Where, though, is Sir Isaac among all these reels – and unreals? There are a few fleeting appearances on television, including some usually jokey cameos in manifestations of Star Trek (most memorably a holodeck poker game also featuring Einstein and the real Stephen Hawking), and he does rather better in plays and better still in novels – a favourite is Philip Kerr’s Dark Matter with Newton as detective in a murder mystery.
But from the earliest days of cinema until now the one and only movie I’m aware of to feature Newton and have had any kind of release is 1957’s The Story of Mankind. It’s most notable for being a film that regularly features in lists of the biggest flops of all time. Even then Newton only appears for around two minutes. And he’s played by an alternately gurning and whistling Harpo Marx.
Fond as I am of the Marx Brothers, the so-called greatest scientist of all time deserves better than just being in one of greatest turkeys of all time. The good news is that there is a Newton film in the works. The not so good news is that it’s from Rob Cohen, director of high adrenaline fodder like The Fast and the Furious and xXx. It’s claimed he wants it to be the start of a new action movie franchise with Sir Isaac as the hero, and based – as is Kerr’s novel – on his stint as warden of the Royal Mint, which makes and distributes UK coins. Given that Newton was already in his mid 50s when he took up the post, it seems likely the facts will be bent by more than Newtonian forces.
Sir Isaac Newton is a magnificent, complex, contradictory figure ripe for some skilled screenwriter to get their teeth into. Not only because there should be more out there than Harpo’s less than reliable portrayal. But also because there must be far more interesting fictions to weave around him than that he discovered gravity after being whacked on the head by an apple.