Telefilm Time Machine – Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)

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Film buffs tend to have obsessions. We fuss and fawn over particular actors and directors while attempting to see everything they ever appeared in or produced. One of my own personal obsessions isn’t an actor or a director but it’s a tale I enjoy seeing reimagined over and over again in different languages and in various settings. That tale is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and I’ve seen it retold in many movies of varying quality but I never get tired of it. One of my favorite adaptations of Frankenstein happens to be the 1973 telefilm FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. This lush production runs more than 3 hours long and features a stellar cast of talented players including Michael Sarrazin, Leonard Whiting, James Mason, David McCallum, Jane Seymour, Nicola Pagett, Agnes Moorehead, Ralph Richardson, John Gielguld, and Margret Leighton. It was directed by Jack Smight (HARPER, KALEIDOSCOPE, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, DAMNATION ALLEY, etc.) and based on a script written by the acclaimed British author Christopher Isherwood along with his partner Don Bachardy. Isherwood and Bachardy took creative liberties with the source material but their teleplay still managed to retain many of the timeless elements that have made Shelley’s story capable of capturing the imagination of readers like myself for nearly 200 years.

fts0This two-part telefilm begins with young Dr. Frankenstein (Leonard Whitney ) witnessing the accidental drowning death of his brother. During the subsequent funeral, Frankenstein becomes so frustrated with the priest’s prayers that he storms out of the church while asking aloud, “Death, peace, God’s will! And all of us listening with pious faces. Why God’s will? Any fool with a sword or gun can give death. Why can’t we give life?” Afterward he commits himself to finding a scientific means of creating life and returns to the hospital where he was educated. While there he meets Dr. Clerval (David McCallum) who shares his enthusiasms and the two men begin to successfully conduct experiments that animate dead insects and severed limbs. This eventually leads them to assemble a man out of body parts they’ve gathered but before they can reanimate the stitched together corpse, Dr. Clerval dies leaving Frankenstein to continue without him. With the help of solar power, Frankenstein creates the new “Adam.” At first he’s delighted by the attractive facade and child-like personality of the creature he’s born but things soon take a turn for the worst when it becomes apparent that the life giving process is reversing itself. The creature’s appearance eventually begins to decay and turn monstrous. He also becomes more aggressive and violent.

There are a number of reasons why I find FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY such an effective retelling of Shelley’s classic tale. First and foremost, this is a nice looking made-for-TV movie produced by Universal and was shot on location in the U.K. while making great use of Pinewood Studios. The laboratory scenes, full of pulsating lights, colorful fluids and massive man-made contraptions seething with life are particularly impressive. It also contains a number of noteworthy performances. Michael Sarrazin makes a sympathetic monster and Leonard Whiting is an adequate Frankenstein but the real scene stealers are probably the peripheral cast members including James Mason who plays an evil Fu Manchu style Doctor called Polidori (named after the historic Doctor Polidori who befriended Mary Shelley and was present when she began her novel in Switzerland), David McCallum as the driven Doctor Clerval, Agnes Moorehead as Frankenstein’s nosy landlady and Jane Seymour as the monster’s would-be bride, Prima. Seymour was just 21-years-old at the time and alongside Elsa Lanchester in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and Jennifer Beals in THE BRIDE, she’s one of the more interesting and effective female monsters. Seymour plays Prima as cold and calculating but equally naïve and manipulable under the tutelage of the malevolent Polidori and her natural beauty masks a violent streak, which is genuinely frightening to observe. FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY also boasts a soundtrack by the talented jazz musician and composer Gil Melle (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, etc.) that manages to be both eerie and moving at times.

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As I mentioned earlier, the script by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy’s takes liberties with the source material but the changes, omissions and additions are worth noting. Both Isherwood and his longtime companion Bachardy were avid film buffs so they included many references to previous Frankenstein films in their teleplay such as THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. Having the creature’s source of life come from solar power was an intelligent twist and to my knowledge this was the first film that included a finale that takes place in the North Pole, which was an integral part of Shelley’s story. This combining of opposite organic forces (the sun giving life and the icy cold signifying death) to give the creature life and eventually take it away was a brilliant nod to the Romantic obsession with nature. The script is also littered with biblical references, which mirror passages of John Milton’s Paradise Lost as they appeared in Frankenstein. And as artistic outsiders and gay men Isherwood and Bachardy’s script is keen to explore the creature’s confusion and isolation in an unaccepting world as well as the queer theories surrounding Shelley’s novel. This is evident in the way FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY emphasizes the affectionate and codependent relationships that the doctor has with the other men (and the monster) in his life. All of these elements can be found in Shelley’s original novel but they’re often underplayed or ignored in film adaptations.

