The Damned

a.k.a They Are The Damned

Lawrence Russell

The Damned(a.k.a They Are The Damned) (1963) dir. Joseph Losey | writ. Evan Jones [from the novel Children of Light by H.L. Lawrence] | cine. Arthur Grant |edt. Reginald Mills | art direction Don Mingaye [Elisabeth Frink, sculptures] | music James Bernard | prod. Michael Carreras/ Anthony Hinds/ Anthony Nelson Keys

star. Macdonald Carey (Simon Wells) Shirley Anne Field (Joan) Oliver Reed (King) Alexander Knox (Bernard) Walter Gotell (Major Holland) Viveca Lindfors (Freya Neilson/ the artist) Rachel Clay (Victoria) Kit Williams (Henry) James Villiers (Capt Gregory) Kenneth Cope (Sid)

Hammer Films U.K. | 35 mm b & w widescreen 96 mins | 1955

black leather, black leather

|| An American is on holiday in a small seaside town in southern England, probably taking time out from a divorce, although his exact agenda is left circumspect. He might be a WW II vet retracing old footsteps. He's looking at a war monument on the promenade when he's picked-up by a pretty young woman who hums an inane pop song, Black Leather Rock ("black leather, black leather"), goes for a walk with her. It's a setup, as he gets rolled and robbed on a quiet side-street by a Rocker motor-cycle gang led by her brother. Badly beaten, he is found by two army officers (from a secret facility on the edge of town) and helped back to his hotel where he encounters a local scientist having tea with his European mistress, who has just driven down from London in her snappy Jaguar sports car.

American-style violence in England? "Yes," says the scientist, "the age of senseless violence has caught up with us too." His distant expression suggests sub-text, and indeed there is -- the military facility is, in fact, a secure location for his laboratory, located underground in a series of caves in the cliffs.

Shirley Anne Field in The Damned

An American drifter, a scientist with a mistress who is an artist, a motor cycle gang led by a rebel without a cause, a pretty young woman ready for sex, a secret lab, sports cars, motor launches, gray rubber radiation suits and gray unmarked helicopters... and post-apocalyptic art... today it all sounds like a scenario from a J.G. Ballard story, such as The Voices of Time (1960), say, or Thirteen To Centaurus (1963). The Damned, based on the utopian novel Children of Light (1960) by H.L. Lawrence, was shot in the spring of 1961, and is remarkable for the synchronicity of its imagery and themes to early Ballard.

Thus the fated meeting between Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey), stock American moralist, and Bernard (Alexander Knox), generic twentieth century scientific villain, comes quickly within the action. Wells has the air of a man with a secret, although we never know what it is, as he comes with little or no history, is the standard screen silhouette hero, scripted for interactive fantasy & maximum audience identification. And while Bernard doesn't speak in the crazy iambics of a Baron Frankenstein, he is out of that tradition, a paranoid survivalist who might've been part of the Manhattan Project, but is now a government bureaucrat with the resources and authority to step well beyond the law. While most of his class would experiment with animals, this man's secret is that he experiments with children. And he isn't some Nazi in Paraguay but a civil servant in sleepy old England.

Yet virtually all the conflict in the film is between Wells and King, not Wells and Bernard. We might expect King to be some sort of outlaw enforcer for Bernard, but he isn't. He's as disconnected from the real story as would be a prehistoric hunter.

A first impression would see no similarity between Bernard, the sophisticated scientist, and King (Oliver Reed), the inarticulate thug who dresses like a Mod and leads a motor cycle gang, but of course they are the same. Like a poet with no poetry, King is in love with his sister, controls her movements with a basic Freudian neurosis, as if they are twined and she is his exclusive possession. King: a child dressed as man... dressed as a child.

Bernard might be an intellectual but like King, he is also a control freak. Yet... Bernard's rationale is basically sound. How can you survive the next world war? You get ready for it, you adapt. He isn't restricted by moral taboos; he's just a realist about a possible future whereas the moral majority prefers to remain in the past... or frozen by fear in the present.

the geometry of fear

The means by which Bernard's secret mutation chamber is discovered is by accident. Despite the fact that King's sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field) set up the American tourist, she finds herself attracted, seeks him out the next day when he's messing around on his motor launch down in the harbour. Her brother and a couple of black leather bikers show up, try to stop her putting to sea with Wells, but the couple escape, cruise the coast, enjoy some foreplay and views of the English Channel. King and his gang follow, riding their bikes along the narrow roads and trails on the cliffs. The couple know they are being followed, and just before nightfall put ashore and break into an old stone building which resembles a derelict weather station but turns out to be the studio of Bernard's mistress, Freya (Viveca Lindfors). They intend to hide out here among the bizarre sculptures of humans and birds which stand as eerie sentinels on the cliff and in the studio. Like exotic cadavers from an atomic test site, these mutilated figures exist as beacons for the grim secret held in the caves below.

