Mad, bad and dangerous? The scientist and the cinema

Mad, bad and dangerous? The scientist and the cinema
Christopher Frayling and Christa Critchley 
London, UK: Reaktion Books | 2005 | 239 pp | ?19.95 (HB) | ISBN 1861892551 
Reviewed by John Cunningham

Christopher Frayling surveys nearly 100 years of cinema history to arrive at the obvious conclusion that the portrayal of scientists in the movies perpetuates the cultural stereotype of the ’brainiac’ mad scientist - Caucasian, male, messy hair, lab coat and spectacles. Most celluloid scientists are also aloof, socially inept and amoral creatures driven by obsessions. 

The laboratories of Dr Frankenstein, Dr Jekyl and Dr Rotwang (the evil genius in Fritz Lang’s 1926 film Metropolis) are filled with boiling coloured potions and Tesla coil, with no regard for what real laboratories look like. 

During the 1930s and 1940s, there were several films based on the lives of real scientists, including Paul Ehrlich, Louis Pasteur and Marie Curie. These films portray lone visionaries fighting against reactionary peers to achieve scientific breakthroughs. But even these ’scientist as hero’ films caricatured the scientists as unlike ordinary people. 

The atomic bomb and fear of the Soviet Union brought a darker tone to science fiction films during the 1950s and 1960s. The ultimate Cold War satire premiered in 1964 - Doctor Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb - with the title character brilliantly portrayed by Peter Sellers.  

The major portion of the book deals with the cinema up to the 1980s. The period from 1990 to date is dealt with more briefly, not that the portrayal of the scientist has changed much in the past decade or so, although subjects such as genetic engineering and biological warfare are now the scientist’s tools. Perhaps a film on nanotechnology is now on the cutting room floor. 

It is possible, as Frayling believes, that the failure of scientists to communicate clearly with the public has contributed to their unflattering representation in film. 

This book is well researched, although inevitably the films discussed are a personal selection. All the pictures in the book are black and white, where I would have expected colour pictures for colour films.  

The book represents the work of a man who has obviously spent too much time watching the silver screen.