The most underrated FRANKENSTEIN of them all: THE TRUE STORY (1973)
In spite of its generally poor reputation, I have to admit to finding FRANKENSTEIN THE TRUE STORY (FTTS) the most absorbing version of the Mary Shelley novel to date, and without question the only rendition to adequately convey the epic scope of what’s probably the first and most influential SF story in the brief history of the genre. I find that the typical 90-minute B-movie adaptations (with the possible exception of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED) somehow fail to capture the melancholic resonance of the relationship between creator and “monster”, the all-important confrontation in the Zen-like desolation of the Arctic wastes usually ignored in favour of exploding labs or burning buildings. (The subsequent FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND and MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN followed FTTS’s lead in this respect.) It has its moments of unintentional camp – Nicola Paget menaced by a zombie butterfly springs to mind – but thanks to the intelligent (if somewhat cold) writing of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, FTTS was probably the first Frankenstein film to begin to properly explore some of the deeper themes buried in the original text in an adult and (mostly) unsensational manner; some have accused the film of being excessively wordy, in fact, but most of the speechifying is rarely less than interesting, and it makes a refreshing change to find a horror film whose dramatis personae boasts an IQ in excess of its shoe size.
Though it would be an ill-advised presumption to suggest that a homosexual writing partnership might be ideally-suited to explore the misogyny inherent in the Frankenstein myth – a story of men who want to create life without the tiresome necessity of sexual congress with females – it is certainly difficult to ignore the gay subtext in Isherwood and Bachardy’s rendering of the famous tale. Just a few examples: Henry Clerval (David McCallum) throwing a jealous lover’s tantrum when his young protégé Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) reveals their secret (resurrecting the dead) to his fiance Elizabeth (Nicola Paget); the depiction of the character of Dr Polidori (James Mason) as an older, more experienced “corruptor” of younger disciples Clerval and Victor, initiating them both into the “forbidden arts” of a world that has no need of women (note his mocking retort to Elizabeth’s scandalized accusations as to his perversion of Victor’s idealism: “My dear girl, I wasn’t the first!”); the relationship between pretty-boy Victor and his (initially) “beautiful” Creature (Michael Sarrazin) doesn’t lack for homoerotic innuendo, particularly when Victor guiltily conceals the Creature in his rooms, or indulges in a same-sex revision of “Pygmalion” by proudly flaunting his creation at the opera. (In some ways, Isherwood-Bachardy’s revision of Frankenstein represents an ode to the transient nature of (specifically) male youth and beauty, in the grand tradition of Wilde, Genet or Cocteau – in his Creature, the narcissistic Victor sees mirrored the horror of his own inevitable physical corruption, perhaps.) Finally – and I accept this may be reaching! – at the moment when the Creature decapitates Prima (Jane Seymour) at the ball, I was immediately reminded of William Burroughs’ infamous remark to the effect that his only conceivable use for a woman (I’m paraphrasing) would be as a headless baby-factory.
All these attitudes and inferences contribute to an overpowering air of misogyny that lingers over the film, a crystallisation of themes originated by Mary Shelley herself: the story could be read as a female artist’s response to the scientific arrogance of the male-dominated Age of Reason, a facet the screenwriters seem to have latched onto (“Try to look through my eyes – tell me what you see” Mary instructs her husband in the deleted prologue in the original script). In fact, the original script marginalizes the role of women even further, with Elizabeth’s importance in particular much reduced in comparison with the fairly extensively-rewritten film version. Some of the amendments to the Isherwood-Bachardy script (decried by the authors themselves) include a strengthening of Victor’s devotion to Elizabeth, via additional voice-over diary extracts during his work with Clerval on the first Creature, and a refashioning of Elizabeth’s character in the final reels, transforming her into a much more proactive force: the scene in which she expertly hoodwinks the Police Chief (John Gielgud) into releasing Victor without charge is unrecognisable from the scripted original, in which Victor and Polidori are the dominant players.
