Read on, but be warned - semantics will drive you nuts.
Last night, Chris and I watched a film I didn’t even know was in production, The Professor and the Madman, with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. It was based on the book of the same name by Simon Winchester, called The Surgeon of Crowthorne in Britain, Crowthorne being the village where Broadmoor is located. It’s the story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the part played in it by two men – Professor James Murray, a great linguist, and Dr. W.C. Minor, a volunteer who played an important role in crafting it, and who also happened to be an inmate at Broadmoor, an asylum for the criminally insane, a thing Murray didn’t know for a decade. Chris and I are now part of a select group, those who actually saw the film.
I’m a writer. The 20-volume Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary sits on a pier table behind my desk, and I use it nearly every day. One of the things that makes it so remarkable is that it attempts to track every single word to its earliest known usage, then to move forward from there through important changes in spelling and usage reflected in quotes from the works where it appears, a monumental task. On my old historical-word blog, Historiograpy, I never used those initials, OED, without their being followed by Praised Be Its Name. For anyone who loves English, it’s a master work, an essential, and something of a miracle.
I bought Winchester’s book over twenty years ago when it was published, and I always thought it would make a terrific film, as with so many other books of what the trade contemptuously calls “popular history.” Most are ignored by filmmakers. Apparently, I wasn’t alone in understanding how cinematic a story it is.
Quite often when a film goes off the rails the reason is all over the trades, but tracking down the complicated story of what happened to this one was a bit tougher. Apparently, Mel Gibson had dreamed of doing this story for two decades, and it had been in pre-production since at least 2001, when John Boorman and Todd Komarnicki wrote the first screenplay. To save time, let’s flash forward to 2016, when Gibson’s co-worker on the film Apocalypto, Iranian writer/director Farhad Safina, was brought in to do a fresh version of the screenplay, for a film that was now on the front burner. Gibson and his Australian partner Bruce Davey have a company, Icon Productions, and as a rule they raise the money on their own for their films and keep creative control. But this time, tragically, they brought in another company as a production partner, Voltage Productions, headed by French-born Nicolas Chartier, doubtless for the sake of financing. Chartier is a talented writer/producer and a bit of a hustler. Maybe Gibson had a lousy lawyer for this one, but it does seem that Voltage, clearly afraid of losing money, stepped in and took over all sorts of things that Gibson claimed had been forbidden them in the original partnership contract, and he promptly sued to have it nullified, and to take back his own film. This was the case that he lost. The judge’s public statements sounded confused by it all. What’s tragic is that the film only cost 25 million. I know, I know, but in the film business nowadays, that’s practically a low-budget indie. The film, as it stands now, was, according to Gibson, “a bitter disappointment to me.”
It began shooting in Dublin back in 2016, but disorder in the court kept it from any release, such as it was, until summer of 2019. In finding out what really happened, it doesn’t help that, after a long court wrangle between all parties, lawsuits and counter-suits, much of the matter was put under seal. The director, Farhad Safina, had his name removed from the credits, always an ugly bit of business. The film’s distributer, Vertical Entertainment, pretty much took it directly to DVD and the small screen, with a limited theatrical release, the hallmark of a disaster in which no one has any confidence, treatment generally reserved for films like Howard the Duck.
I have a lot of respect for Mel Gibson, which would startle most of my friends, who would invariably bring up what they call “the Jewish thing.” Yes, I’ve got a thing about the Jews. Since I was a teenager I’ve studied Hebrew and the Bible and Jewish history, ancient and modern, I’m a complete Zionist pig, and though I’m not fashionably looking for racists under the bed each night, I don’t much care for anti-Semites. But if the conversation between them was properly recorded by the cop that arrested Gibson on a DUI that night in 2006, I think you’re dealing with a man who was, and perhaps is, in desperate need of help. Aren’t they all nuts, you ask? Yep. Actors are flashfire people who can’t balance their own checkbook, as a rule, and artistic brilliance is often a bitch clawing at your back. I think what Gibson has going for him as an artist is pathetically rare these days – a fairly good understanding of the sort of film people want to see. People don’t want to sit through a film depicting Jesus as gay, which is not only complete rot historically, it’s clearly and deliberately provocative, a middle-finger held up in the face of the paying audience.
The Professor and the Madman is the kind of film people are dying to see. The reviews for it have been incredibly mixed – the professional trade reviews were savage, as if a vengeful Chartier slipped them cash under the table. But the reviews from real people, though mixed, were far more positive, a 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. Take a look at the ones on Amazon. Many are glowing, and from obviously intelligent viewers. I think one of the reasons for this is simple. People are incredibly hungry for films that inspire, films that tell the story of dogged determination and courage, that show a positive view of the partnership of marriage, and that even, horror of horrors, while not being a “Christian” film, occasionally reference the Bible without its being in the hands of a tattoo-covered pederast and serial killer. This film is all of the above, and so, even in its wounded form, it hit those nerves.
Okay, let’s take a look at the wreckage, available for viewing on Amazon.
