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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.


Rhinoceros (1974) on IMDb

Plot Overview

werewolfIt's 11:12 a.m. on a Sunday morning, time for hung over Stanley (Gene Wilder) to rise for his lunch date with his friend John (Zero Mostel). The setting is vaguely “a city in the United States.” John stops to smell the roses on the way, so they both arrive at the café at the stroke of noon when their waiter comes on duty. There's a trans­form­ation (“What's that noise?”) occurring on the street, as well: “It's a rhino­ceros, of all things!” While traditionally, men trans­form into were­wolves under the influence of a full moon, people start bringing out their inner pachy­derm here in the middle of the day. And while werewolves sneak around at night trying to avoid exposure, the rhinos in this theater of the absurd thunder about in herds as their numbers swell from the ranks of every­day people. In The Island of Dr Moreau, you may recall, the main character was progressively deserted by his seemingly human friends turning animal until he was left alone with only one … who then at last transformed into a dog. In this movie Stanley's last friend Daisy (Karen Black) is no dog, and Stanley is too human to join the herd.


“Rhinoceros” opens with a guided museum tour, the docent remarking on various theories—e.g., “the world is flat”—that have fallen by the way­side. We're shown a closeup of a plesio­saur that “became extinct,” whose mouth is full of big teeth. Next we see a rhinoceros that's still around today. The implication is the world was once inhabited by really bad creatures, and what we've got today aren't that bad, but bad enough. If we can shrug off the theory of evolution and embrace Genesis, then applied to humanity, the ante­diluvian world was really bad (Gen. 6:5), and so is our world, though not to the same degree.

Picking up the action on a lazy Sunday, it plays like some lines from the Bible (Job 14:1-4), “Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. … Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.” The peaceful café scene, w/back­ground chamber music, is going to be troubled. John snips off a rose on the way over. The two friends hold a lengthy discourse on time flying by. And soon enough the inner beast comes out.

When Stanley calls John obstinate, the latter replies, “You're calling me a mule.” This puts me in mind of Bill Crosby singing “Swinging on a Star” in the movie “Going My Way”:

A mule is an animal with long funny ears,
Kicks up at anything he hears.
His back is brawny but his brain is weak.
He's just plain stupid with a stubborn streak.
And by the way, if you hate to go to school,
You may grow up to be a mule.

There the lesson is that boys and girls not neglect their education. Here there's to be a lesson, too, the result of its neglect being worse than trans­for­mation into a mule, but not as bad as into a plesio­saur.

There's another couple in the café, whom Stanley passed on the way over. We get snippets of their conver­sation. They've been discussing syllogisms: Socrates is dead; my cat died; there­fore my cat is named Socrates. That kind of thing. The camera tracks back and forth between the two couples, some­times through mirrors, making it seem as if the two conversations are a single one, or at least inter­change­able. The climax is when one party of each pair say in unison, “You have to be told every­thing!”

The next day at the office, the boss Mr. Nicholson (Percy Rodrigues) is incredulous concerning the rhinoceros report in The Morning News. He thinks the paper is making it up and cites lack of detail as proof. As for the kind of detail that's missing, he remarks that there's no descrip­tion of the cat stomped to death. Was the cat male or female? What color was it? Then he—being dark-skinned—goes on with, “The issue of color is some­thing I feel very strongly about.” He insists that, “The color problem exists” and we should never miss an oppor­tunity to decry dis­crim­ina­tion. Even Daisy, not the brightest secretary in the pool, catches him with, “You're obscuring the issue,” that it's “simply a case of a cat being run over by a pachy­derm.” The boss had been caught in a syllogism.

In fact we the audience smug in our chairs, looking down our noses at this theater of the absurd, can be taken aback if we our­selves are too quick to read race into every event. MLK's "I have a dream" speech followed the line that America's Declaration of Independence stated all men were created equal. Negroes are people, too. There­fore, they should have across the board equality with every­one else. Whether or not that's a good idea is beside the point. It was a syllogism MLK used in his speech. It obscured the issue back in the 1770s of whether shop­keepers, say, could run a govern­ment or should that be the exclusive province of kings? The actual experiment in democracy that resulted from independence from England gave the vote to white male land­owners above the age of thirty. Thomas Jefferson wasn't addressing racial equality, and nobody thought he was. Now we've got a movie that wants to explain it all for us, cloaked in absurdity, so here goes.

Historian Kenneth Stampp comments that “Apologists for slavery traced the history of servitude back to the dawn of civilization and showed that it had always existed in some form until their own day” (14). Modern human origins derive from, (Gen. 6:10) “And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” These three sons of Noah fathered the whole human race alive today. Researcher Bodie Hodge confirms that “As a general trend, Ham is the father of many peoples in Africa” (122). Dr. Ide adds, “Ham sired four sons: Cush (translates as ‘black’) … and Canaan the youngest” (62). From Shem came White Europeans (and others). Ham's descendants settled largely in Africa becoming the black races. Researcher Mark DeWayne Combs posits that, “Although [the book of] Jasher specific­ally references the births of Japheth and Shem, there is no such reference to the birth of Ham. … that Ham may have been much younger than his brothers and that he may have had a different mother” (389). (See my review of “Project Almanac” for a fuller explanation.) Combs also observes, “Fathering a child, particularly a son, through a hand­maiden or servant girl would not have been an uncommon or forbidden practice in that time period” (165).

