FICTIONAL SCIENCE: Movies Based On Science Fact, Pt. 1

Republibot 4.0
Republibot 4.0's picture

I've recently become intrigued by the idea of fiction made from science: stories based on actual scientific
acheivements or inspirations.

I'm currently working on a review of films based on the US space program, which will go up just as soon as I view the last film in my self-chosen series. In the meantime, I'd like to talk about some films based on the lives and careers of eminent scientists.

It used to be that scientists were heroic figures, usually laboring away in some isolated laboratory (you have to say "laboratory" in this case--"lab" just doesn't get it.) Oftentimes no one truly appreciated their efforts, or even openly scoffed and criticized them as quacks and charlatans.

Such was the case in the 1936 biographical film "The Story of Louis Pasteur," starring Paul Muni, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the dedicated chemist whose experiments with microbes and vaccines changed the lives of millions. Viewing this film with more than 20/20 hindsight, it was almost painful to watch as Pasteur was openly ridiculed by almost every contemporary doctor in the France of the mid-nineteenth century. Even when he was right, he was still mocked and derided for his insistence that microscopic germs, carried from patient to patient on unclean hands, clothes, and medical instruments, caused fatal illnesses.

The film was probably magnifying the ignorance and arrogance of the French medical establishment, but I could not help wondering what scientific "knowledge" we're so certain about today, will be overturned by some doggedly determined "unqualified" researcher in the not-too-distant future. The French medical men were disdainful of Pasteur (in the film) because he was merely a chemist; it was fine enough when he contributed to the understanding of the fermentation processes of beer and wine, but when he tried to apply his study of bacteria and microbes to human and animal cases, he was, quite literally, run out of Paris.

The film, although biographical in nature, was probably taking many liberties with Pasteur's story, but it still made for compelling viewing. I feel that I will have to do some further reading about Pasteur just to find out how far from fact the film deviated. From what I've read so far, this film is "highly romanticized," to be polite about it. "Imaginative" might be another good modifier.

In any event, the story covered Pasteur's work with the anthrax vaccine, the rabies vaccine, and more sanitary
methods for reducing the horrific toll that puepural or "childbed fever" was taking on parturient mothers. It displayed how driven Pasteur was to promote his ideas, and the boost he got from his success against anthrax, which (according to the film) brought him recognition from the eminent English scientist, Joseph Lister, whose work on improving surgical hygeine paralleled and utilized Pasteur's efforts.

It's a fascinating little film, with good costuming and acting, and well worth the hour and a half you'd invest in watching it--even if it leaves you feeling angry and frustrated by the pig-headedness of the French medical
establishment. At least it ends of a high note, as Pasteur finally achieves the recognition he deserves.