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Sunday, November 23, 2014

These Are the Damned (1963)

Screenplay by Evan Jones, based on the novel The Children of Light by H. L. Lawrence
Directed by Joseph Losey

Macdonald Carey:  Simon Wells

Oliver Reed:  King
Shirley Ann Field:  Joan
Viveca Lindfors:  Freya Neilson

Time for another "end of the Cold War" movie review, in concert with El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. He thought it would be a good idea to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was 25 years ago this November. I heartily concur. For the second film in the series, I thought I'd check out something made in England, since I'd expect a slightly different perspective from a country allied with one of the two superpowers rather than a film made by either the USSR or here in United Statesland.

That perspective would be an interesting one--this movie was released in the UK in May of 1963, seven months after the Cuban Missile Crisis came horrifyingly close to touching off a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union. Anyone living in the allied countries to those two superpowers had it arguably worse than citizens of those two nations during the confrontation; it's one thing to be living in a society that might choose to touch off the funeral pyre for the entire world, but to be living somewhere that was just on one side or the other without any direct choice in the matter?

That would likely make a thinking person feel like a Lovecraft protagonist--knowing that forces utterly indifferent to your life could snuff your whole society out in a millisecond, and that you would be powerless to affect that decision in any way? I'd be agreeing with Joey Ramone re: the necessity of powerful barbituates on a regular basis, myself. And I'm not sure that it would be any better or any worse to know that the entire human race was going to end because of the actions of your friends rather than those of your enemies. People interested in pursuing this line of reasoning further would do well to check out Charles Stross' "Laundry" series of horror / espionage novels as well as his forewards and afterwords to each book.

I've taken to reading the title sequences of these movies as plot specific tea leaves (think of the human sacrifice woodcuts at the start of The Cabin in the Woods--it's a clue as to what the movie's actually about that people may or may not be paying any attention to). In this case, the viewer gets to see waves eternally washing against a cliffside beach as the camera pans past a series of rough, unfinished stone statues (with the artworks looking more and more finished as they're shown from left to right). Before the sculptor can be revealed there's a jump cut to a large seaside town, a local-landmark clock tower with sculptures all down its sides and a middle-aged tourist getting sassed by a young woman with a switchblade in the waistband of her trousers. After she walks off the camera tracks by a group of young louts on motorcycles and the soundtrack attempts to work up some excitement with a track called "Black Leather Rock". I'm a big fan of early 60s British pop music, and I am not a fan of this song. Sorry, James Bernard. I still quite like your scores, for what that is worth.

The woman from the beginning of this sequence does some telepathic eye contact and nodding to converse with the apparent lead of the motorcycle gang (a very young Oliver Reed, wearing a houndstooth sport coat instead of the Brando Collection ensemble the rest of the gang is showing off). The woman takes the middle-aged gent's arm and goes walking with him and the biker gang literally falls into formation and marches off after the pair. They also whistle the song that was just on the soundtrack, and it's much better as an instrumental. They efficiently deliver a full-service beatdown to the chump that Joanie--as one of the bikers calls her--lured past the alley where they were waiting. They take his wallet but leave the passport, so there's a certain sense of fair play and Britishness to them, even as thieving hooligans.

At a cafe in the same town, a stuffy older scientist type (he's wearing the suitcoat-and-sweater-vest ensemble that scientists always have in Hammer movies) gets surprised by his mistress Freya, who joins him at a window seat table for tea and conversation. She drops off a really neat looking carrion-bird stone sculpture for her paramour and opines that she does her best work at Shropshire-By-The-Sea, or wherever it is that the town happens to be (I assume if I were English I would have recognized it on sight). While this pair smooches tepidly at their table, the beating victim is helped into the restaurant by a pair of concerned bystanders and we learn that his name is Mr. Wells. And one of the bystanders calls the scientist "Sir" as they drop off the beating victim. The scientist introduces the bystanders as a captain and a major--in the British army, I'm assuming, though they're in civilian suits at the moment. Bernard, the guy in the sweater-vest, seems to be very high ranked indeed (he makes a failed attempt at wit by claiming to have a pet colonel at home as well).

Wells declines a doctor but accepts the offer of a restorative drink (and England appears to be rubbing off on him; he's polite enough that he apologizes for the way he looks after having been beaten unconscious by ruffians). Wells mentions to Bernard and Freya that he was expecting some of the things he's seen so far in England (I'm assuming red phone boxes, stuffy scientists and Daleks) but that he was pretty sure the biker gangs would be left back on the other side of the Atlantic. Bernard says that "the age of senseless violence has caught up with us too". Incidentally, everyone keeps calling the gangs "Teddy boys", but they're rockers. Come on, English screenwriters, it's your youth subcultures, you should be able to identify them properly.