FRANKENSTEIN: A TRUE STORY was also exceptionally graphic and gory for a 1973 telefilm and included amputations, animated severed limbs, a decapitation and suggested nudity, which shocked television audiences and left an indelible impression on a generation of young horror fans. These elements were edited out of future airings and were missing from the video release but Universal finally issued an uncut version of the original broadcast on DVD in 2006. There are still some questions about scenes that may or may not have been omitted from the DVD but I believe the 2006 release is complete and intact and it even includes an introduction narrated by James Mason.

Whether you’re a Frankenstein buff or just a horror film buff I think there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY. It’s also a treat for classic film fans who appreciate seeing actors like James Mason and Agnes Moorehead in later roles. Critical reaction has been mixed over the years but now FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY is generally considered one of the more interesting adaptations of Mary Shelley’s novel mainly due to the contributions of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy.

38 Responses Telefilm Time Machine – Frankenstein: The True Story (1973)
Posted By DevlinCarnate : April 25, 2013 3:23 pm

it’s been a loooooong time since i’ve seen this,but i distinctly remember being riveted to the set while watching this in my youth…as an avid fan of both the Universal and Hammer versions it was a real treat to see the story in prime time instead of waiting until after the local news to see it…i’m glad you cleared one thing up for me though,i was always under the impression that David McCallum played Frankenstein…thanks for the nostalgia trip !

Posted By DevlinCarnate : April 25, 2013 3:23 pm

it’s been a loooooong time since i’ve seen this,but i distinctly remember being riveted to the set while watching this in my youth…as an avid fan of both the Universal and Hammer versions it was a real treat to see the story in prime time instead of waiting until after the local news to see it…i’m glad you cleared one thing up for me though,i was always under the impression that David McCallum played Frankenstein…thanks for the nostalgia trip !

Posted By Emgee : April 25, 2013 3:25 pm

Elsa Lancaster , John Gielgould, Mary Shelly (twice). Sorry…

Otherwise an excellent piece on a film i think i saw….unless it was another faithful adaptation of the novel pre-De Niro.
Simply the fact that it’s so different from the previous adaptations, wonderful as they are, was a pleasant surprise.

Posted By Emgee : April 25, 2013 3:25 pm

Elsa Lancaster , John Gielgould, Mary Shelly (twice). Sorry…

Otherwise an excellent piece on a film i think i saw….unless it was another faithful adaptation of the novel pre-De Niro.
Simply the fact that it’s so different from the previous adaptations, wonderful as they are, was a pleasant surprise.

Posted By Deanna : April 25, 2013 3:39 pm

I’ve had a very clear memory of seeing lots of this, but never knew over the years exactly what it was. Why in the world I was watching that when I was five is beyond me, but I guess my attraction to monsters and aliens started early!

Posted By Deanna : April 25, 2013 3:39 pm

I’ve had a very clear memory of seeing lots of this, but never knew over the years exactly what it was. Why in the world I was watching that when I was five is beyond me, but I guess my attraction to monsters and aliens started early!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 25, 2013 5:02 pm

Devlin – Hope you get a chance to revisit it. I think it would probably surprise you.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 25, 2013 5:02 pm

Devlin – Hope you get a chance to revisit it. I think it would probably surprise you.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 25, 2013 5:03 pm

Emgee – Than you! Name typos are my specialty. And considering how many times I typed the name “Shelley” above I think my average was pretty darn good. ;)

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 25, 2013 5:03 pm

Emgee – Than you! Name typos are my specialty. And considering how many times I typed the name “Shelley” above I think my average was pretty darn good. ;)

