Sunday, 4 October 2009

These Are the Damned (1963)

You don’t really expect to find Joseph Losey directing a movie for Hammer Studios, and you don’t expect Losey to be doing a science fiction movie either. But Losey was surprisingly versatile (as evidenced by his wonderfully camp spy spoof Modesty Blaise) and These Are the Damned (also released as The Damned) is an interesting and challenging science fiction film.

Simon (Macdonald Carey) is an American tourist in Britain who tries to pick up a young English girl. Joan (the girl) is acting as bait for a motorcycle gang led by her brother King (Oliver Reed) and the hapless Simon gets beaten up and robbed for his trouble. Joan isn’t happy with her life and finds herself drawn to Simon. She seeks him out on his boat, and makes a kind of apology. King and the gang show up again and King orders her to come with him. She makes a split-second decision and instead joins Simon on his boat. With King and his gang after them they hide out in the remote house of an eccentric female artist, and when pursued they find themselves inside a secret military establishment. And there they meet The Children.

The Children are more or less kept prisoner. There is something decidedly odd about them. For one thing, their body temperatures are abnormally low, very very low indeed. In time we discover they were created as the result of an accident, and are being raised in secret and in captivity by the military as the future of humanity after a nuclear war. They are adapted to extreme levels of radiation. Simon, Joan and King now find themselves as unlikely allies recruited by The Children as a possible means of escape.

The movie works by presenting us with a series of apparent oppositions and parallels. King is an outsider, the leader of a gang of hoodlums. But the leader of the secret military establishment, a senior civil servant and an ultra-respectable pillar of the establishment, has his own gang - the soldiers who follow his orders as blindly as King’s thugs follow his, but these soldiers and civil servants are in effect hoodlums on a global scale, making their plans for nuclear war. Both have rejected life and chosen death. King has never had a girlfriend, and is determined to stop his sister from having a boyfriend. He is angry and frightened. The leader of the project has also rejected life in the form of the woman artist with whom he has obviously had some kind of romantic attachment, and he has chosen death. He is as fearful as King, and in both cases this fear causes them to turn away from life and embrace death.

The crimes of King and his gang are violent, but small-scale. They pale into insignificance compared to the crimes against humanity being perpetrated by the government an the military. The cruelty of the treatment of The Children is something that King, for all his faults, would never stoop to. If we can countenance such acts, and if people can carry out such acts in the name of duty, then perhaps we as a society have also rejected life.

It all sounds very serious, and it is in fact a rather bleak film. It makes its political points with a certain subtlety though (especially compared to heavy-handed efforts such as On the Beach) and there’s a human story there to keep our interest.

Macdonald Carey is adequate, Oliver Reed is, well he’s Oliver Reed so you know what to expect. Shirley Anne Field is impressive as Joan. The child actors portraying The Children manage to be both moving and strangely chilling.

As so often with Hammer films the real star is production designer Bernard Robinson, ably assisted by some superb black-and-white cinematography by Arthur Grant. The look of the movie is superb. The secret military establishment is a textbook example of capturing the right atmosphere without spending a lot of money on elaborate sets. The place has a look that is both creepily sterile and very modernist, with The Children’s accommodation being the bureaucratic mind’s idea of a cheery home for captive children. A kind of combination of modern prison and play centre.

This is the kind of intelligent science fiction movie that Hammer were very god at doing in the 50s and 60s and for which they don’t really get sufficient credit. Losey makes his points without preaching, and the result is a movie that is emotionally effective without being excessively manipulative. An interesting little movie, well worth seeing.


Sebina said...

AS a sci-fi fan and Joseph Losey appreciator, I'll definitely have to check this film out. AS always, a great review.

dfordoom said...

It's unfortunately a difficult movie to track down. I was amazed when it turned up on Australian TV recently. Not on cable, but on free-to-air TV. In a very nice print, and widescreen and commercial-free.

Jenna Alexander said...

Hi - a question in regards to your profile picture... is Absolutely Fabulous available on DVD from anywhere? I do love that show.

Great blog. I look forward to reading more.


dfordoom said...

Absolutely Fabulous is certainly available on DVD here in Australia, but I'm not sure about elsewhere.