Today’s film isn’t much of a Great War Film to be honest. It kind of is for a few seconds every now and then but for the most part it just isn’t. But then again it kind of is, not because of what happens on screen but for the story it tells. And then again it kind of isn’t. I hope that clears things up for you. Welcome to my brain.
Let me explain. Firstly this is the story of a survivor of the Great War. We meet him in later life and through occasional flashbacks to the conflict we gain insight into his past, his psyche and maybe his behaviour. On its own this would usually be enough for me to slap a Great War Films sticker on the blighter and fire out a review but these reflective moments are so fleeting that it seems slightly awkward, maybe gauche, to make it one of mine. But then again the subject of the film is a little parcel of Great War Film history in his own right. The protagonist is James Whale, a director of films I’ve reviewed here on my quaint, little blog. A man I’ve doffed my cap to on a couple of occasions. So I guess what I’m saying is two piffling reasons are better than one. So here goes.
‘Gods and Monsters’ as I just intimated is about the movie director James Whale. It tells the story of his waning years as he comes to terms with his frailties and the introspections they force upon him. The events depicted in the movie are thoroughly fictional and come from a book called ‘Father of Frankenstein’ written by Christopher Bram. In the film we see Whale’s homosexuality as not so much a cross for him to bear but more a beast for him to relentlessly thrash. In his younger years, the story tells us, this involved pool parties with hordes of oiled up Adonises in budgie smugglers. In later life, as we see in the opening moments of the film, it had festered into lecherous and ultimately fruitless pursuits of younger men.
One of these younger men is a former marine played by Branden Fraser. I am not a big fan of Fraser and he does nothing in this film to change my opinion of him. He is wooden, static and monotone. His big head and thick neck fill my screen and I can’t help but think there’s something slightly alien about him. The character he plays is hit on multiple times by McKellens’ Whale and although there is a physical reaction in each case by his character I did not once feel anything close to an emotion being emoted by this career ‘Actor’.
Sir Ian on the other hand is amazing. I think this film ‘came out’ quite soon after he did and probably had something to do with him choosing or accepting the role. He plays Whale with more than a hint of edge whilst at the same time showing the vulnerabilities of his lengthening years. The relationship he maintains with his housekeeper is the source of the majority of the comic relief in the picture and he ably plays the fall guy to her straight man. He received a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars for his troubles. He lost out to Roberto Benigni (the funny Guy in ‘Down by Law’) for ‘Life is Beautiful’.
I touched on the work of James Whale earlier but failed to mention he is, of course, best known for his pioneering horror films for Universal Studios. He was the director behind such true classics as Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). His first screen credit was for the film adaptation of RC Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ (1930) which is due an imminent review by yours truly. Reminisces of his past glories as a film maker make up a fair share of his melancholy throughout the film and occasional behind the scenes moments are re-enacted here.
Whale would go on to direct the classics named above and many more. He would return to the Great War on a few occasions, firstly on the stage with an early version of Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’ before moving to Hollywood to direct Jean Harlow in ‘Hells’ Angels’. He returned to ‘Journey’s End’ once more, this time on film before moving onto the Universal Horrors. He returned again to the Great War, although this time without success directing ‘The Road Back’, the sequel to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. A film that was so fussed over and re-arranged by the studio execs that in modern times Whale would have most probably taken an Alan Smithee credit.
Some of these films of his are touched on in the dialogue during ‘Gods and Monsters’ and, as a film buff with knowledge of Whale’s work I thrill at their mention. I do wonder though what the vast majority of the viewing public will have taken from the film. Whale is not particularly well known to the generic, slightly balding 27-45 year old film-goer and as such I question what the appeal of this film really is. I feel I (and you probably as well, dear reader) are in the minority and as film fans, or Great War buffs, or both we equate to mere handfuls of movie dollars in the grand scheme of things.
That films like this exist is in itself a wonder to me. No-one could surely profit greatly from its’ existence but exist it does and I’m grateful for it. Not massively grateful because it’s not a particularly good film but a little bit grateful in that I get to see someone I know a little bit about portrayed on screen by someone I like. But from a Great War perspective it offers little insight into the conflict other than perhaps providing a view of how friendships could be formed and lost in short shrift and how this could affect the survivors for the rest of their lives. Will I watch it again? Probably not. Would I recommend it to a friend to watch? Depends on the friend and how much I really like them.