As we watched, it was with an increasing blend of adoration and frustration. The story itself is wonderful, begging to be told, and this alone kept it going. The performances as well are solid, no matter what you might have heard. Gibson is fine as Murray, the self-taught linguist who left school at 14, clearly making him a threat to academia. Penn, as well, does a great job, and if he’s a bit over the top at times, the role calls for it. If I had a minor complaint about the tech, it would be that the sound in many scenes is a bit muddy. Between Penn’s ramblings and Gibson’s Scottish brogue, some key stuff was difficult to hear, especially when the two start trading off words at lightening speed, an incredibly good idea for a scene that gets hurt by it.
The major complaint here is that the whole thing has a feel of being slapped together. Not surprising, in light of its history.
A director and his editor have what can only be described as a marital relationship. One of the main bones of contention in the lawsuit is that Voltage claimed the right to control content and brought on a pair of editors to whack down the director’s original two hour-forty minute cut, a thing he was already doing himself. Safina rightly demanded his original editor, who knew the project, be rehired, and lost this point – the judge, for some reason, found that Voltage had the right to hijack it.
My Chris was a film editor for years, and he’s got a favorite rant. Not surprising, to those who know him. Americans are still the finest film artists on earth, but all through the late 1990s and into the millennium, Chris and I watched as film after film was sunk by two things – a lousy script and bad editing. Editing was once a very different process. Each shooting day you put together the rushes of that day’s filming, slowly knitting them together into a workprint. Workprints were generally screened in a theatre, by a group of people who’d worked on it, in a way similar to what was to come, when the film was released. Now, editing is one more thing that’s done on a computer, in a little room, quite often all alone. I once thought this great leap forward was a godsend, and you would too if you’d ever dealt with miles of workprint. But later, we both began to see something subtle happening. Films were getting longer, as a rule, films that couldn’t carry two extra reels. The days of the cleanly-cut 112-minute feature were passing. Even Jaws, with its epic feel to the last half, came in at a relatively tight two hours under the flagship of the great Verna Fields. But so many films we saw were coming in at a sloppier two hours twenty minutes, if not longer, and as a rule they weren’t the better for it. Editors weren’t as good anymore at knowing where to flick off the fat. Of course, epics were always longer – they had a bigger story to tell.
That’s why it was so odd, because with The Professor and the Madman, the problem was just the opposite; even at a bit over two hours, it felt too short. There was a sensation that it had been hurriedly sewn together. The passage of incredible amounts of time was never conveyed. Too many story arcs weren’t followed, too many things were left unexplained, things you really wanted to know. The crescendo moment, when Murray discovers that his long-time correspondent isn’t, perhaps, a doctor at Broadmoor, but rather a murderer and an inmate there, is pushed up way, way too fast, as if they just couldn’t wait to get to it. The timing is lousy, and the moment loses some of its power for that reason.
A great supporting cast is wasted – for example, the wonderful actor Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Henry Bradley, another brilliant, self-taught linguist who came on as an assistant and eventually became joint senior editor with Murray. He’s literally thrown away. Maybe he had a couple nice little scenes, but they ended up on the floor. Jennifer Ehle is her usual wonderful as Murray’s wife, and Steve Coogan as his friend and co-worker, Frederick Furnivall, is also especially good.
I’ll give only one example of the sort of storyline confusion that plagues it here and there, I think the most egregious one. There were several physicians and “alienists,” doctors who treated lunatic patients, on staff in this period at Broadmoor. They’re given more detailed treatment in the book, but the only one on film is a Dr. Richard Bayne, a late arrival in reality, thanklessly played by Stephen Dillane. The character in the film seems to be a composite of all of them. In the opener, when Minor arrives at Broadmoor, Bayne is played as a soft-spoken, kindly physician with a very modern attitude about madness. He even points to a chair once used to tie down the insane, brushing it off as a relic of a sad past. By the end, he’s portrayed as a complete bully and probable nutcase himself, subjecting Minor to some sort of horrid “treatment,” again never explained by anyone, in which Minor’s own hands, in rubber gloves, are forced down his throat until he vomits, while Bayne stands off madly snapping pictures of the whole thing. In truth, I think the first physician was the kindly Dr. Nicholson, who retired in 1895, having never recovered after an attack from one of his patients, while Bayne was the one who took over for him, after Minor had been a patient for decades. And yes it’s true, not only that Bayne was a little martinet despised by all, but that, after the grisly incident of Minor cutting off his own penis in the throes of a major breakdown, Bayne came down on him hard, taking away his many privileges and subjecting him to horrific treatment. The separation of the two, played by two different actors, would have made this all clear, or at least some enlightening dialog. As it is, it leaves you scratching your head. It was after this that Murray campaigned for Minor’s release from Broadmoor, going to then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill, and he succeeded. Minor went home to America, and died in 1920 in Hartford, Connecticut, in an elderly home for the mentally ill.
Safina’s 2016 screenplay is available online, being Exhibit A in the court case, and I’d love to take the time to read it. I find myself wondering if much of what I seek, what feels absent on film, is to be found there.
