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Revisiting 'The Island of Dr. Moreau': Marlon Brando's fever dream

Operating as the wet dream of the collective Furry community, John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau is a cinematic fever dream, merging sticky special effects with several horrifying cat costumes to create 90 minutes of ‘titillating’ science fiction. Based on one of H.G Wells’ more lesser-known novels, the film was created under notorious strain thanks to complications from the film’s cast that helped to make it one of the most troubled productions of all time.  

It’s difficult to really know where to start with The Island of Dr. Moreau, a film so bafflingly bizarre that it seems to replicate the sprawling imagination of a frenetic child high on e-numbers with a chocolate stained mouth.

Perhaps it’s best to first address Dr. Moreau himself, a maniacal scientist who has created an island of human-animal hybrids in his search for a “higher being, incapable of harm”. Depicted by the iconic Marlon Brando, the actor brought his own wit and idiosyncratic behaviours to the film’s production, both simultaneously helping it become a cult film and box office failure. 

The film itself follows a man, Edward (David Thewlis), who crash lands in the sea before being picked up by a boat destined for Moreau’s island, whilst his wounds are tended to by doctor Montgomery (Val Kilmer). Making their way onto the island, Montgomery turns against Edward and locks him in a room in Moreau’s house, only for him to escape and learn the truth about the doctor’s monstrous island. 

Crisis hits almost immediately as the film went into production with the initial director of the project, Richard Stanley, becoming frustrated with actors Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer who immediately proved difficult to work with. Brando had a fair excuse, with the suicide of his daughter, Cheyenne, causing him to retreat to his own private island, whilst Kilmer attributed his obnoxious behaviour to the fact that, on-set, he learned he was being sued for divorce by his wife Joanne Whalley.

To make matters worse, suddenly the Virgin Islands where the film was being shot was pounded with bad weather, causing further problems for Stanley, particularly when his lead actor Rob Morrow was unable to bear the tension and hostility on-set any longer and tearfully begged the New Line chairman to let him go.

John Frankenheimer soon came in to replace Stanley who was fired from the project, with Thewlis coming in to replace Morrow together with a complete rewrite of the script. Though even with such significant changes to the cast and crew, issues with Brando and Kilmer continued to persist. Frustrated with the constant changes to the script, Brando refused to learn his lines, so, instead, he was equipped with a small radio receiver that his assistant could use to feed him his lines.

Marlon Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau. (Credit: Alamy)

Thewlis later reported that this would lead to even more difficulties, explaining, “[Marlon would] be in the middle of a scene and suddenly he’d be picking up police messages and would repeat, ‘There’s a robbery at Woolworth’s'”. 

Spending hours in his air-conditioned trailer when he was supposed to be on camera, by the time Marlon Brando came onto the sweltering set, the cast and crew were so relieved to see the actor that they were more than willing to go along with his antics, explaining why, in one scene, Brando bizarrely wears an ice bucket on his head.

The mood on set was so hostile that Val Kilmer often engaged in furious arguments with the cast and crew, reportedly becoming so angry with Frankenheimer that the director later reported, “I don’t like Val Kilmer, I don’t like his work ethic, and I don’t want to be associated with him ever again”.

Though, just like any trainwreck, there’s a strange beauty to it all. It’s a melting pot of bad personalities, eccentric sci-fi concepts and peculiarity that certainly elicits a strange, innocent charm. For better and for worse, there will never be a film quite like The Island of Dr. Moreau ever again.

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