Teddy boys.


When Wells excuses himself to wash the blood off his face and make himself more presentable, Freya asks Bernard about the secret project he's working on and how things are going with it. He answers with the most general of generalities. Which is undoubtedly the right way to go if it's a top secret military project. Bernard says that if he actually tells Freya what he's working on, it might be a death sentence for her--and that previous crack about keeping a pet colonel shows that he's absolutely not joking. Then he asks if Freya's feeling like Italian for dinner, which is a great deal more relaxing as conversational topics go.

Meanwhile, at a boardwalk amusement arcade, the lead rocker (not a Teddy boy, really) hassles his sister Joan; he says it's the two of them against the world and always has been. She thinks that Wells was actually a pretty nice guy from what she could see out of the fifty seconds she knew him, and appears to be reconsidering her career path as tourist bait for a gang of criminals. Her brother also seems to be pretty wasteful with someone else's money, betting one of his under-louts five pounds over a shooting gallery score.

Joan starts a race back to the unicorn statue that the gang tends to colonize and literally lay about; she drives her cycle past a boat that Wells is on, stretching out the kinks and aches after his ass-whipping earlier in the day. Wells recognizes her, as could be expected, and throws a little bit of shade back at her before trying to spark a conversation that only a confused middle-aged white guy would try to have with a young criminal ("Why do you do it, huh? Is it for kicks?"). Joan points out that Wells never asked her name while picking her up and instead of replying that he'd been beaten unconscious before they were properly introduced Wells takes the 60s masculine privilege road instead and says with a figure like hers, she doesn't need a name. That does not even make sense.

Wells and Joan introduce themselves to each other and Joan hops on the boat to continue the conversation and the viewers learn that Wells' first name is Simon. While the pair starts to make small talk the gang spots them and then shows up to menace Wells (who seems to take the gang's arrival as another time that Joan's baited him into their presence). King, the lead biker, demands that Joan leave the boat and come back with them; Simon tells her to stay on board and the rockers do a quick Synchronized Knife-Pulling display that works wonders on getting Wells to back off and Joan to disembark. The gang persuades Simon to park his watercraft somewhere else and Wells gets Joan to jump on board as he pulls away. King, for his part, mutters that he's going to kill Wells when he returns to shore. Which he'll have to do relatively soon, since the boat's not equipped for an oceanic voyage.

On the boat (check out the wildly flailing rear-projection during this scene), Joan starts to consider what her getaway is going to do to her brother's mental state; apparently the last time she wanted to go out on a date he locked her in a cupboard for a week. It's also telling that the rockers call her Joanie rather than Joan; Wells might be a sleazy midlife-crisis suffering jerk, but he's not completely infantilizing Joan at least. Joan, for her part, doesn't care for Wells or the insinuations he's making about King or her, and likes it even less when he tries to kiss the hell out of her. At this point, I'm starting to see where King and the boys were coming from when dealing with Wells.

Simon says that he's got enough fuel on the boat to go anywhere on the southern coast of England, or across the Channel for an impromptu French vacation if that's what Joan would rather do. She's undoubtedly thinking that Wells won't keep it in his pants if she agrees to go anywhere with him, and says that she knows a place or two where she can hide until King isn't furious at her any more. He relents and takes Joan back to shore, under the watchful eye of one of the bikers (using a pair of binoculars taken from an American birdwatcher on vacation, no doubt).

The other plot thread makes its presence known after Wells motors back to shore; on a tiny desolate house at the top of a cliff, Bernard enters a room where two military officers and four civilians are already there, discussing whatever project it is they're working on. They're also arguing with each other whether or not any kind of civilized values will be worth anything in the context of whatever it is they're working on; the civilians, oddly enough, seem to think that gentility will be a futile waste of time if whatever it is they're working on comes to fruition.

And whatever the project is, it's incredibly weird. Nine children are sitting at their desks in a school room. They're all wearing boarding school uniforms but their teacher, who turns out to be Bernard, appears to them only on a viewing screen at the front of the room. One of the girls says the kids want to see him in person, but Bernard tells them that cannot happen but that they aren't mature enough at this point to explain why. He also says that it's their day to ask questions of him, and they do (ranging from what's going to happen to the nine of them when they grow up and get married amongst themselves, which will leave one of them without a partner, to what exactly Bernard means by "when the time comes" in his frequent talks to the children. He refuses to explain that to them and breaks off questioning for lunch. Whatever it is the kids are being prepared for, everyone in the command room--Bernard, the military men and the civilian ones--seems to think it's utterly inevitable. Which, in 1963, has to mean a nuclear war.

