Actor Gene Wilder in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1974)

*contains spoilers

Fans of Gene Wilder (1933-2016 Alzheimer’s disease) and Zero Mostel (1915-77 heart aneurysm) who appeared together in the Mel Brooks comedy The Producers (1968) are probably not aware of the theatre of the absurd movie version of playwright Eugene Ionesco’s (1909-94) Rhinoceros (1974).

While this isn’t a great movie, part of the absurdist theatre experience is that while it seems the events portrayed don’t seemed to relate to real life – they are still essentially part of the everyday experience nonetheless.

German DVD cover for Rhinoceros (1974)
Zero Mostel (left) and Gene Wilder in The Producers (1968)

The film version of Rhinoceros is an American adaptation or dumbing down of Ionesco’s original French version but somehow what it has to say becomes more relevant as a result.

“What you are about to see could never take place…” the forward to the movie version of Rhinoceros explains to the viewer who is about to be assaulted with a metaphor which could take place…

Gene Wilder stars as a man facing a changing world, it is just this world is changing into Rhinoceros or rhinoceroses or rhinoceri – it’s all the same to Wilder, except he notices that some have two horns while others only have one. I guess it’s just a vital statistic.

Zero Mostel is the co-star and the pair were rematched following their friendship forged during the making of The Producers where a nervous Wilder received a hug and a kiss on the lips from Mostel on the first day of the making of that movie to break the ice. Also in the cast of Rhinoceros are Karen Black (1939-2013 ampullary cancer) and Joe Silver (1922-89 heart attack) who was in David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977).

Playwright Eugene Ionesco
Joe Silver (right) in Rabid (1977)

The film version opens in a restaurant where a pretentious and superior Mostel tells his ‘friend’ Wilder, who drinks because “if I don’t drink, I feel awful”, that he is “lacking in willpower” as a result of his addiction.

“I can’t get used to life,” says Wilder about his predicament and who at first doesn’t worry about the “extraordinary” appearance of a rhinoceros running down the street, due to his detachment, while Mostel, who is obsessed with vanity and punctuality despite being obese finds the occurrence out of step with the everyday along with everyone else.

“I’m strong because I’m not brimming over with alcohol,” says Mostel as he prances around the restaurant bathroom with almost fairy like aplomb.

Meanwhile other patrons at the restaurant, which include a young man and woman, ponder: “All cats die, Socrates is dead, therefore Socrates is a cat,” as a form of logic or philosophy which is told at cross purposes and as two mixed premises as the director of the movie cuts between two conversations, one between Wilder and Mostel. It is a strange mixture but it underlines the two premises of Socrates – we assume the Greek philosopher of that name – being a dead cat as absurd. It also shows how a herd of humans mixes in a restaurant and mix words and tell each other things that are essentially meaningless.

The philosopher Socrates is told to take his hemlock and like it
All cats die, Socrates is dead, therefore Socrates is a cat

Welcome to the theatre of Ionesco’s absurd as Wilder is told to exercise his mind and dress the part of an intellect as Mostel coaches him: “In four weeks you’ll be a cultured person.” Mostel’s advice is the antithesis of going on a diet without alcohol and losing weight by lifting weights. Wilder is interested in neither, except perhaps his next fix of alcohol… The resistance of the mind against the resistance of muscles bearing weight. Is there an absurd premise contained in that remark?

But the world itself could be a much different place in four weeks or even days despite the fact that people attempt to vainly become cultured or don’t get themselves into shape!

Of all things… Is that a protest happening on the streets in Rhinoceros (1974)?
A poster for a stage production of Rhinoceros

“Of all things….,” says the public about the appearance of more rhinoceros on the streets and Black describes a rhinoceros as “a big ugly animal” about the pachyderms which are starting to run riot throughout America as more people start to suddenly and slowly transform into rhinoceros… This is either a world heading for the disaster of vegan meat abstainers full of energy and running aimlessly on the streets … or is this the solution to all the world’s problems… Meat is murder and the karma of all that? Or is it just xenophobia and the solution a wall or enclosure for the rhinoceros – or the humans?

It’s sad for Wilder who must suffer the death throes of an old world-order which he never felt he belonged to in the first place as he feels he must not become or turn into one of these questionably politically correct creatures. This is where the metaphorical relationship of the play in terms of both fascism and hard-line communism comes into effect and the problem of the rhinoceros or the world is “directly below our feet”. The Earth, we think so little of it!

