The Professor and the Madman

In 1998 it was published as a book, originally titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by Simon Winchester. When it was published in the United States, the title was changed to “The Professor and the Madman.” In 2019, it was made into a feature film directed by Farhad Safinia (using the pseudonym P.B. Sherman). Sherman, along with Todd Komarnicki, adapted the screenplay from Winchester’s nonfiction account of this late 19th century story of language and insanity. The film offers powerful performances by Mel Gibson as the professor and Sean Penn as the madman. 

As James Murray, one of two central characters, Mel Gibson portrays Professor Murray in a credible manner, displaying the intelligence and empathy required of this brilliant and self-educated man. In 1879, Professor Murray became director of an all engrossing (perhaps impossible) mission, known as Oxford University Project, which had as its task to cite every word and word origin of the English language. The end goal of this bewildering assignment was to create what is currently referred to as the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the story, Professor Murray, after much debate and dissent among the Oxford University Press oversight committee, is at last appointed to the position of project director, and he derives a solution to embarking upon this overwhelming project; that is (not unlike an approach employed by our modern day Wikipedia), to enlist volunteers, in this instance from every place on Earth where English is used. Murray pens a message to English-speakers worldwide inviting them to send their words and their variations to him on small sheets of paper. From there, libraries, booksellers and news organizations would collect and distribute the English word contributions. Soon the word contributions would accumulate in great and unexpected numbers.

This is the means through which Professor Murray becomes acquainted with and develops an affection for Dr. William Chester Minor, an erstwhile union army surgeon who is suffering flashbacks from the American Civil War and is experiencing frightening delusions from his time in service as a military physician (Sean Penn renders an extraordinary performance here). In an incident, Dr. Minor pursues a man known as George Merrett (Shane Noone), whom he believes is an assassin assigned to murder him. Minor literally runs after Merrett, and though Merrett reaches the front door of his home he is shot to death as his wife, Eliza (Natalie Dormer), opens the door. 

Dr. Minor is brought to trial to face murder charges, but quickly it is determined that he is mentally ill and, therefore, cannot be held criminally responsible for the killing of George Merrett. Instead of prison, Dr. Minor is confined to Broadmoor, an institution for the criminally insane. Early on in Dr. Minor’s institutional confinement, while being herded back to the cell-like quarters where the inmates resided, an iron gate collapses; as a guard kicks an inmate away from the falling gate, the guard’s leg is punctured by a sharp prong on the collapsed gate. In an instance of clarity, Dr. Minor utilizes his surgical skills and is able to perform a necessary and successful amputation of the guard’s partially severed leg, thereby saving the guard’s life. This act of emergency medical intervention earns Dr. Minor the admiration of Broadmoor’s cadre of guards and also the respect of the institution’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane).

Beset with guilt and regret after being unable to find forgiveness from Mrs. Merrett, the wife of the man killed by Dr. Minor, the doctor sinks further into despair and depression. In an effort to ease the burden laying so heavily on Dr. Minor, the guards of the institution give Dr. Minor the gift of a book. Within the pages of the book, one of Professor Murray’s requests to English speakers is found by Dr. Minor, who is inspired and given purpose by this discovery. Dr. Minor eventually passes onto Professor Murray hundreds and hundreds of slips with words Dr. Minor contributes to the Oxford University Project, volunteering to explore and examine the elusive words of the English language, giving his address as simply “Crowthorne.” This act of volunteerism solidifies the relationship between Professor Murray and Dr. Minor, who correspond and meet through the many ups and downs of Dr. Minor’s institutionalization — and there are several such instances, some quite graphic, during Dr. Minor’s confinement. 

Though the movie was actually filmed in 2016, it wasn’t released until 2019. The delay was due to a dispute between Mel Gibson and the Director P.B. Shemran, each of whom have disclaimed it. This may have undermined the film’s success in its theatrical release — it had a budget of $25 million but had a box office return of just $6.2 million — and account for the poor reception given to it by many critics. 

Nevertheless, The Professor and the Madman, at 124 minutes in duration,  is a worthwhile movie about a true and important event in the history of language. See it. Learn from it. Perhaps even read the book, upon which the film is based. Both the film and the book are available for check-out at local libraries. 
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