Meanwhile, Wells and Joan have anchored their boat near the strange high house on the hill; Joan is plugged into the town gossip circuit and knows that some bigwig lives there, and occasionally a woman comes to town to stay there with him. Joan also knows that the "Bird house" is locked, but can pick the window open with her own knife. She and Wells sneak in and admire some of the sculptures that Freya's left in the interior and Wells tries to put the moves on Joan again. This time she doesn't shove him away, but does tell him to go back to his boat and leave her alone. Which is probably a good idea, because King and his goons know where the pair are now. When the pair of fugitives hear a motor, they assume it's the biker gang (and the noise happens right after Wells proposes marriage to Joan, which is a weirder and creepier plot development than the kids in a bunker). The noise turns out to be Freya pulling up in her car, but Wells and Joan don't know that and abscond out the back window. It turns out to be a pretty good idea that they left because King walks in through the front door just as Freya is tsking over the untidiness of her vacation home. He asks her where his quarry have gone and she blithely informs him that she's got no idea who he's looking for, where they came from and where they're going. He responds by hacking up one of her sculptures with a hatchet after disparaging her morals and his gang members, posted outside as scouts, signal each other that they've spotted Joan and Wells as they try to flee.

When the protagonists try to avoid getting beaten or killed by the gang they run into the perimeter fence of the secret compound and wind up alerting the guards, who find one of the gang members while Joan and Wells jump into the ocean from a cliffside (and King climbs laboriously down after them in a shot that shows Oliver Reed is a hell of a trouper). The children from the sealed-off classroom fish the pair out of the ocean and bring them through a cave that they say isn't monitored by security cameras. Joan notices that the girl who takes her hand has very low body temperature, and freaks out a little bit over this. Things get even odder when the children argue--in a very low-key, upper-class British way--that they want to touch the adults who have just shown up because they have never touched a warm person before; one of the children complains that Richard saw a bird once but he's never seen anything out of the ordinary before. King flops down into the water a few moments later and one of the boys hauls him onto the beach. He's cheerful towards King, stating that he learned how to save lives in gym class and seems happy to have made a practical application of his studies. The boy also knows how to unlock the electronic-eye security doors (which King can't figure out), and it turns out that they only open from the outside. The children are chipper and answer King's questions (as well as Simon and Joan's) as best they can but don't have any context to relate to anything dealing with the outside world. A few more crumbs of exposition get dropped:  All the children are eleven years old; they were born the same week; none of them have parents and they apparently thought that Simon and Joan were their mother and father when they showed up.

When King shows up, his hostility towards Simon and Joan vanishes as he discovers just how odd the children are; Simon promises to stay with the mystery kids until he can figure out how to help them escape from their captivity. Around the same time that the trio comes to their accord, the rocker who got picked up by base security is let go after pointing out he didn't mean to trespass on the grounds and had no idea what was up there (as snottily as possible, of course). Down in the caves, Simon and Joan argue with King about how they're going to try and escape and Simon says he's planning to stay at least the night, because he promised those weird, sad children that they wouldn't leave.

Elsewhere, a POV camera semi-competently synched to footsteps makes its way into the children's classroom / living room / cafeteria / dormitory arrangement, and apparently the person whose point of view the audience is experiencing is wearing head-to-toe protective gear. It's one of the soldiers from the mysterious project, and startles the heck out of the poor boy that's awake to see him arrive. The next morning, Freya and Bernard are talking about the people who showed up yesterday at her temporary abode while chatting over coffee. Bernard still doesn't tell his lover what he's up to all day, but he drops a hell of a hint on the audience (since we know a great deal about the project that Freya doesn't). He says there's a power unleashed in the world that can melt the stones of her sculptures, and "we must be ready when the time comes". Whatever he's doing, it's apparently got a nine-person crew on the Ark so that when nuclear war breaks out, some small vestige of English civilization will survive to the extent that such a thing is possible.

Back at the office, Bernard chides the major in charge of security, saying that the children's mental health is more important than the major monitoring them for every second of every day; it turns out that the kids are sneaking off to a hidey-hole. Bernard thinks they should be allowed to have some small measure of autonomy and privacy while the major thinks security and control are much more important. For the time being, Bernard is winning that argument (though, ironically, if the major got his wish then the project heads would have found the three intruders they're looking for). The kids serve something they call "lunch" to the interlopers; it's a round biscuit-like chunk of nutriment that they construct themselves in the chemistry lab. And it's apparently one of the few flavors they've ever encountered over the course of their lives. None of the trio from the outside world seem particularly impressed by it. After lunch two of the kids explain that they had a rabbit come inside, and they played with it, but its hair fell out and it fell asleep forever. Then (intercut with sequences in the command center atop the hill) they work out a plan to try and get the intruders to the outside world, where Simon, King and Joan will call attention to the inhuman treatment of the children and get them released.

