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Film Review
Department of Anthropology and Graduate Program i n Genetics, The
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802
Produced by Panorama Studios. Distributed by Swank Motion
Pictures, Inc., 60 Bethpage Road, Hicksville, New York. 16 mm,
color, sound film rental, $500 101 minutes.
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion (Robert Burns 1786)
How do others see us? Anthropologists are
compassionate, technologically ignorant, and
smell bad. That is the strong message sent
by the movie Iceman. We all know that parts
of such a stereotype are inappropriate for
some of our colleagues, but only parts, and
only for some anthropologists.
The plot of the film is a straightforwardeven hackneyed-one for science fiction: time
travel. Scientists working in the far north of
the American continent find a glacial fragment containing biological remains that they
thought were from a mammoth but which,
on thawing, turned out to be a man . . . well,
sort of. In a n operating room setting the evidence comes to light: a rawhide thong, a stone
implement, then the creature itself-light
skinned, shaggy haired, open mouthed,
heavy browed. “We’ve found a (expletive deleted) neanderthal!”
Since I am not a science fiction fan, my
first reaction on seeing this film was to dismiss it as pretty thin st&. However, something has kept it in my mind over a period of
months, perhaps partly the fact that over
that span I have also been working on several papers dealing with what many physical
anthropologists are wont to call the “neanderthal problem” (which is not a problem of
neanderthals as much as it is a problem of
anthropologists, as Loring Brace has often
stressed). My considered judgment is still
that Iceman is not great cinematic art; but
the film is sort of a classic on the fate of the
neanderthals. Let me develop the background to this suggestion.
0 1986 ALAN R. LISS, INC.
On the surface the movie had science fiction’s usual reliance on situational phenomena, and consequently exhibits a n apparent
lack of depth. The great visual impact of the
eerily blue, glimmering glacial snowscapes
of British Columbia and northern Canada
help create this impression; impressive scenery often disguises a thin plot. The aura of
superficiality was further fostered by a dialogue that consisted almost entirely of one
line exchanges such as the ones that occurred during the early laboratory session
for thawing the specimen:
“How does he look?”
“Compared to what?”
“What’s that funny smell?’
“It’s probably Shepherd (the anthropologist).”
“Just what does this mean to us?”
“A Nobel prize.”
The scientific crew responsible for these
highly cerebrate exchanges includes a
woman, a black, and a n anthropologist. Did
these people fulfill a producer’s conception of
appropriate representation for minorities-or
could the group’s composition reflect a
screenwriter’s sly parody of a cabinet official’s views of how to compose any committee? Interestingly enough, the role of comic
relief among these scientific team members
was not filled by the female scientist (who
was represented as entirely competent,
though perhaps a bit too stereotypically
tough minded in what may have been overcompensation) or the black (who was portrayed in a rather straight and unselfconscious style), but by the anthropologist.
Can entertainment have come in such a full,
gradual circle from the old Vaudeville days
that now we have met Mr. Bones and he
is us?
There is a message of sorts here though, I
think, one that we could miss only at our
own peril. As I stated in the beginning, in
this film’s portrayal anthropologists are compassionate, technologically ignorant, and
smell bad. When entering the operating room
where the star is being thawed, the anthropologist is dropping books and struggling
with the glasses slipping down his nose, entirely earnest, utterly uninspiring. Shepherd
does manage to keep the biomedical specialists from carving the neanderthal into bits
for different specialists to work on, to keep
him alive for study so “he could tell us how
we evolved,” but Shepherd also later falls
asleep while watching the subject, allowing
the neanderthal to get loose until recaptured
with the aid of a tranquilizer gun. Message:
the generic anthropologist is more like Mr.
Chips than Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor
Challenger or Lucky Jim of Double Helix
fame. Is the intended implication that soft
hearts are of necessity associated with soft
heads, and the reverse? If so, the stereotype
is a disturbing one. In any case, the film is
thought provoking, and I recommend that it
be seen by anthropologists and their students
if at all possible.
Perhaps I was discovering subtleties and
allusions that were not intended by the filmmakers, but there were some indications of
substance and thoughtfulness, or at least
cleverness. For instance, the arctic setting
could have been selected entirely because of
the convenient life-suspending aspect of its
low temperature, which would make it not.
entirely implausible for a human to be preserved for 40 millenia. But within the realm
of science fiction the far north has another,
more symbolic significance. It was into just
these wastes that another ambiguously human problem disappeared: the creature of
Victor Frankenstein’s experiments. Now, out
of the same thinly explored icy expanse
comes a being that, reversing Frankenstein’s
relationship, may have given rise to us.
Within this general framework there are
various other specific resemblances. While
attempting to escape, the thawed neanderthal kills an innocent technician, entirely
accidentally. Like Frankenstein’s creature
the neanderthal iincongrously nicknamed
Charlie) gives us an instance of a fully adult
human mind confronting a confusing, previously unexperienced,environment (those who
have not encountered Mary Shelley’s 1817
classic, or who have forgotten its details,
should read or reread at least chapter 11 of
Frankenstein). The neanderthal’s psychic experience is extremely stressful though ultimately manageable physically but not
Faced with a world that he can survive but
not fathom, the neanderthal chooses to reject
life and seek death, resuming a spiritual
quest that he had begun tens of thousands of
years before to ensure the survival of his
group through his own sacrifice. The biomedical specialists pursue him to thwart this attempt, while our anthropologist (good Shepherd; is that a coincidence?) helps him to
escape and t o succeed in meeting his death.
The ending of the film, with its use of the
usual cinematic conventions (such as the almost inevitable chase scene) made it easy to
sort out the relative statuses of the protagonists. The biomedical boys, riding noisy
snowmobiles, were (quite unsuccessfully)
chasing Shepherd and Charlie across the
snowfields. Our anthropologist, though a bit
clumsy and even smelly about the laboratory, was a decent sort who put his professional obligations toward his subject ahead
of other considerations that might have
yielded greater personal gain. But the
warmed-over neanderthal emerged beyond
all doubt as the real hero. True, his speech
lacked a few familiar vowels and his diction
would have marked him out at either Oxford
or Cambridge. Yes, he did make a few social
gaffes (and one literal gaff, of that unfortunate technician). But he did come across as
fully human, in life and even in death-leaving the impression that the fellow and his
kind might have been marked more by distinction than extinction.
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