After the Flood there was an incident, Gen. 9:20-22, where Noah got drunk on wine and was exposed in all his glory to his son Ham who brazenly viewed him so. Noah's other two sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him up, Gen. 9:23. Ham had violated him in some way, Gen. 9:24. Noah's curse puts Ham's youngest son Canaan in a position of servitude, Gen. 9:25. Noah's other two sons Shem, Gen. 9:26, and Japheth, Gen. 9:27, were blessed by Noah. Writer Bodie Hodge (134) quotes “Bible Questions and Answers,” The Golden Age (July 24, 1929): p. 702.

Question: Is there anything in the Bible that reveals the origin of the Negro?

Answer: It is generally believed that the curse which Noah pronounced upon Canaan was the origin of the Black race. Certain it is that when Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren,” he pictured the future of the Colored race.

If you understand that background, the movie doesn't seem absurd at all, just slightly contro­versial. Stanley was drunk, as Noah had been. The whole endeavor in the café had to do with John making Stanley present­able: he gave him a tie, told him to comb his hair, etc. so he wouldn't be embarrassed in front of people (“Oh my God, it's Daisy!”) That's what Ham should have done for Noah back when. Further­more, John takes Stanley into the Men's Room where an attendant brushes him off and helps profes­sion­ally to make him present­able. Ham being the son of the maid­servant would naturally fit the role of attendant; at any rate he was there with Noah in the tent when the latter was drunkenly exposed. A Few Days Later Daisy will come over to tuck Stanley in. That is good behavior.

In the men's room when John loses it and takes Stanley's tie, and Stanley collapses drunk on the floor before the waiter, that's when the Rhino rumbles down the street. John is the only one we shall actually see—imagine—turn into a rhinoceros (“He changed right in front of my eyes, and I can't get over it.”) Dr. Ide writes, “Noah feared that any inter­course within each species in the ark would lead to an explosion of the number of that species and thus for­bade all beings ([human] and animal) from coitus. Only three of the passengers refused: Noah's son Ham who feared that if he didn't have coitus with his wife his brothers Shem and Japheth would discover that their sister-in-law was already pregnant by a giant, the dog and a rooster. To expose their crime of coitus during this ‘holy voyage of abstinence’ the yahweh [i.e. God] of Noah turned Ham's skin black, lengthened his penis and made him so lustful that he would engage in sex at any instance” (36). I heard of the same punish­ment described once on a German short­wave broad­cast discussing Jewish beliefs, but it added also that because of his insolent words, Ham's lips were thickened, and because of his perversion his hair was turned kinky. The trans­for­mation of John into a rhino covered the same constel­lation: a bump appeared above his eyes, which would correspond to the puffy lips below on Ham, the grey skin of the pachyderm to the black skin representing sin, the removal of John's toupee to the kinky hair, and his lustful disposition shown in a dream frolic with Daisy.

At one point in the apartment, they turn on the TV to see news of the rhinos, and what they get is race-related: There's a boxing match between a black and a white fighter. Switch channels and there's the (white) calvary trouncing the (red) Indians. Switch channels again and there's a scene of a building on fire. From a 1974 perspective, it, as well as the trashing of stores and businesses, looks like race riots. Sounds like them, too, from the howling in the streets. If from a modern perspective it looks like terrorism, well, the Arabs are descended from Ham, too.

Daisy puts the three sons of Noah in perspective when she and Stanley are being crowded by a third at a table, who with­draws remarking, “Three's a crowd.” She replies not unwel­comingly, “That's a cliché.” So is “All men are created equal” a cliché. When Noah put a blessing on Shem and Japheth dwelling integrated in the same symbolic tent, and Ham's family (Canaan) serving them all, which of the two clichés seems more applicable?

Production Values

Rhinoceros” (1974) was directed by Tom O'Horgan. It was based on French/Romanian writer Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros. The screenplay for the movie version was done by Julian Barry. It stars Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, and Karen Black who all came across as talented as ever. Mostel's trans­for­mation into a beast was a wonder to behold.

It's certified PG. This film about human transformation stubbornly refuses to become cinematic; it constantly has a feel to it of "filmed theater". Consequently, the inherent intensity of the film medium can leave the viewer distressed who might have enjoyed it better on the stage. How­ever, with such absurd content, we may have been spared further discomfort for the fixed cameras. The music by Galt MacDermot was pleasant irres­pective of the action on-screen.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

I hear on the news that Starbucks is encouraging its patrons to discuss race relations. This movie will do it. Just view it on your lap­tops as you drink your joe, and comment about Ham the progenitor of blacks to your fellows. Of course, if they've not done their home­work, they might kick like a mule when the message violates political correctness.

Come to think of it, Bing Crosby's song about the mule also contains a stanza about the pig. Actually, the pig is a pachyderm, so this movie about trans­forming into rhinos is not so unique, it's just more geared towards adults than is the children's "swinging" song. For that matter it's not even particularly racist as a "race riot" is displayed as a burning building with some off-camera back­ground howling with­out any particular race being specified. Who knows if in the years since this movie came out, the makeup of the terrorists might even have changed.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Well done action flick. Suitability for children: Suitable for children w/parent. Special effects: Well, at least you can't see the strings. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Overall product rating: Four stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Combs, Mark DeWayne. End the Beginning. USA: Splinter in the Mind's Eye Pub., 2014. Print.

Hodge, Bodie. Tower of Babel: The Cultural History of Our Ancestors. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Pub., 2013. Print.

Ide, Arthur Frederick. Noah & the Ark: The Influence of Sex, Homo­phobia and Hetero­sexism in the Flood Story and its Writing. Las Colinas: Monument Press, 1992. Print.

Stampp, Kenneth M., Professor of American History at the University of California (Berkeley).
   The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Vintage Books, 1955. Print.

“Swinging On A Star” lyrics written by Johnny Burke & James van Heusen. © Bourne Co. WEB.