stroll happily around on the lunar surface.

The change really came in 19, with Fritz Lang's Metropolis , the last of the great silent films; it introduced the evil genius Rotwang, justifiably described by Frayling as "the most influential scientist in the history of the cinema". (I have a vivid memory of Rotwang. Years before the Apollo missions, I was one of a group of "Moon men" called to give general comments about possible landing sites. At the end of a week of concentrated deliberation, our hosts gave us a banquet and entertained us with a film - Metropolis . It was gripping.) Not all prewar films show scientists as crazy or malign. Another Lang film, Frau im Mond ( The Girl in the Moon ), was quite different. Its premiere was planned to coincide with the launch of a rocket designed by Hermann Oberth, the "father of astronautics", but the rocket was never built. There was also The Shape of Things to Come , said to be H. G. Wells's answer to Metropolis . Interspersed with these were the cartoons; Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and their kind. There were also films based on the lives of real scientists, though few of them became very popular.

After the war there came another change, due mainly to the development of the atom bomb. Scientists were nearly always wild-eyed and eccentric, as in Dr Strangelove . With the start of the Space Age, the scope was obviously extended; even before the launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1 , in 1957, British television featured The Quatermass Experiment , in which a mission designed by a space scientist has unforeseen and dramatic consequences. Millions watched it, and it is on record that a council meeting of a prestigious scientific society was postponed for an hour because it clashed with the concluding episode (though this year's live remake received a rather more muted reception).

Some films have unintentionally misled people. The notion that men never went to the Moon comes from Capricorn One , about a faked Mars landing. Nasa gave advice for this film, and no doubt regretted it later.

Frayling has given a splendidly impartial account of how scientists have been portrayed, and he must have spent many days watching films of all kinds. He also says a little about the actors, who are usually quite unlike the characters they portray. Thus Boris Karloff, the best of all horror actors, was in private life one of the most charming people one could ever meet - and passionate about cricket.

This most entertaining book has wide appeal. The illustrations have been carefully selected, and there is a long list of references. Above all, it has been meticulously researched. I am only sad that there is no mention of my own favourite, Plan 9 from Outer Space , in which the scientist is played by another horror actor, Bela Lugosi. It is universally regarded as not only the worst film ever made in Hollywood, but also incomparably the worst film ever made anywhere.

Sir Patrick Moore is an astronomer, author and fellow of the Royal Society.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema

Author - Christopher Frayling
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 240
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 1 86189 255 1

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