One of the battles between the two production companies that got reported was that five more shooting days at Oxford were slated, and Voltage denied the funds to do this, or Oxford refused, or both, depending on the article you read. Clearly Gibson and Safina were right. It does lack a certain Oxford feel. I think of the original miniseries of Brideshead Revisited, in which Oxford University is like another character, and, like the great country house of the title, a palpable presence throughout. Since the OED is one of the ultimate achievements of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, it would have been nice if that were the case for this film.
Critics often plead for the audience to read the book the film was based on, but in this case it may be your only chance to really get the whole story. Simon Winchester is a good popular historian, and the book is a quick, fun read. My only major complaint is that such a work should have no index. The back of the book contains lots of goodies Winchester calls a “postscript,” but there’s no index, which has grown increasingly common, in the battle over who’s going to pony up the lousy three hundred bucks. Traditionally, for reasons that pass all understanding, this cost was laid on the author rather than the publisher, and in an increasingly embittered battle between them, with advances at an all-time low, authors are commonly refusing to pay for it, while publishers won’t step into the breach as they damn well should.
Broadmoor asylum was only nine years old when William Chester Minor was sentenced to it in 1872. Increasingly judges were sentencing the criminally insane to hospital rather than prison, and, as in America, these were open-ended sentences, with the inmate released at the King’s pleasure. Minor had been a captain, a medical officer in the Civil War, an educated, well-born man from New Haven, Connecticut who’d been in London only a year when the murder occurred. The case briefly became something of an international incident. He’d fled to the Continent to escape his demons, and ended up obsessing on prostitutes and contracting gonorrhea, worsening his sexual fixations, if that was possible. On the night of the crime he chased brewery worker George Merrett through the streets of Lambeth and gunned him down, admitting at once that he’d shot the wrong man – he was after one of “them.” He was a paranoid schizophrenic, and in the daytime he could seem perfectly rational. It was at night that the pixies came, to torture him and sexually abuse him. Everyone involved knew he was mad as Moses. Having a regular income, and being neither epileptic nor suicidal, Dr. Minor was sent to Block Two at Broadmoor, which was far nicer, the block for the “swells” in the lingo of the day. (The way epileptics were treated in institutions is appalling.) It seems odd to us that he was given so many privileges, but this wasn’t uncommon. Broadmoor was, for its day, a progressive institution, especially compared to St. Mary of Bethlehem, the “Bedlam” of legend. He had two rooms, with a paid servant to help keep them clean, all the books and art materials he wanted, even wine and tobacco. He played the flute, and gave lessons to the other inmates. The American consul in Britain kept track of his treatment.
The American consul also put together funds for the widow of his victim, Mrs. Merrett, and her seven children. Minor’s step-mother contributed to it, while Minor himself gave up part of his stipend from the American army. Merrett and Minor did develop a relationship, perhaps not as romantic as the one portrayed in the film. But she did bring him books over the course of many months, apart from the ones he bought himself, and this was how he found out about James Murray and his appeal for volunteers, on a paper tucked into one of them.
But this is a story, as Winchester says, with two protagonists, and if for no other reason, buy this book to read the biography of James Murray; it will make you feel like a worm. He was astonishingly brilliant and almost entirely self-educated, what was once called a polymath, a man with too many areas of knowledge to be listed. But for Murray, language was the siren’s song. He spoke dozens of them, studying everything from the sheep-counting numerology of the Wowenoc Indians of Maine to the Syriac Peshitta, and he raised himself from an impoverished bank clerk with a dying wife to arguably the most important scholar in the British Empire, taking on a project most had deemed impossible. Many men worked over the course of seventy long years on the first edition of the OED, but Murray is the one who’s remembered. The union of these two men, Murray and Minor, is a story worth reading.
And the film The Professor and the Madman is one worth seeing. It’s on Amazon Prime with an appallingly cheap price. Right now, you can buy it for $4.99. It’s certainly worth that much to screen it for yourself, and take from it all that is good, while you try to forgive what is bad. In all, it was a noble effort.
For my own part, I have only one question left, the Mystery of the Funky Little Cap they're both wearing. It's like that hoary old gag about the pope, "I don't know who the guy in the beanie is, but the other one's Bernie Schwartz." To my annoyance I can find no reference to it in Winchester’s book, but on the cover is a picture of Dr. Minor, in the garden at Broadmoor. He’s wearing a funky little cap. In several famous photographs of James Murray in his scriptorium, he, too, is wearing a similar cap, though his looks more like the four-sided Sir Thomas More cap, a probable precursor to our pasteboard graduation cap. In More’s day it was some sort of master scholar’s cap that made bilious and silly headlines when Chief Justice Antonin Scalia wore one he’d been given by the Thomas More Society to swear in Obama. Let the conspiracy theories fly. Even the website of the Society has only a vague explanation of what the cap means, that it's definitely something academic. Versions of it are called an Oxford cap or a Tudor cap. Having never been matriculated by the British university system, I’m much in the dark about its meaning, but I suspect Minor’s cap may have been a gift from Murray. I’ve spent hours searching, and it’s sort of outrageous that nobody anywhere is even mentioning it, much less explaining it. Of course, in our present society, scholars don’t rate much ink anyway. If you really want attention, you have to be a stripper who slept with the president.
If anyone out there knows about it, I’d love to hear. I hate hanging chads.