Review of Christopher Frayling, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous? The Scientist and the Cinema (London: Reaktion Books, 2005)


Young schoolchildren, asked to draw a picture of “a scientist,” typically produce an image of a man in a white lab coat with wild eyes, disheveled hair, and a test tube in his hand. The image comes, Christopher Frayling argues, from movies and television programs, where it has been steadily refined (but little changed) over the course of decades. Mad, Bad, and Dangerous, 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 of Mad, Bad, and Dangerous promise a comprehensive, wide-ranging view of the subject: a promise on which it 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 major scientist characters from the Jurassic Park series. Comedies about scientists are also scarce: no Man in the White Suit, no Desk Set, no 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 like The Story of Louis Pasteur, but not a word about the very similar (albeit fictional) Arrowsmith. There is much about aviation-oriented “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 made even more frustrating by 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 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.

Especially 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 major screen appearances. He argues (p. 132) that post-1960 interpretations of the “classic” movie monsters of the 1930s were nearly all comedic, ignoring self-consciously serious remakes like Frankenstein: The True Story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Mary Reilley (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” (p. 205) 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 (p. 217) to movies about “computer geeks, usually played by Rick Moranis:” a funny line, except that the geek characters Moranis played in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Little Shop of Horrors, Ghostbusters, and other films had no particular connection with computers.

The proofreading and fact-checking in the book is—there is no other word—atrocious. The famous British set designer is “Ken Adams” on p. 108 but (correctly) “Ken Adam” on p. 172. The same carelessness turns senior NASA launch technician Günter Wendt into “Gunther Vent” (p. 100), astronaut Gus Grissom into “Gus Grisson” (p. 101), author Nevil Shute into “Neville Shute” (p. 179), and German rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth into “Hans Oberth” on the same page where he has been introduced under his real name (p. 72). The title of Madame Curie (1943) is incorrectly given as Marie Curie (p, 153), and the American title of The Sound Barrier (1952) as Breaking Through the Sound Barrier (p, 188). A quote from The Dambusters (p. 184) is rendered meaningless by the substitution of “dismissed” for “dismasted.” The accidental nuclear war in Dr. Strangelove is attributed (p. 217) to a computer glitch rather a mentally unstable general, and the death of Earth’s trees in Silent Running to nuclear war rather than environmental degradation (pp. 206-7) The launch date and name of the first U. S. manned spacecraft are both given incorrectly (p. 101) and there is a curious reference (p. 207) 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 “bio pic” cycle of the 1930s and 1940s is especially valuable—but on the whole it frustrates more than it illuminates. It is neither comprehensive enough for scholars seeking a definitive survey nor attentive enough to details for film enthusiasts seeking a “good read.”

--A. Bowdoin Van Riper

Note: This review originally appeared in EMBO Reports, vol. 7 (2006), 253.