Freya arrives in her Jag, and Wells and Joan slip away through a back window. Freya realizes someone has been in her studio, but with her relaxed bohemian attitude, isn't too concerned. Even when King shows up unannounced and expends some juvenile violence on her art, she still isn't that concerned. Her vision -- as seen in her statues -- goes well beyond King's simple darkness. Her character is pivotal -- not because of what she says, but because she becomes symbolism. Her sculptures set the tone for the film, force us to go beyond the campy action that leads all the principals to her studio on the cliffs, which exists not only as a theatre for the future, but also as a terminal hub for the action deep in the ground below. Ironically, she doesn't know what Bernard is up to, although she questions his right as a public servant to have a secret. A symbiosis exists, like a gravestone and the living grave it marks.

The shape for Freya's character cannot be too far removed from the actual artist who created the figures used in the film, and who lived a great deal of her life on the south coast of England. Elisabeth Frink (1930-1993) was associated with the UK art style known as The Geometry of Fear -- a term lifted from a 1948 art review by Herbert Read -- which was a socio/psychological euphemism for art that revealed nuclear anxiety and the trauma of WW II. The Damned was filmed in 1961, and some of Frink's sculptures in the later sixties used, for example, a macabre fusion of heads and bodies with military gear, and they expressed perfectly the nightmare of the Atomic Era. It's Elisabeth Frink's sinister art that integrates the visual action and elevates The Damned beyond pop culture escapist horror drama. It fits exactly with the aesthetic distancing that the director Joseph Losey employs, where the characters themselves seem like unfinished projects, their dialogue often flat & interior, like the post-production audio dubbing style of a foreign film... a Fellini, say. And of course Fellini's La Dolce Vita had just made a big impact with its cast of restless misfits unable to commit to anything but pleasure against a background of nuclear anxiety.

It's the faint Fellini feel here that perhaps makes The Damned far more interesting than its horror studio pedigree would normally allow.

un-American Activities

Everyone who studies film knows about Joseph Losey: a Hollywood director who made several features including the film noir classic The Prowler (1951) before running afoul Senator Joe McCarthy's Committee For Un-American Activities and departing the USA for England where he made a number of socially conscious film dramas that included Time Without Pity (1957), Blind Date (1959), The Criminal (1960)... and of course The Damned (1963) which was released as a much shorter version two years later in the USA as They Are The Damned.

Either title is misleading, no match for the metaphoric Children of Light title of the source novel, and no doubt contributed to the film's initial failure and swift disappearance. It lacks modernity; "The Damned" is better suited for the eighteenth & nineteenth century melodramas the Hammer studio specialized in.

The American re-titling had nothing to do with Visconti's Nazi film The Damned as it wasn't released until 1969, although there was some speculation that the US release of Losey's film was delayed due to a deliberate suppression. Why? Because of the anti-government theme and/or because of Losey himself. Of course some thought it was just a bad film, with stilted acting and philosophical pandering that contradicted the rules of the genre, and as such had to be cut. But 19 minutes? This was severe, and opened up ambiguities in the narrative.

Still, this was the era of the Ban-the-Bomb movement, and as such The Damned was a polarizing statement regardless. Losey was always pushing the envelope for his time, as subsequent films such as The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967) show. The Servant was based on a novella by Robin Maugham (nephew of Somerset M.) and dealt with hetero/homosexual eroticism, and was adapted by Harold Pinter, the leading avant-garde playwright in Britain. Accident, set in Oxford, was Pinter's first original script. Deviance as a form of social subversion was a popular subject in the 60s and 70s, and even The Damned dabbles in it. We wonder, for example, if there was a sexual incident between King and Freya, either consenting or rape, as the editing suggests something of that sort happens, and we certainly expect it as part of King's violent agenda.

|| King and his thugs spot Wells & Joan walking in the vicinity of the secret lab, which resembles the sort of compound where you might find a radio or radar installation. Cornered, Wells & Joan manage to scale the high barbed-wire fence, only to be challenged by some dogs and set off the alarms. Eventually they elude both the gang and the soldiers and retreat towards the studio on the cliffs, where the crazed King catches up with them. They fight, and Wells & Joan go over the edge, drop into the sea... (a fitting sequence considering Elisabeth Frink's fascination with falling figures and winged men). King follows, absurdly trying to navigate the eroded ledges, descending slowly and obsessively towards a rocky cove. Eventually he falls into the sea but -- like Wells and Joan minutes before -- is rescued by the children who are living in a bunker located in a series of caves.

