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Film Review: Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

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Time and memory are strange phenomena to say the least, especially when it comes to items such as films. Frankenstein: The True Story was originally broadcast in the early 1970s on the BBC on New Year’s Eve/Day. The film was praised highly at the time, and certainly it cannot be faulted in terms of production values, with an all-star cast of the finest actors of that generation, and some lavish and exquisite sets. Now, forty-odd years later, Second Sight DVD have seen fit to re-release it on DVD, so the question becomes: has it stood the test of time?

This is a long film, clocking in at 185 mins (or 3hrs 05 mins, in old money), but it be summarised thusly: Victor Frankenstein (Whiting) is training to be a doctor, but after his brother William drowns he becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life from death. In London, in the hospital where he’s due to further his training in anatomy, he meets Dr. Henry Clerval (McCallum), a surgeon who also harbours the same interests, and the two begin working together. However, Clerval dies soon afterwards from a heart condition, leaving Frankenstein to continue the work. Using his mentor’s notes (and misinterpreting a single line) Frankenstein creates a living creature (Michael Sarrazin) from dead flesh, with the brain of Clerval transplanted into its head.

The experiment isn’t a success – the creatures degenerates physically from that of a handsome man into a brute, causing it to be rejected by its creator, thus setting off a chain of events leading to tragedy

One thing to note here – although based on the novel by Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley, it barely resembles that story in any way. Rather, it’s a different take on the basic premise, concentrating more on the creature and its sufferings. Furthermore, we are meant to empathise with it, in the sense of it suffering unnecessarily as a consequence of Frankenstein’s rejection after it begins to lose its beauty. Plus, as was meant by Shelley herself, it is not the creature who is the monster, but his creator. In much the same way when we hear of a parent rejecting its child, we feel it to be a moral abomination and a derogation of responsibility.

So, how does it fare after 40 years? On the plus side (as mentioned above), it’s a lavishly produced affair with a star-studded cast, a veritable supergroup of some of the finest actors of their day, as well as wonderful costumes and great sets. From that perspective, the performances are good, especially those of McCallum as the perpetually grumpy Clerval and James Mason as Polidori, the villain of the piece. The latter steals the show with a gleefully wicked performance. Sarrazin turns in a nuanced interpretation of the tortured creature, pulled this way and that by the winds of fate not of his making.

Looking at the negative aspects, Whiting as Frankenstein, is weak in comparison to Polidori: we are meant to somehow believe he’s a driven man, desperate to discover the very secret of life itself, but he just comes across as being a bit of a wet cabbage. Plus, having such a famous cast is a problem in itself, detracting from the film’s storyline – a form of exercise in spot-the-well-known-actor, in essence. This is not to say that relatively unknown actors would have made this any better, of course, but it might have worked more to the film’s advantage.

It’s a brave attempt at injecting new life into the familiar story, and of restoring the true aim of the novel: the creature was never the monster we’ve come to know through the Universal and Hammer interpretations, for instance. It succeeds on that level, insofar as one tends to sympathise with the creature’s plight, but beyond that just it’s just a slickly produced and acted TV drama with the added trappings of fantasy and genre. As a period piece of television production, it’s a historical artefact, but a not very spectacular one.

There is only a single extra on the DVD – an introduction by James Mason, which is infamous in certain circles because it purports to show Mary Shelley’s grave marker in a London cemetery. In fact, she’s interred in St Peter’s, Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, quite a way from London.

SIMON MARSHALL JONES

Director: Jack Smight
Starring: James Mason, Leonard Whiting, Nicola Pagett, David McCallum, Michael Sarrazin, Jayne Seymour, Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, and Agnes Moorehead
Certificate: 12
Running time: 185 minutes
DVD Release Date: 10 March 2014

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2 comments

  1. andrea norwood

    After seeing this, I think that Frankenstein is the greatest of stories told. It is very fortunate and shocking and very sad about Mary Shelley’s life and at the same time, her story is one of love, scientific madness, betrayal and death and the book will live on forever. I never could get into Frankenstein but after viewing the true story of Frankenstein, it will go on in my memories forever!

  2. brubeck_108

    an amazing film, mason is brilliant .

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