There are scenes which take place above the ground floor of buildings which could relate to man’s superior attitude to these political systems in terms of living in democracy as well as looking down on the animals that are the rhinoceros… They are not human and the opposing political systems are also inferior perhaps for good reason. But beware, they can creep up behind you like a rhinoceros.

A soundtrack cover for Rhinoceros (1974)
The poor rhino is admired for its powdered horn used as a status symbol in Asia

This is a filmed play, so don’t expect much location work, as much of it is stage-bound and there is no appearance by a real rhinoceros.

The further questions that Rhinoceros ponders is the fear of the breakdown of society or democratic civilisation into a wild anarchic free for all… Or is it a new peaceful empire on the horizon in terms of the socialist dream being the natural order? … Remember the rhinoceros is not a herd animal except for the white rhino which is a rare species which has a male surrounded by a number of females. But that is beside the point. They seem to be happy eating and making love with the occasional violent outburst as they attack humans.

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and “You’d have to be a hypocrite not to understand” are some of the society’s human catchphrases before they start to succumb in this movie and get bumps on their heads as their voices begin to bellow in the sound of the rhinoceros that they are soon to become.

“How many horns did it have?,” is Wilder’s only interest in the phenomenon, something which is physical… and yet this will grow insignificant as Wilder’s mental isolation becomes physical and be becomes the only human being left on Earth surrounded by these alien creatures of nature.

A ruminating cow
A rhinoceros can be anti-social towards certain individuals
Is Sisyphus just another angry rhinoceros? Or is he happy?

The rhinoceros isn’t a ruminant like a cow and we think of the cow as a lazy and complacent animal who stands around all day chewing… The ruminant ferments its food and uses bacteria and that maybe the key to its contentment… Thus, the human interest in the gut biome and fermented bacteria possibly being the key to human contentedness and health… Thus, the herbivore rhinoceros doesn’t ferment its food naturally and instead they incite trouble on the street and cause ferment in that sense … They endanger the humans with their behaviour or disturb the humans into believing that they have no choice but to join and become them to be happy and contented as a society once more. Man is absorbed into becoming a rhinoceros, or his unhappiness is absorbed by good bacteria in his gut.

The rhinoceros is a healthy human who resists meat and alcohol which itself is naturally created through fermentation. It’s God’s gift for some as opposed to meat which we cannot deny is murder. A ration of alcohol is possibly beneficial to the gut biome and yet it’s a world blighted by alcohol abuse and its physical and mental violence … Some people need addictions whereas the rhinoceros does not. It is the world heading back to its natural balance and habitat without man’s propensity for war and pollutants in this movie. Or is it?

Alcoholic Dylan Thomas makes a joke
An abstainer makes a rhinoceros of themselves
Ruminate positively for a moment…

“Have you been drinking again?,” asks Mostel of Wilder as Mostel eventually transforms into an uncaring creature who may be one or two (too) horns/horny as his energy levels rise and his crotch overheats and must be cooled by a pitcher of water. There’s nothing wrong with being a rhinoceros it’s just that Wilder feels he can’t become one. Is it impotence or the feeling of ennui caused by bad gut health?

“I don’t think he did it on purpose,” says Wilder about someone changing into a rhinoceros.

“What if he did do it on purpose?,” responds Mostel about the question of guilt of turning into a rutting dumb animal which walks the streets at great speed and overturns cars. Does the rhinoceros even suffer guilt for these attacks on the humans? The rhinoceros with its primordial integrity as an instinctive animal who doesn’t necessarily think is something which Wilder disagrees with in terms of man’s growth into a civilisation over the past two thousand years and the rise of the human individual’s mind… To use a long sentence about the destruction of art and the rejection of human refinement.

So Mostel destroys all the artworks in his apartment as hot flashes and nature take over and the inevitability of the rhinoceros on Earth begins to occur… The world seems to be growing into a weirder place for a man alone with no support… and the days pass…

Raise your hands if you want things to change? Into a rhinoceros?
Newspaper ad for Rhinoceros (1974)

“I don’t want to change!,” says Wilder desperately wielding a knife like he really is about to turn into something horrible, if not a rhinoceros, as he is told not to think of it by a remaining fellow human being… and the rhinoceros could be seen as death itself in the face of man as the Apocalypse begins to emerge…. It seems that those in the majority whether they are human or rhinoceros demonise the minorities as a force of nature or an inability to understand or change.

