I watched a film recently, The Professor and the Madman, based on a good friend’s recommendation.
He endorsed it out of our mutual love for the English language; and for what he said was an interesting plot over a much-forgotten part of English history: the formation of the Oxford English Dictionary.
However, despite my friend’s endorsement, I nearly did not watch it.
Before hitting play on the film, I checked the Rotten Tomatoes score. For those who may not know, Rotten Tomatoes is a movie review site, which aggregates critical reviews into a number. If it reaches the threshold of positive reviews, 60 percent, it is considered fresh: meaning that it’s probably a good film, according to the site. When I saw this film had a measly 38 percent critic score, I was wary of pressing play.
However, it was already rented, so I didn’t want to waste a purchase, even if it was only a couple bucks. Besides, this film came from the recommendation of a friend whose opinions I trust. I will touch on the double-edged sword that is RT later on.
Here, Mel Gibson was at the top of his acting in his role as James Murray, a passionate lover of the English language and devoted husband and father. As 2004’s The Passion of the Christ was itself a passion project for Gibson, this film depicts the passion project of Murray to collect, catalogue, and define every word in the English language.
Gibson is matched with equal precision by the always able Sean Penn, who here plays the “Madman” of the film, the real-life Dr. William Chester Minor. His story reveals the beauty and terrifying complexity of the human mind. A surgeon for the North in the United States Civil War, Minor saw things that would scar any man. During the war, filled with carnage, mayhem, and madness, Minor did not come out unscathed in body or mind. He suffered paranoid delusions from what we now understand as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and in a state of delusion, he mistakenly killed a man whom he thought a stalker while visiting London.
His mind, though broken by trauma, still retained its brilliance as, unbeknownst to Murray for the first half of the film, this madman added more than 10,000 words, tracing each etymology in detail, and offering pages where the words were used in literature, to the Oxford English Dictionary. Murray is quoted as saying of Minor, “We could easily illustrate the last four centuries from his quotations alone.”
The film did meander at times, and underused some of its ensemble – including the talented and criminally underrated Ioan Gruffuld – yet, it was still a tender film about love, language, obsession, and the nature of forgiveness.
After the film I took to my phone to message my friend, thanking him for the recommendation. We then discussed the film, its technical merits and its message, but mostly about the English language itself and about the labor of love that went into the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.
That discussion would not have occurred had I accepted the consensus that this film was not worth my time. How many more films have I passed by simply because its score did not meet my Rotten Tomatoes threshold for interest? How many gems have others passed by?
I gravitate to the Rotten Tomatoes site in part because, being newlyweds, Jesse and I have a naturally limited budget for entertainment. But I think it’s also because it’s so easy, and it lends to my proclivity toward groupthink. I accept that it is nice to know in advance what the critical consensus is, but I recognized my overreliance on this site, when, after watching and enjoying this film, realizing that if I had accepted the consensus in this instance, I would have missed this diamond in the rough.
I think there is something here that goes deeper than critical consensus, reaching further, getting into our innate desire to want others to like what we like, think the way we think, and appreciate the same things we do. There is a use for Rotten Tomatoes and appealing to a majority consensus when in disagreement with someone. But sometimes, we rely too much on the general consensus without taking the time to consider why. The saying, “Just because everyone’s jumping off a cliff,” comes to mind.
Thankfully, the film itself revealed two things: the forgiveness seen in the film exhibited from its characters to forgive even the most heinous of acts is something beautiful to behold; and, listening to the witty back-and-forth’s between characters and their command of the English tongue, revived my desire to broaden my vocabulary.
So, upon my recent visit to a bookstore, I made sure to look for a physical copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I found one – the 1914 concise edition – and left with it in hand, thankful to a friend for his advocating this film to me.
Language is beautiful, one of God’s gifts to humankind; this film reminded me again of its magnificence.
Joseph Hamrick is a semi-professional writer and sometimes thinker. He lives in Commerce and serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.