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 25, 2013 5:05 pm

Deanna – I first saw this when I was very young too in reruns but it’s a fun film to revisit and I think it’s plays better now that I’m older and can appreciate the slow pacing more. Hope you have the chance to see it again. James Mason is a real hoot in this!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 25, 2013 5:05 pm

Deanna – I first saw this when I was very young too in reruns but it’s a fun film to revisit and I think it’s plays better now that I’m older and can appreciate the slow pacing more. Hope you have the chance to see it again. James Mason is a real hoot in this!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : April 25, 2013 6:10 pm

Oh, I wasn’t allowed to watch this due to scary movies giving me bad dreams, etc. as a kid, but I do remember my classmates discussing it at school. I think I can handle seeing it now! Thanks for the posting about it.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : April 25, 2013 6:10 pm

Oh, I wasn’t allowed to watch this due to scary movies giving me bad dreams, etc. as a kid, but I do remember my classmates discussing it at school. I think I can handle seeing it now! Thanks for the posting about it.

Posted By AL : April 25, 2013 6:26 pm

This is the best of all the Frankenstein films.

Posted By AL : April 25, 2013 6:26 pm

This is the best of all the Frankenstein films.

Posted By Gene : April 25, 2013 9:23 pm

Mary Shelley’s novel is one of my favorites and I love many of the cinematic renditions, most of which twist the plot somehow. I have seen this version many years ago and haven’t really thought about it for a long time. Will definitely revisit it. Thanks for always bringing great and rarely praised films to light.

Posted By Gene : April 25, 2013 9:23 pm

Mary Shelley’s novel is one of my favorites and I love many of the cinematic renditions, most of which twist the plot somehow. I have seen this version many years ago and haven’t really thought about it for a long time. Will definitely revisit it. Thanks for always bringing great and rarely praised films to light.

Posted By warrenaddict : April 25, 2013 11:30 pm

Great post on a great movie Kimberly.
I can remember this second grader begging his parents to watch on our one TV during it’s original airing…
Regarding edits, I had previously owned a VHS tape (Key Video I think) of a 2 hour version that had a little more “arm on the ground” stuff and definitely a longer (from behind with some neck) decapitation shot. I assume they were from an overseas theatrical release.

Again great posting, but who the heck is Leonard Whitney??

Posted By warrenaddict : April 25, 2013 11:30 pm

Great post on a great movie Kimberly.
I can remember this second grader begging his parents to watch on our one TV during it’s original airing…
Regarding edits, I had previously owned a VHS tape (Key Video I think) of a 2 hour version that had a little more “arm on the ground” stuff and definitely a longer (from behind with some neck) decapitation shot. I assume they were from an overseas theatrical release.

Again great posting, but who the heck is Leonard Whitney??

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 26, 2013 12:42 am

I’m happy to see so many people offering up favorable opinions of the movie! I wasn’t sure what the response would be but I’m glad it’s got so many fans.

As for Leonard Whitney, he’s a friend of Elsa Lancaster.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 26, 2013 12:42 am

I’m happy to see so many people offering up favorable opinions of the movie! I wasn’t sure what the response would be but I’m glad it’s got so many fans.

As for Leonard Whitney, he’s a friend of Elsa Lancaster.

Posted By Fred : April 27, 2013 10:24 am

I always loved this since I saw this as a kid. I just picked up a copy of the DVD at a nearby Big Lots as a gift for my daughter who is starting to get into horror films(and it only cost $3!). She’s seen the Karloff Frankenstein, but none of the Hammer ones yet, so I think this would make an excellent introduction. Aside from the graphic gore (which was suprising for an NBC telefilm in the early 70s), this was one of the first times I can recall having the creature being handsome. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories.

Posted By Fred : April 27, 2013 10:24 am

I always loved this since I saw this as a kid. I just picked up a copy of the DVD at a nearby Big Lots as a gift for my daughter who is starting to get into horror films(and it only cost $3!). She’s seen the Karloff Frankenstein, but none of the Hammer ones yet, so I think this would make an excellent introduction. Aside from the graphic gore (which was suprising for an NBC telefilm in the early 70s), this was one of the first times I can recall having the creature being handsome. Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories.

