February 04, 2006

Karloff, Gods and Monsters, and the Horrors of War

The NYT offers an interesting article about Boris Karloff, on the occasion of a film festival celebrating the 75th anniversary of "Frankenstein" and focusing on "the odd career of this unlikely star." Before Karloff and the movie that established his enduring fame fused themselves into our cultural subconscious, Karloff was only "a middle-aged, middlingly successful English character actor (born William Henry Pratt), skillful and professional enough to have appeared in dozens of pictures in the previous 15 years."

Terrence Rafferty, the article's author, mentions one film I seem to have missed over the years, Robert Wise's "Body Snatcher" from the mid-1940s. Rafferty refers to Karloff's acting in that film as his "best, most profoundly unsettling performance," and writes:
In "Body Snatcher," Karloff plays an Edinburgh cabman named Gray, who robs graves to supply fresh cadavers for a medical school. (The year is 1831, not long after the scandal of the famous cemetery plunderers Burke and Hare.) What's most alarming about Gray, though, isn't so much his grisly occupation as the glee with which he torments his favorite customer, one Dr. MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), and MacFarlane's idealistic young assistant. Gray affects a kind of grinning servility, a working-class good-enough-for-the-likes-of-me manner, while he takes his awful pleasure in reminding the medical men of their complicity in his crimes. This man's true vocation (and it's clearly a labor of love) is that of corrupter, and he carries the stench of the grave with him wherever he goes. Karloff works here with bushy eyebrows, cold eyes and sudden sepulchral smiles to create a villain of near-Shakespearean heft and complexity: a monster of resentment, like Richard III, and a man who can do good only by doing bad.
I think I ought to see that.

I mention this article for another reason: it reminded me of a point made by Bill Condon in the commentary to his very fine film, "Gods and Monsters," about the last days of James Whale, the director of "Frankenstein." Whale had been a soldier in World War I and a prisoner of war for the last year of that conflict, and those experiences forever altered his life -- as The Great War altered the lives of everyone in the world, directly or indirectly. (Here is the Wikipedia entry about Whale, and his life and work.) Last fall, I indicated in a few posts that I wanted to write more about the profound effects of The Great War, including its general cultural effects and the numerous ways in which it altered our conception of ourselves and our place in the universe. It is not an exaggeration to say that nothing was the same after World War I. (The specifically political effects of World War I, and how it led directly to the rise of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, thus setting the course for the remainder of the 20th century -- a course the effects of which continue to be experienced politically today, and in Bush's misnamed "War on Terror" -- are broadly traced in the second part of my Iran series, The Folly of Intervention.)

The Great War affected the arts in countless ways. A fascinating consideration of these issues is offered by Modris Eksteins in his book, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. I expect to be discussing some aspects of Eksteins' work fairly soon. I have to admit that one of Condon's observations about the life of James Whale and the culture in which he worked brought me up short. Over the last few years, we have seen numerous stories about how advances in medical technology have saved the lives of many soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many soldiers who would have died of their wounds in previous eras were able to survive -- albeit with horrible and sometimes horrifying injuries. I had read some of those stories and, to some extent, I had fallen for the idea that this represented a "new" kind of development.

In my writing about foreign policy and politics generally, I've often observed that, in terms of the underlying principles and dynamics involved, there is nothing new under the sun. I ought to have remembered my own admonition -- because Condon points out that precisely the same phenomenon occurred in connection with World War I. He remarks that scientific and medical advances ensured the survival of many soldiers in The Great War who would have died in earlier conflicts -- but many of those soldiers had genuinely awful injuries. Condon points out that, in the years following World War I, people living in Europe found themselves surrounded by men with grievous injuries -- missing arms and legs, often with terrible burns and other scars, or with other abnormalities. These men were, if you will, "monsters" -- and they were everywhere, present in numbers never before seen.

This new reality was overwhelming, and profoundly disturbing and upsetting. So it is no surprise that these "monsters" very quickly found expression in art, including the newest art of all: the cinema. Other factors were involved -- but this new reality strongly influenced the rise of German Expressionism, and films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." And when European and English artists came to the United States, and when they began working in Hollywood, they brought this reality with them. One of the results was the proliferation of horror films -- films populated by monsters.

The films added a mythic layer to the stories -- of course, Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein is a modern retelling of an ancient myth (remember the full title: Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus) -- but the impulse to tell these stories anew in that particular time arose in significant part from the transformed world that resulted from The Great War. These horror films from the 1920s and 1930s -- a trend which hardly coincidentally was repeated in the 1950s, after World War II -- can make us feel that the world has gone mad. But with The Great War, and then with World War II, the world had gone mad.

And in ways too numerous to count, the world we live in today continues to reflect those transformative conflicts. The endless wars of the 20th century and the great devastation they caused, including the "monsters" they left in their wake, created a reality that was profoundly different in many ways from anything previously witnessed. Is it overstating the case to say that we all live in a horror film now? Some would not think so.

But perhaps the most dangerous monsters of all are those who look completely "normal." Some of them are even elected to lead nations. Now there's a nightmare to banish sleep forever.