What's going on? No adults, despite classroom facilities, sleeping dorms and TV monitors. It could be a fallout shelter except -- as the dreadful truth comes to pass -- it's to keep radiation in, not out. This is Bernard's mutation chamber, a test environment to condition the next generation for survival in a world irradiated with Strontium 90. The children could be out of Harry Potter. Their flesh is cold, although their manners are impeccable, and their desire is to be free and reconciled with the parents they don't know. It's an ugly setup, a government sanctioned experiment where children are used as guinea pigs, and have no possible chance of returning to life as it currently exists. Of course Bernard & his associates know that Wells, Joan and King have found the lab, as they monitor the children by television... and send in armed men wearing rubber radiation suits to deal with them. The children refer to these figures as "The Black Death".

Anyone who was around in the fifties and sixties will remember the tremendous nuclear anxiety that existed as a result of the Cold War. There was a general feeling that a nuclear holocaust was inevitable, and a sense of futility pervaded many people. Depression, suicide, extended risk-taking, lack of commitment, crime without motive -- all manner of social problems seemed to be on the rise. This tension was partially dissipated by the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which was about a year after The Damned was shot. But before this there were other serious films that dealt with the possibility of atomic catastrophe, such as On The Beach (1959) or The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959).

The despair in The Damned is presented as anti-government resentment because Bernard's secret program smacks of Nazi eugenics and totalitarian manipulation, regardless of any pragmatic reasoning that might justify it. This sense of totalitarian evil is reinforced when Bernard shoots his lover in the back of the head outside her studio, least she escape and alert the public as to what is going on with these children in this secret facility. According to Glenn Erickson in his profile of the film for Turner Classic Movies, the execution of Freya was imposed on Losey by the studio, contradicting the script that would have her die by being shot from "the faceless helicopters". Shot by the unseen "They"... does this seem better? Not really, even though the Director and the Script Writer usually know best. To have the artist killed by her lover is a personal betrayal, and although less ideological, the totalitarian angle is covered as well because Bernard is a government bureaucrat.

Oliver Reed's performance is the only one with any visceral authority... although in the era of Marlon Brando and James Dean, it was imperative for young male actors to express frustration and male rage. Reed's roles have always teetered on the edge of self-parody, and many might think his characterization of King is just that. It's interesting that most commentators refer to his gang as "Teddy Boys" when in fact they are not. The dress-code was utterly different. Teddy Boys wore Edwardian jackets with velvet collars, Mississippi gambler shirts and lace ties, stove-pipe pants and blue suede shoes with thick crepe soles. They were anti-social and sought violence to be sure, but King's gang aren't Teds. They are Rockers, who favoured jeans & black leather jackets. King doesn't wear a leather jacket; in fact he dresses like a Mod, perhaps as a way of asserting his authority over the others. Bad attitude, sullen expression, confused sexuality -- could it all be the fault of the Bomb?

His death is a classic fait accompli. Fatally contaminated, King is last seen speeding down the highway in Freya's sports car pursued by a Sea King helicopter... as he approaches a road block, he chooses to swerve off a low cliff into the ocean, one of the kids riding ecstatically in the passenger seat in his first & last taste of freedom.

The ending of The Damned is very good, especially as it shows no compromise to the usual industry propaganda of the time. The moral culpability is placed squarely on "the government" and there isn't even a glimmer of optimism within the imagery. This isn't a basic Quatermass accident, like an astronaut returning with an infection. The killing of children and artists is not something that fits the old sentimentality. It presents the specter of totalitarianism, the sense that we have been misled by our leaders, and by their serious moral misjudgment we now have to deal with the atomic bomb and annihilation. So The Damned is a subversive film, one which uses the horror genre not to titillate, but to insinuate & educate. Strangely, some 46 years later, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been replaced in the public mind by the more ambiguous threat of global warming or a possible global pandemic like a new Black Death.

© LR 7/07


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