In 1973, the entire population of an American town turned into rhinoceroses and before long the whole country was swept-up in the phenomenon, apart from one man. It started as a normal day for Stanley, suffering from a night of heavy drinking, as he went to meet his upstairs neighbour John in a diner. Suddenly a rhinoceros rampaged down the street, causing great disturbance and destruction. Stanley noticed that people around him were exhibiting signs of strange behaviour, developing hard skin and grunting incoherently. Colleagues at the office and even his good friend John, all started to succumb to rhinoceritis. But Stanley, with the help of a few bottles of spirits and one or two remaining human friends, was determined to resist, refusing to compromise and promising to fight complacence.
Eugene Ionesco’s ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ play, translates superbly to the big screen in its American Film Theatre adaptation – an effort to preserve and present important drama to a wider public. It hasn’t given in to the need to be over-literal or more naturalistic for a cinema audience and there are no real rhino’s running through the film. The use of real rhinos was considered, but the eventual use of only shadows and dynamic POV shots are highly effective and appropriately surreal. By today’s standards however, the play is not as absurd as it may once have been considered, it now resembling not so much Kafka as early Woody Allen. Indeed, the film wouldn’t be out of place (except thematically) as one of the skits in Allen’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask). This impression is reinforced by Gene Wilder’s typically eccentric performance in what would normally be considered the central role of Béranger, re-named as Stanley for the AFT film. He is however upstaged by Zero Mostel as his neighbour John. Mostel, reprising his Broadway stage role is simply magnificent, relishing every little gesture and intonation. His transformation into a rhinoceros, done without the aid of make-up or special effects, is one of the great moments of the AFT programme of films.
Behind the antics and the humour, the play’s meaning is not that absurd either. The theme of the play is about keeping one’s individuality, refusing to conform and, quite literally, join the herd. From the playwright’s point of view it’s about fascism, and collective anti-rationalist hysteria, however the play could be adapted to any period and apply to blind conformism to any institution – political, religious or social – where the individual feels their individuality threatened by the need to conform to social conventions, political expedience, marital domesticity or the current moral climate. For the director Tom O’Horgan the play is closely related to his own time, relating to the disillusionment of the sixties generation growing up, giving up on their ideals and becoming just like their parents. There are hints in the AFT production towards this political theme with one character wearing a button badge saying ‘Remember Pearl Harbour’ and a picture of Richard Nixon is venerated, but this is not over-emphasised, perhaps to its fault. Rhinocerous plays up the absurdity and it can often be very funny, but it leaves its message a little vague, unspecified and abstract.
Rhinoceros follows the AFT releases of The Homecoming, Butley, A Delicate Balance and The Man In The Glass Booth as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of relevant and high quality extra features.
The picture quality is quite good on this AFT release, possibly the best of those so far released. Colours are warm and rich, showing a good level of detail. There is a slight hint of grain in some scenes, but by and large, the image is clear and sharp with only occasional marks on the print. The picture remains stable with little sign of any digital artefacts.
The audio is reasonably clear throughout. There is a low level of background noise, some roughness and sibilance at times, but the dialogue remains clear and audible at all times.
There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra material.
Interview with Tom O Hagan (22:29)
The director reflects on what the play means to him, the performances of Wilder and Mostel and the filmmaking decisions that were made in adapting a Theatre of the Absurd play to the screen.
AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), A Delicate Balance (3:19), Butley (2:53), The Homecoming (2:29), and the next releases in the series, The Iceman Cometh (2:37), Rhinoceros (1:50), Three Sisters (2:41), The Maids (2:57), Luther (2:28) and Lost In The Stars (2:05).
The programme notes for the film’s presentation contains several articles. Ionesco and Rhinoceritis examines the plays themes. Eugene Ionesco – Writings on the theatre contains quotes from the playwright on rhinoceritis and the value of art in society. A Tribute to Zero Mostel by his Publisher looks at the variety of the comedian’s stage and screen performance, with some interview excerpts. In Tom O’Horgan – The Absurdity of the Absurd, the director offers some thoughts on the play and on translating theatre to cinema.
Stills Gallery and Posters
The stills gallery contains 18 black & white and colour images including behind-the-scenes shots. There are two posters for the film.
“Eugene Ionesco and Rhinoceros”, by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, provides some biographical details on Ionesco and the Theatre of the Absurd, and the playwright’s place in the Académie Française.
A filmed message from producer Ely Landau (6:13)
A thank you to subscribers at the end of the first season of films, the producer reflects on the ideal of the AFTs aim to preserve theatre on screen and takes a look over what films had been made so far.
Rhinoceros demonstrates one of the great advantages of the American Film Theatre’s ethos to preserve vital and edgy experimental theatre, preserving a play that would otherwise be rarely performed and capturing a magnificent original stage performance by Zero Mostel. The absurdist nature of the play will certainly not be to everyone’s taste and the wacky seventies treatment will be off-putting to many, but the film effectively puts across the themes of the play and is often very funny in a way that is rarely seen in cinema. The film is well presented on DVD, with good picture and sound quality and the usual fine selection of supporting extra features.