Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) | A gloriously Gothic prime time TV adaptation of Mary Shelley’s legendary novel – that’s just a bit gay too!
In 19th century England, Dr Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting), bitter over his brother’s untimely death, voices his wish that men could have power over life and death. Following a chance encounter with Dr Henri Clerval (David McCallum), a surgeon experimenting in this very field, they join forces and Victor achieves the impossible, the creation of life. Using solar energy, they create a new Adam (Michael Sarrazin), who is handsome and child-like. But when Clerval suddenly dies and the process starts reversing, causing the Creature to degenerate, Victor turns his back on his creation.
Later, the Creature falls for the Agatha (Jane Seymour), a farm girl who dies while fleeing the hideous-looking monster. Taking her body to Victor, hoping he can revive her, the Creature encounters Dr Polidori (James Mason), who seizes the opportunity to coerce Victor into helping him create Prima, the first of a new race of synthetic humans he plans to use to make him rich and powerful. After successfully introducing Prima to London society, the evil puppet master tries to destroy the Creature, but it escapes and goes in search of its mate. But when Prima rejects him, the Creature enacts a terrible revenge on all those who abandoned him…
Maybe not the true story, but an excellent retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, that was originally telecast in two parts on November 30 and December 1, 1973, with an edited two-hour version shown theatrically in Europe.
Adapted for TV for Universal by author Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, this ambitious 181-minute epic strives to be more faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel than prior film versions. Thus, as in the book, Victor Frankenstein’s creation is no monster, but a modern Prometheus. It is only when the creature’s body starts to regress that Victor – with the help of Polidori, a character not in Shelley’s novel, but based on Ernest Thesiger’s Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein – tries once again to create life, this time in the form of a new Eve.
The stellar cast included Leonard Whiting (best known for starring in Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet) as Victor Frankenstein, Nicola Pagett (Upstairs, Downstairs) as his despondent fiancée Elizabeth , Michael Sarrazin as the Creature (first beautiful, then pitted and oozing), James Mason, resplendent in oriental robes, as the evil Polidori, a rough-looking David McCallum as the radical Clerval, and the beautiful Jane Seymour, playing the cat-like Prima, who wears a collar to disguise the tell-tale scar she bears around her neck. The veteran actors making great little cameos include Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Agnes Moorhead (in her second to last role), while Tom Baker, who had just taken on Time Lord duties over on Dr Who, appears as the captain of the ship that Victor flees on after his experiment goes awry.
Coming just a year after the ABC Wide World of Entertainment version starring Robert Foxworth as Victor and Bo Svenson as his monster, Universal’s NBC special was a far more elaborate affair and has many Gothic flourishes to recommend it. Jack Smight (Battle of Midway) directs with great care, while cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson (Willy Wonka) gives the historic London locations an air of Regency authenticity and makes Wilfred Shingleton’s impressive sets look suitably Hammer-esque. Indeed, this version borrows heavily from Hammer’s 1958 sequel The Revenge of Frankenstein, which also featured a creature rotting before our eyes and included a scene in which he gatecrashes an elegant party (although this one is truly macabre, as Prima gets her head ripped off). The Creature’s make-up, meanwhile, is also courtesy of Hammer veteran Roy Ashton.
Isherwood and Bachardy’s script may not be truly representative of Shelley’s story, but it does capture an essence of Romanticism, paying particular attention to themes of beauty, power, radicalism and class. There’s also a gay subtext running through the drama, which, surprisingly, passed directly under the noses of Universal at the time. Bravo to them. [see below].
Allegedly unhappy at how their story came out in the final cut, Isherwood and Bachardy subsequently published their script as a paperback tie-in. The major omissions are a prologue in which Mary Shelley is telling her tale of horror to Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, and an epilogue, in which the Creature survives the avalanche that Victor triggers to bring about their mutual destruction and we see his hand opening (like the flower petals in the title credits) in response to the rays of the sun.
Frankenstein: The True Story is released in its original 4:3 ratio, in a 176-minute cut, for the first time on DVD in the UK through Second Sight Films and includes an introduction by James Mason (which includes scenes from the drama that give away the entire plot).
T’IS A QUEER TALE INDEED
This 1973 version of Mary Shelley’s Gothic tale was written by Christopher Isherwood, who is best known for his 1930s Berlin stories that inspired the musical Cabaret, and his life partner, artist Don Bachardy. In what must be a historic TV happening for the 1970s, the couple fuses their story with a queer subtext, subverting the traditional horror elements to create a prime time gay love story.
Victor Frankenstein is, in Isherwood and Bachardy’s take, a sexually confused medic about to be married to high society belle Elizabeth. When he meets a kindred spirit in renegade doctor Henri Clerval, the two men start having an affair. When Elizabeth discovers their love nest (at Henri’s lodgings), she brushes off the affair as a dalliance and secretly prays for Victor to come back to her.
In Victor’s eyes, the Creature [read Henri] is his mirror image – a perfect combination of beauty and brains [it’s even got Henri’s grey matter in its skull]. It is only when Victor starts seeing the Creature/Henri’s flaws [and he starts to loose his looks] that guilt gets the better of him. He then dumps the Creature/Henri and goes running back to Elizabeth.
But he hasn’t reckoned on Polidori, a vicious old queen who, knowing Victor’s secret, blackmails him into passing off farm girl Prima as a lady. Angry that he has been cast aside, the Creature/Henri gets his revenge by ripping Prima’s head off in full view of Victor, his new wife Elizabeth, and their society friends.
The Creature/Henri’s actions makes Victor realise that his love for Henri is all that matters. A crisis of conscience ensues [represented by the storm at sea] until Victor finally casts aside his feelings of shame and the need to conform [symbolised by the deaths of Elizabeth and Polidori] so that he can finally be with the man he loves – even if it means they must live as outsiders in an icy Antarctic tomb.
Frankenstein: The True Story, Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy, 1973, Avon Books
Posted on March 16, 2014, in Horror, Must See, Must-See and tagged 1970s TV movie, Christopher Isherwood, David McCallum, Don Bachardy, Frankenstein: The True Story, Horror, Jack Smight, James Mason, Leonard Whiting, Mary Shelley, Michael Sarrazin, Must See, Second Sight Films. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.