Academic journal article CineAction

James Whale's Frankensteins: Re-Animating the Great War

Academic journal article CineAction

James Whale's Frankensteins: Re-Animating the Great War

Article excerpt

We feel as if something inside us, in our blood, has been switched on. That's not just a phrase--it is a fact. It is the front, that has made electrical contact ... We are dead men with no feelings, who are able by some trick, some dangerous magic, to keep on running and keep on killing. (1)

--Remarque, Erich Maria, Ail Quiet on the Western Front, Vintage, Sydney, 1996, p. 38

The destruction wrought by World War One, its decline in human welfare and the lack of progress that became apparent as Europe began, once more, to mobilise for war were moulded, by British director James Whale, into perhaps the most significant film adaptations of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Moreover, Whale's films--Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935)--should be understood as narratives deriving from the two cataclysmic social crises of the time: the Great War and the post-war years leading up to the Great Depression. Through the prism of those events, Whale's monster is rendered a returning and mutilated soldier, in turn a Forgotten Man and the dispossessed citizen of a depressed economy. Merging these into the now iconic figure of Boris Karloff's monster, Whale's films are emblematic of the inertia of those inter-war years, with hope, reconstruction and progress foiled by the return of history. In establishing the significance of the Great War in Whale's adaptations, this essay also offers an analysis of some of the wider implications this influence brings with it (2), such as the deterioration of the human community and the individual's role within that community, as well as a comparison between Frankenstein's materials and a trope most apparent in German art of the period, namely, the production of destruction.

In this vein, the work of Otto Dix and Ernst Juenger is examined to shed light on Whale's theme of re-animation. Mary Shelley's original concept of a creature borne from the executed criminals paraded in nineteenth-century anatomy theatres easily anticipates the modern, capitalist notion that the destruction of war can generate production and profit. This kind of production utilises death in both procreative and economic terms. As pervasive as the metaphor has become, in Whale, the male scientist assumes a generative role in the laboratory, where his research and creation can be viewed as analogous to fighting on the battlefield. As I'll go on to elaborate by way of comparison with Dix and Juenger, both the laboratory and the battlefield should here be viewed as sites upon which death is regarded as the first step towards a new existence. Yet, as Whale indicates, any attainment of progress or of a new world simply returns the community to a harsher reality, a more unforgiving type of tradition and archetype than before.

As Steven Earl Forry has suggested, the events following World War One and preceding the Great Depression "validated some of the worst scenarios of the Frankenstein story ... only in the twentieth century does the Frankenstein myth fully achieve its apocalyptic dimensions" (3). From World War One onwards, popular culture began to depict machines as increasingly anthropomorphic, and humans as more mechanical. By the 1930s, technology and scientific progress had become increasingly accessible, both alleviating human function and exploiting it. Visualising and screening these new interpretations of science, Whale's films borrow heavily from contemporaneous notions of technology and its relationship to the human. A manufactured product in need of very little maintenance, Frankenstein's monster no longer reads Plutarch in the 1930s. Had Whale's monster been as erudite as Shelley's, he may have preferred Marx to Plutarch.

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In the hundred years separating Shelley and Whale, several literary works had dealt with physical transformations that turned destruction and degeneration into something altogether more productive, most notably Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde (1886), H. …

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