Wilder draws his curtains and begins to board up his windows in the face of this “incurable epidemic” which shows we should never be complacent of killer diseases such as Covid-19 or fascist or military dictatorships gobbling up whole nations big and small… Just a thought for those rhinoceros who have a soy latte between workouts as opposed to pork roast and red wine and a short stroll. Or do I mean humans?

“If you ignore them, they won’t bother you,” Wilder is told along with the fact that he should keep his sense of humour and detach as he is “not the centre of the universe”.

Whatever it is, too much alcohol is making Wilder unhappy amid the ensuing loneliness as he can’t accept that the world is changing around him – and he is unwilling to compromise. Is this film simply about addictions, as opposed to being free of them?

“He had to move with the times,” and they were his last human words says Black about the latest victim of erased human pretentiousness or individualism as he apparently became a victim of political correctness in terms of conforming to society’s new norm and expectations of being a rhinoceros. Or something like that!

The Rhinoceros song by Flanders and Swann is totally unrelated
Zero Mostel (left) and Gene Wilder in Rhinoceros (1974)

Human civilisation is hanging in the balance as the only clue that man is still dominant on the planet are violent movies on television and perhaps the latest report of civil unrest or war in South-east Asia…. America is facing a coup d’etat in this movie as most family’s “have a member who’s become one” and we could relate the rhinoceros not only to the peace movement against the Vietnam war at the time the movie was made in the mid-70s but also to today’s ‘acceptance’ of gay rights and the resistance of remnants of society to accept the “difference” despite their fear the world and themselves could be damned if they did. Should the world simply become a ‘happy’ rhinoceros in that rhinoceros is dominant public opinion or sentiment? Or should we allow certain sections of society to beg to differ? There is no answer in terms of conflict. It appears there is no such thing as a happy rhinoceros.

“Man is superior to the rhinoceros,” says Wilder about the difference as he dreams of being locked in a cage and labelled a human being against being licked or liked in a cage by another rhinoceros! Wilder is alone in the cage in his dream as a song entitled: What did you do to yourself? plays in the background. “Why did you let go of yourself like that… Like some gutter rat” the song sings of human-kind and also of Wilder for not letting go of the past remnants of society as he sees it and the complaint of addiction. The song is sung in falsetto and it could be a woman or a man but it doesn’t matter, as the rhinoceros question Wilder’s dreams as an individual, invading them negatively and turn his entire existence into a nightmare. Perhaps the rhinoceros dream sweetly. Should he join them after all?

The song Rhinoceros by Smashing Pumpkins has a title which is totally absurd
Gene Wilder and Karen Black try to make love in Rhinoceros (1974)

Wilder and Black are possibly the last couple on Earth and as they make love, their bodies entwined turn into a foot stool as they roll over the furniture in question… But alcohol is the wedge as Wilder breaks up the encounter with his preoccupation with the booze instead of listening to the female intuition of Black… Poof goes the possible the screw in question as Black laughs at Wilder’s plans for them to begat the human race back into existence. Whatever it is, the rhinoceros are taking over… Wilder won’t give into their chorus of singing in the background which is not the singing of his known past or present… Is it hypocrisy or jealousy on Wilder’s part that he resists? He is not Christ. He knows he is not a handsome human specimen and the premonition of his dream is about to come true as he is left totally alone in a broken home as Black also becomes one…

The rhinoceros are against anyone who isn’t ‘beautiful’ and natural like them and they make Wilder almost feel ashamed for not being one of them. As hard as Wilder tries, the best he can do is a pale imitation of an alpha male Tarzan call as he attempts to bellow like a rhinoceros.

“I want to change but I can’t. I just can’t…,” he cries near hysterically, as he doesn’t understand the rhinoceros, and he seems to be some lone ‘nut’ for not joining this new society and its norm. The society of rhinoceros tortures him as a result by simply existing.

That is the question… The rhinoceros criticise when they really don’t care
And is it good or bad? Just another fascist?
In a world where we play follow the leader… Who is that leader and where are they leading us?