William, one of the kids, knows where all the blind spots are in the camera coverage and tries to sneak Simon out one of the facility doors. He's a smart child, but doesn't account for the fact that Simon's three feet taller than he is and the gambit gets noticed pretty much immediately. Bernard is worried for the children now that he knows the adults are there, but for a truly upsetting reason--he says that he doesn't want the children to watch the adults die. While pretty much everyone in the compound starts figuring out how to get the grownups away from the children, one of the soldiers goes back to the Freya's studio and makes polite conversation with her. As soon as the soldier takes off one of the rockers drops by the bird house in order to ask Freya if she knows where King has gone. They walk off to the quarry where Freya gets her raw materials and chitchat.

While that's going on, Bernard tries to get the children to tell him where the "big people" are; the kids rebel by telling him nothing and blinding the cameras because they're utterly fed up with the treatment they've had at his (remote) hands. When soldiers in radiation gear show up looking for the intruders it turns out to be King that's best-prepared to take them down, though both he and Wells look incredibly sick by this point. When Wells subdues the major, everyone--characters and audience--gets another big clue as to what the heck is going on. The major gets his helmet knocked off in the fracas and is terrified of the security-door key that he was carrying. Something else on his equipment belt? A Geiger counter, which goes berserk when the key is waved next to it. It gets just as loud when Wells carries it over to the children, still promising to get them out of the complex. Wells tells them to undress before leaving, thinking that it's the clothes that are radioactive. But the counter gets even more demonstrative when the kids are in their undershirts; the major tells Wells that the children themselves are lethally radioactive and cannot be brought out of the compound.

But the major doesn't have his gun any more, so he can just shut the hell up. Wells, Joan and King take the kids out into the real world and the children feel the sun and wind on their faces for the first time in their lives. One of them is terrified, but the others are all thrilled. And their moment of freedom is cut short by soldiers in radiation suits who carry them bodily off into the compound again. Bernard is on the scene to supervise and Wells angrily demands answers from him, wanting to know just what the hell he's up to with radioactive children in an underground bunker.

Bernard tells him he's free to leave, but doesn't cough up an explanation to them. It turns out that Freya's the one he wants to confess to. The children's mothers were all exposed to radiation in some kind of unspecified accident while pregnant. The children were all born immune to radiation poisoning thanks to the mishap. And Bernard, like many other people in positions of political influence, thought that nuclear war was inevitable, he decided to use the accident that gave the children their immunity to radiation as a way to keep some tiny vestige of humanity alive after a nuclear war. He also tells Freya that Simon and Joan have been exposed to the children too long, and that they'll be dead in a matter of hours. That's why he let them go. It's a simple matter to scuttle their boat once they're dead and let the secret wind up with their bodies in the ocean. One assumes something similar will happen to King before he gets back to down as well, if the soldiers don't just give him a .45 caliber traffic citation.

But King drives on, with Henry (the child who wanted to see the world), knowing that he's dying from his proximity to the boy. He's a fascinating contradiction of a character--a brutish thug with a sick fixation on his sister's sexual life, and simultaneously a flinching virgin terrified of connection with another human being (although he'd probably say his concerns were actually about ethics in gaming journalism). Oliver Reed makes him impossible to look away from when he's on the screen, and the villain of the movie is much more interesting than the rather bland hero that Simon Wells essays. But the other characters are much more compelling than either of those--the freaks trapped in the system, who now see themselves as prisoners rather than students, and the monster keeping them there. The final images of the film--Freya's martyrdom and the children begging for anyone to help them as the screen shows the nearby seaside resort town--are going to stick with me for a long, long time.

During my youth and adolescence, it seemed to lots of people (who were presented as knowing what they were talking about) that nuclear war was going to happen within my lifetime. Either one country's leadership would be insane or stupid enough to trigger the war, or an accident would spark one, or a terrorist with a suitcase nuke would walk into downtown Baghdad and set off the whole shooting match. The most horrifying thing about These are the Damned isn't the children who are horribly lethal to anything alive--they're pitiable more than anything. Bernard and the situation he's overseeing is certainly awful and inhuman, but I can't quite say it's horrifying either, truthfully. The real horror of the film is that I actually agree with what Bernard was doing. Given the existence of children that cannot spend time anywhere near normal human beings, their immunity to radiation and the inevitability of nuclear war, it's really the only thing anyone could do if they wanted humanity to retake the scorched, maimed, blistered wastelands that were once a green and pleasant land.


This review is part of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" event with 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and corresponding end of the Cold War 25 years ago, in November of 1989.


  1. You're a better man than I am-- my every attempt to watch this founders of the terrible tune of the Teddy Rockers, even though I know that EVENTUALLY there's going to be something worth seeing at the far side of it.

  2. That song is the worst goddamned thing. And, to rub salt in the wound, it's actually really catchy.