Posted By SergioM : April 27, 2013 3:10 pm

I do remember that mini-series very well and it shocked at the time with some of the stuff they were able to get away with I was surprised it somehow got past TV censors. I had read the DVD wasn’t that good but on your recommendation I’ll pick it up

Now I’m curious again to watch that Kenneth Branagh version with DeNiro. Everyone thought it was howled at the time how horrible it was but I didn’t think it was that bad at all.

Posted By SergioM : April 27, 2013 3:10 pm

I do remember that mini-series very well and it shocked at the time with some of the stuff they were able to get away with I was surprised it somehow got past TV censors. I had read the DVD wasn’t that good but on your recommendation I’ll pick it up

Now I’m curious again to watch that Kenneth Branagh version with DeNiro. Everyone thought it was howled at the time how horrible it was but I didn’t think it was that bad at all.

Posted By Shuvcat : April 27, 2013 3:18 pm

I thought the TV version with Randy Quaid was worth a look as well.

Posted By Shuvcat : April 27, 2013 3:18 pm

I thought the TV version with Randy Quaid was worth a look as well.

Posted By David Richards : April 27, 2013 3:59 pm

Liked Frankenstein: The True Story when I was a kid and liked it when I saw it a year ago. Thank you for your informative review.

Posted By David Richards : April 27, 2013 3:59 pm

Liked Frankenstein: The True Story when I was a kid and liked it when I saw it a year ago. Thank you for your informative review.

Posted By jim` : April 27, 2013 7:16 pm

Kimberly, thanks for the write-up and reminder. I’m watching it now and am very impressed. One thing you doesn’t mention is the theatricality of the production. Many of the actors are of that olde British stock theatre breed and their stage presence makes its way onto the screen. Part of me is just enjoying the acting!

Posted By jim` : April 27, 2013 7:16 pm

Kimberly, thanks for the write-up and reminder. I’m watching it now and am very impressed. One thing you doesn’t mention is the theatricality of the production. Many of the actors are of that olde British stock theatre breed and their stage presence makes its way onto the screen. Part of me is just enjoying the acting!

Posted By jim` : April 27, 2013 8:04 pm

Also, wanted to thank you for noting the parallel between _Paradise Lost_ and _Frankenstein_. Read _Frankenstein_ as a kid — about the time this movie was broadcast! but only discovered Milton years later. Will now have to re-read both.

Posted By jim` : April 27, 2013 8:04 pm

Also, wanted to thank you for noting the parallel between _Paradise Lost_ and _Frankenstein_. Read _Frankenstein_ as a kid — about the time this movie was broadcast! but only discovered Milton years later. Will now have to re-read both.

Posted By Heidi : April 29, 2013 12:28 pm

Don’t think I have seen this one, but will look for it. My favorite Frankenstein moment is a story my mom tells about when she was a child. Grandpa finally said that they could go to a movie, and it was Frankenstein that was playing in town. My mom was about 6 years old at the time, but she and her sisters were so excited, to go to town AND get to see a movie. I think she said it was the first movie she saw in a theater. Anyway, it was probably the last one for a while too, she said it scared her so badly! I love that my grandpa took them to see that movie, it probably shut them up for a while, frivolous things like movies were expensive!

Posted By Heidi : April 29, 2013 12:28 pm

Don’t think I have seen this one, but will look for it. My favorite Frankenstein moment is a story my mom tells about when she was a child. Grandpa finally said that they could go to a movie, and it was Frankenstein that was playing in town. My mom was about 6 years old at the time, but she and her sisters were so excited, to go to town AND get to see a movie. I think she said it was the first movie she saw in a theater. Anyway, it was probably the last one for a while too, she said it scared her so badly! I love that my grandpa took them to see that movie, it probably shut them up for a while, frivolous things like movies were expensive!

Posted By Sean Smithson : July 17, 2013 5:11 pm

Man I LOVE this flick. I was a kid when these were all originally airing, and am the proud owner of both the soundtrack and the novelization.

Posted By Sean Smithson : July 17, 2013 5:13 pm

By “these” I mean all the classic telehorror films of the 70′s. The Night Stalker. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. Moon Of The Wolf. I also love the scary episodes of stuff like Starsky and Hutch, who battled both vampires annnnd satanists in respective Halloween episodes.

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