“People who hang onto their individuality, always come to a bad end,” Wilder tells himself as he plans to run from the problem which is engulfing him and that is either his alcoholism or the dumb apparently taking over the world for no new positive purpose.

“I’m just going to have to take on the whole pack, that’s all,” and he lights a cigarette. He could be talking about the addiction to the packet of cigarettes he’s carrying…. Perhaps he’s a Marlboro man with its KKK symbols on the corners of the pack? Or does he mean the whole pack of 52 cards and he is the joker? Or is he just the everyman in us all who just wants a partner but isn’t beautiful and who doesn’t work-out, and is preoccupied with his addiction to certain politically incorrect hobbies and substances instead? It all went wrong for the individual and perhaps the world along the way… Is Wilder just another outdated fascist? This movie as a metaphor for resisting change is irrisistable.

I fought the cigarettes and drugs and beat them, but not the alcohol, as I need a little bit of that to “give me a lift” as Wilder explains. And yet not giving it up in the eyes of fellow human beings who end up as the rhinoceros will mean the end of the world for me because I won’t end up begetting or trying to do so… I refuse to be a mirror obsessed gym junkie or run to the local whorehouse to squander what little money I have. Instead I’ll have a bottle of red wine thank you very much.

If Wilder needs help to exist in this world alone there is no one willing to extend a hand to do so as there’s no one left who cares… Instead, the rhinoceros bellow critically in the face of Wilder’s own self-defeat. Meanwhile the rhinoceros ignore the individual woes of the planet and tell themselves: “I have an aim in life and I’m going straight for it”. I guess that’s more ‘us and them’ selfish philosophy but perhaps a possibility still exists that the aim is unselfish and one to restore the balance of nature on the planet in terms of its global warming woes and avoid mass extinction. Humans also being an endangered species and actually doing something positive for the world as a mass entity or pack… There are many ways to look at the movie Rhinoceros.

The self-defeating nature of the play in terms of the individual has led to it not being regarded as a bona fide classic even though actors such as Orson Welles (1915-85 heart attack) and Laurence Olivier (1907-89 cancer and kidney failure) have tackled it over the years without legendary results.

Laurence Olivier (left), Vivien Leigh and Orson Welles
A programme for the London production of Rhinoceros

But the theme of modern society being made up of rhinoceros who share an apparently mass opinion of outward caring but who really have an inherent self-interest and self-possession without time for neighbour or friend is the never-ending tension continuing to consume the planet…. Is being a rhinoceros a good or bad thing? It is a quandary which continues to be man’s own self-defeating attitude by not caring ultimately for the planet or his fellow human beings who suffer from addictions. To have one aim in life and be a part of the crowd in that respect… is this a form of fascism as they turn their blind eye to those individuals whose thoughts are deemed as undisciplined and are attacked for that? Fascism seems to be fermented either way. The individual is ostracised when he doesn’t think the same or look the same as the rhinoceros and I guess that’s when Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945 suicide by gunshot) Mein Kampf was written or Me in Kamp F which is its alternate camp title! Can the rhinoceros as public opinion be hypocritical or is that just a human trait? The rhinoceros are first to cry foul and hypocrite in terms of mass public opinion… even if it is only understood as a universal bellow in the media or social media. It is a sound which is constantly changing or focussing on something else either to their delight or horror… Does the rhinoceros defeat its own purpose of freedom in terms of free speech through the rise of malicious fascism in its ranks which them denies that very freedom? The rhinoceros can be wrong! Yet the rhinoceros can’t help but attack sometimes even if they are wrong. This is why the play is still very relevant.

Am I getting one bump or two? The fever is spreading…
Do you prefer your rhino horn from one or two horned creatures? Or don’t you care?

Rhinoceros was written at a time of growing anti-Semitic sentiment in Eastern Europe in the late 1950s and Ionesco had Jewish heritage. But any goy can relate to the possibility of both the rhinoceros and the human being thinking they are superior. Daring to be a human individual in a world of dominant and dangerous animals bent on destroying civilisation also celebrates democracy as an opportunity for the individual to be themselves as opposed to living within the confines of the straight jacket of hard-line communism or fascism. But is the rhinoceros in terms of public opinion a new kind of straight jacket which will see the rise of the ‘nut’ or collective human ‘nuts’ resisting change into something which maybe a more tolerant way of life? Look at the rise of Donald Trump. This is the theatre of the absurd, so it needn’t make definite sense, but it is provocative even today.