As regards the remaining changes to the teleplay, the film remains (by and large) faithful to the general form of the original, with one major exception (of which more later). A few minor scenes are resequenced, and certain alterations seem to have been made to specifically reduce the “literariness” of the script: technical/anatomical terms are occasionally dispensed with, written diary entries are now presented with accompanying voice-over narration, and more nebulous plot points (the Creature’s physical deterioration corresponding with his nightmares, for example) being verbalized. For the most part, these changes are without obvious detriment to the piece…but of all the excisions or alterations demanded by producer Hunt Stromberg Jr, the most obvious and ruinous of all is the one which, unfortunately, opens the film: the complete removal of Isherwood and Bachardy’s sophisticated Swiss prologue featuring the Shelleys (roles to have been essayed by Paget and Whiting), Lord Byron and Dr Polidori (written partly in homage, perhaps, to THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN’s famous opening scene).
As scripted, the scene was an affirmation of the power of Mary Shelley’s imagination: she instructs her male companions to enact the “true story” that is to follow, with Percy becoming Victor, Mary assuming the alter ego of Elizabeth, and Polidori remaining as himself. [Without this prologue, casual viewers might not even realise that Mary has playfully included the aloof Polidori – Byron’s personal physician, later author of “The Vampyre” – as the villain of the piece, a more blatant example of her absorption of the masculine arrogance surrounding her into the fabric of her tragic satire.] “Try to look through my eyes,” she exhorts, “tell me what you see.” And Mary’s fantasy becomes their reality, Lake Geneva’s topography dissolving (Phil Dick-style) into the English lakeside sequence which opens the finished film, with Percy/Victor wading into the water to rescue his drowning brother William (a tragic foreshadowing of the poet’s own death in reality). With the excision of the Swiss prologue, and its explicit announcement that the narrative to follow will be merely one fiction within another (somewhat in the style of THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT), the final film version begins in artless and inelegant fashion with William’s perfunctory drowning sequence (accompanied by bland voice-over from Victor), followed by an abrupt cut to his funeral service – all in the space of just over a minute! It’s a spectacularly crass start to an otherwise thoughtful and intelligently-paced film, and often discourages potential viewers from proceeding further. The economic reasons for dropping the Swiss prologue aren’t hard to see, in fairness: requiring matte paintings, underwater filming and an additional cast member (Byron), the extra costs might seem unjustifiable to an accountant’s mind – and it would have also propelled the total running-time beyond the 3-hour mark, thus inconveniencing the TV schedulers, and all for something as intangible as artistic integrity. (Isherwood and Bachardy’s coda, showing the Creature’s hand emerging from the iceberg thought to have become the Frankensteins’ tomb, was likewise sacrificed in favour of a more final conclusion.)
Despite the typical “prestige mini-series” air of carpet-bombing the material with big-name stars, the casting is actually pretty robust, the sight of heavyweight talent in supporting roles not proving overly distracting. Leonard Whiting may seem rather insipid as Frankenstein when compared to the ruthless drive of Cushing’s more famous interpretation, but that seems to be in keeping with Victor’s characterisation in the script. Far from the pioneering loner of previous versions, Frankenstein’s status has here become marginalized (even, possibly, feminized) to that of a keen lab assistant, albeit a technically-gifted one – but definitely second fiddle to the more experienced Clerval and Polidori. One of the ironies of this version is the fickle nature of posterity: both Polidori and Clerval are convinced that their reputations will resonate through the ages (“A hundred years hence, who will not echo the name Polidori!”), when in fact it’s their lowly factotum whose name is destined to be forever associated with their vain ambitions. Posterity favours accident over ability, it seems. Polidori unwisely makes jocular reference to the hand of poetic justice when he learns that Victor has transplanted Clerval’s brain into the Creature (Clerval stole Polidori’s secrets, Frankenstein steals Clerval’s brain), little realising that his own reward for inspiring both these plagiarists will be anonymity. Poor old Pollydolly!
POSTSCRIPT: From one of the (now-lost) replies to this original thread (and I forget the author, sorry!), it turns out that the deleted prologue WAS actually filmed; still exist of the performers dressed as Byron/Shelley et al.