Silver Screen Standards: The “Rough Magic” of Forbidden Planet (1956)

Silver Screen Standards: The “Rough Magic” of Forbidden Planet (1956)

The Tempest has always been my favorite Shakespeare play, so my love for the science fiction classic, Forbidden Planet (1956), shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows how much this iconic film owes to the Bard’s romantic tale of island castaways, magic, and romance. In spite of its futuristic trappings and CinemaScope imagery, Forbidden Planet remains, at its heart, a very old-fashioned story, from its depictions of patriarchy and gender to its vision of a spaceship crew. Those traits don’t make for very compelling speculative fiction, especially for a modern viewer of progressive sci-fi like the current crop of Star Trek shows, but they do help to bind Forbidden Planet to its Shakespearean source. The Tempest is really the story of Prospero, a powerful man facing the consequences of his past actions and his changing status as both ruler and father. In Forbidden Planet, Prospero is reimagined as Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), but the psychological and moral concerns of the protagonist remain the same.

Forbidden Planet (1956) Walter Pidgeon and Robby the robot
As Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) reimagines Prospero, so Robby the Robot serves as a science fiction version of the bound spirit, Ariel.

Morbius doesn’t actually appear until the movie is well underway, but, he’s the central figure of the story, even if the spaceship crew don’t know whom they’re about to encounter when they arrive at Altair IV. The crew, led by Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen), have come looking for a group of colonists who settled on the planet almost twenty years earlier, but only Dr. Morbius and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), are still alive. Everyone else perished in attacks by a powerful, mysterious creature, who once again rampages after Adams and his men land on the planet. As Morbius repeatedly warns Adams to depart, the Commander and his officers begin to suspect that Morbius himself might be responsible for the deadly, invisible being.

Forbidden Planet (1956) Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis
Like Prospero, Morbius has a daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), who has grown up isolated from all other human beings.

We might be tempted to view Leslie Nielsen’s handsome young officer as the hero of this story, but, like Prince Ferdinand in The Tempest, Commander Adams is just here to get the girl and deprive the aging father of the total devotion he has previously enjoyed from his only child. Both Prospero and Morbius have to adjust to the idea that their little girls have grown up. In both cases, their total isolation means too many daddy-daughter dances and not nearly enough opportunity for each of them to build other relationships. Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, has known only the monstrous Caliban as a playmate, while Altaira has made do with the company of Robby the Robot, who functionally resembles Prospero’s spirit servant, Ariel, but still lacks the necessary parts to be a potential mate. It’s little wonder that both young women delight in the arrival of a ship full of actual men. “O brave new world, that has such people in it!” Miranda exclaims, while Altaira promptly begins a frank assessment of the physical charms of the trio of men she first meets. They’re both primed to fall for the first handsome guy who shows up, and Commander Adams doesn’t have to demonstrate much personality or skill at romance to win Altaira’s heart.

Forbidden Planet (1956) Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis
Ripe for romance, Altaira quickly falls for the charms of the handsome Commander Adams (Leslie Nielsen).

Morbius, however, is a far more complex character, a man accustomed to absolute obedience and authority in his castaway kingdom, where he hasn’t had to consider the moral implications of his own choices. After the deaths of the other Bellerophon colonists, Morbius has had no one to challenge his rule or his motives. He considers himself a good man, a benevolent ruler and father, and a singularly qualified controller of the powerful alien technology of the long extinct Krell. Morbius is a man of science, not magic, but Prospero’s magic and Morbius’ science are interchangeable as powers too great for any imperfect man to wield without danger to himself and others. Shakespeare didn’t have Freudian psychology to articulate the idea of the id, but both Prospero and Morbius harbor destructive darkness in their remote idylls; Morbius’ shadow monster is a bigger, scarier, more relentless version of the laughable but still scheming Caliban, a “thing of darkness” that Prospero acknowledges as belonging to him near the play’s end. As Prospero abjures his “rough magic,” so Morbius must recognize and reject his “evil self” in order to be reintegrated into humanity, whether literally or symbolically. Prospero, having already paid a price for his obsession by losing his title and home, voluntarily relinquishes his power as his final act, destroying his staff and books so that others cannot be tempted by them. Morbius must pay a steeper cost for his hubris in order to save Altaira, but the final destruction of Altair IV accomplishes the same end as Prospero’s drowning of his book. Neither man is a god, and both have seen enough to recognize their acquired power as more dangerous than benign. Morbius, of course, has many cinematic and literary brethren among the ranks of  overreaching scientists, but his deep connection to Prospero reminds us how old and often repeated this story is, even as each new generation fails to heed it.  

Forbidden Planet (1956) Walter Pidgeon
Morbius finds that his power has come at a terrible cost; like Prospero, he must destroy the source of his superhuman abilities.

If you enjoy the marriage of Shakespeare and science fiction demonstrated in Forbidden Planet, be sure to check out other classic movies with strong Shakespearean roots, including Strange Illusion (1945), A Double Life (1947), Joe MacBeth (1955), and, of course, West Side Story (1961). Maurice Evans, Richard Burton, and Roddy McDowall starred in a film adaptation of The Tempest in 1960, and Sir John Gielgud played Prospero in a 1991 version called Prospero’s Books. For a delightful comedy treatment of Forbidden Planet and The Tempest, track down a recording of the 1983 jukebox musical Return to the Forbidden Planet. It’s delightfully silly and well worth it if you’re ever lucky enough to be able to catch a live performance.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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