“He was always such a conservative,” laments Wilder about Mostel as he sentimentalises his former friendship with this man whose interest in Wilder was dubious to say the least. But Wilder tolerated him as a human being before he changed into one of those…

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (1978) trailer
Eddie Izzard in a stage production of Lenny
Director Tom O’Horgan

The film was written by Julian Barry (1930-) who was Oscar nominated for his screenplay based on his play Lenny (1974) about ‘sick’ comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-66 drug overdose). Barry worked peripherally with Orson Welles before he was suggested to write the Lenny Bruce play by director Tom O’Horgan (1924-2009 Alzheimer’s disease). O’Horgan was responsible for the staging of the ground breaking musical Hair in the late 1960s and he would go on to write the stage musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which was adapted into a possible cult movie in 1978 starring the Bee Gees.

O’Horgan is the director of Rhinoceros and Barry’s adaptation of the play may not be intellectually as witty as Ionesco’s original but the result is a dated attempt at a mass audience movie. Perhaps it is only the individual who will appreciate it. Movie critic Leonard Maltin called it a “sorry transition” and I guess he rings-out the rhinoceros of public opinion about this movie. Other critics have also said that the direction is dated.

Rhinoceros is a part of the filmed plays of the American Film Theatre series which has kept for posterity some other great and there are other, better plays in that series such as Eugene O’Neill’s (1888-1953 Parkinson’s disease and alcoholism) The Iceman Cometh (1973) and Edward Albee’s (1928-2016) A Delicate Balance (1973).

The Day of the Locust (1975) poster. The rhinoceros take over briefly.
One of Zero Mostel’s last movies was The Front (1976)

Of the cast of Rhinoceros, Wilder was in the midst of writing the hit movie Young Frankenstein (1974) when he shot this, according to his biography and would enjoy several hit comedy movies in that movie’s wake. Actress Karen Black made The Great Gatsby (1974) around this time and would enjoy further success with Airport 1975 (1974) and make the cult movies Trilogy of Terror (1975 tv movie), The Day of the Locust (1975) and Nashville (1975). As for Zero Mostel, he would go in to make The Front (1976) starring Woody Allen which was a kind of summation of his life in the early 1950s as a comedian who dared to take on the HUAC Hollywood witch-hunts with a belief in his own comic genius. He may have made those on the committee laugh as they charged him with his communist leanings, like some sort of rhinoceros, but they blacklisted him just the same. The year after he made The Front, Mostel felt compelled to end his life-long obesity and went on an ill-advised crash diet which caused his health to suddenly fail and his sudden death from an aortic aneurysm. Mostel had made his comeback from the communist blacklist in the early 1960s with his Tony award winning appearance in an early New York stage version of Rhinoceros and if it weren’t for his self-indulgent belief in his own genius, he may have been first choice for the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1971) which went to actor Chaim Topol (1935-).

Rhinoceros (1974) trailer
The Twilight Zone episode People are Alike all Over
Head for the hills… there’s a rhinoceros or a fascist?

The dream sequence in Rhinoceros reminds me of The Twilight Zone episode entitled People are Alike all Over, which stars Roddy McDowell (1928-98 pancreatic cancer) as a human astronaut who travels to Mars where the alien population, who resemble humans dressed in Roman togas, keep him in an apartment as if it is some sort of zoo as they watch him from behind the barred enclosure, with a sign which proclaims it is man in his natural habitat. He is a man who was born after all with a small brain.

Sadly, Rhinoceros says those who refuse to change or are unable to, especially if they are unhappy or discontent, are left to their own misery and depression forever… Some take to drink or the hills. But if the winds of change of the rhinoceros are a good one, we know there is still variety among them and they may be individuals even if they do not think except as wild animals… Even if they do care, all they will win is another rhinoceros and a family of rhinoceri which may be spread by the four winds along with their remains when they perish. Whatever makes you happy or contented. Some just like grass.

Ultimately, will the planet return to the dinosaurs, or progress into the rhinoceros? … Or will our skeletal remains be studied in some intergalactic museum upon our eventual demise where the curator will say of us just as we say of the dinosaurs: “All they did was have a good sphincter.”

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