SALLY ANN BLAIR, born in India and brought up in Australia is now in charge of Liberal Studies in a London technical college
THIS FILM WAS RECENTLY RELEASED IN LONDON incongruously paired with a horror film called 'Maniac' and the programme headed "Take a Nerveless Friend with You"; it then toured the suburbs for a couple of weeks still part of the same package deal and has since disappeared from view; it was not given a press showing prior to its West End run; it has had to wait two years for commercial release — so those who find the musical theme, Black Leather Rock, rather dated, can blame the distributors for the delay.
Yet this is the latest example of the work of the director, Joseph Losey, already well-known and highly respected for 'The Boy with Green Hair', 'Blind Date', 'Time Without Pity' and 'The Criminal').
The theme of 'The Damned' is extremely pertinent to other articles in this special edition of ANARCHY and readers are urged to hunt the film down locally and see it for themselves.
The story is set in the not-so-distant future. Certain trends in both the public and the private sphere of modern life are isolated, developed a stage further, and examined — violence, loneliness, lack of purpose, the breakdown of traditional groups (the family), the formation of new ones (the gang). It is quite interesting to see just how we are made aware that the action takes place in the future. Firstly, the mass of details that fixes the contemporary scene, advertisements, topical references, is just not there at all. The director of a science fiction film usually feels constrained to point out in a hundred unsubtle ways that it is now 1984, that the Chinese or Martians rule the earth, that chiffon gym tunics are normal street wear. There is nothing like that here. We see a real town, Weymouth, but no details about life in the town are given us. This is a disturbing experience, entering a world that looks familiar, but which, without the comforting trivia of everyday life, we can't feel sure we have ever experienced before. Secondly, some of the details of the plot are left deliberately vague, so that although the characters know perfectly well what they are talking about, we are not quite sure … we are strangers, out of our depth, in the conversational shorthand used by friends among themselves.
The main action of the film concerns two groups, their leaders, and three individuals, whose paths cross. The first group is a motor-cycle gang led by King (Oliver Reed), based on the town. At no time do we see this gang make contact with any person living in the town. They seem to have contracted out of the wider existence and now live solely for the gang. King uses his sister, Joan (Shirley Anne Field), as a decoy so that the gang can attack and rob Simon (Macdonald Carey), an American tourist. Even after he learns the details of this attack, Simon is still attracted to Joan and persuades her to throw off the domination of her brother and come away to France in his motor launch. She agrees but her temporary bravado ebbs and she changes her mind. They return, and the story then traces the couple's attempts to escape King's revenge.
The setting that represents the other group is a barren rocky cliff, a few miles outside Weymouth. Here Bernard, a Scottish scientist (Alexander Knox), with a team of experts and guards, conducts a top secret government project, surrounded by high barbed wire fences, constantly patrolled. Nearby there is a simple stone house occupied each summer by an old friend of his, a Swedish sculptress, Freya (Viveca Lindfors).
Joan and Simon take refuge in Freya's house, but King follows them. They run off into the night, come across the menacing wire fence of Bernard's establishment, break through it, triggering off all the alarm systems, one of the gang hard at their heels. The only escape is over the cliff edge, so steep it seems an impossible descent. They slip, slide, scramble and fall to the shallow bay at the base. Dazed and bruised, soaked to the skin, they are rescued by some children and taken into a cave in the cliff. Unknowingly they have stumbled across Bernard's mysterious experiment — nine radioactive children being brought up in subterranean quarters deep in the cliff.
King has encountered Freya at the house. Somewhat put out by her composure, and finding her unusual and therefore disturbing, he senselessly destroys one of her sculptures. Freya strikes out at him in a blind fury and together they wrestle on the very edge of the cliff. (Losey originally planned to call this film "The Brink").
King, too, tries to escape the patrols by way of the cliff face, and falls, to be revived by one of the children and taken into the cave, whereupon he is confronted by Simon and Joan. The rest of the film shows the inevitable consequences of 'warm' people being contaminated by the 'ice-cold' radioactive children though the three adults and the children are quite unaware that this is the true explanation of the situation. Above, Bernard plans how to handle this disastrous disruption of his project.
Here we reach the crux of the film. Bernard accepts the government attitude that a nuclear holocaust is inevitable and all his energies are devoted to bringing up these nine children, by accident subjected to intense radiation at birth and now immune, though of course mortally dangerous to any other human being. The logical extension of his position is to try and find the exact conditions of these 'mistakes' so they can be created at will to make a new species of man, invulnerable to radiation, the survivor of a nuclear war, the race of the future. Freya is incredulous when she learns the truth. She is profoundly shocked and feels that Bernard, by believing that life on earth as we know it must end, and pinning his hopes for the survival of mankind on nine children, has lost all sense of proportion, and lost it on a dizzying scale … in her eyes, he has sold out on the human race.
However, the film does not oversimplify the problem. Bernard is not an unfeeling monster but a serious and thoughtful man. He says he only agreed to work for the government on this job after much heart-searching. He is kind to the children and stands up for them against his colleagues who are blinkered by science. He knows about, and permits the children to keep, their one hiding place out of range of the dozens of television cameras reporting every action of the team above. But his rather limited imagination reveals itself on the kind of upbringing he insists on … neat uniforms, quiet, obedient behaviour at all times, uninteresting food, though containing all the necessary vitamins, concocted in the laboratory, rows of identical desks, chairs and beds. At question time, via closed circuit television, the children try to find out who they are and why they are there, but each time they are given the answer, 'Everything will be explained when the time comes, when you are ready to understand'. This time they are not content with the pat answer and one of them cries out that Bernard is undemocratic. This is obviously a very serious accusation, but the screens go black as Bernard refuses to answer the charge. This is an extremely moving scene and Bernard's reaction makes a lot of things clear. He obviously believes in the ideal of democracy and the education he has selected for these children includes large doses of praise for the democratic way of life. They spot that Bernard is being undemocratic and protest in bewilderment. If he says it is so important, why isn't he democratic himself? He has no answer to that one, so he uses his power, i.e. his control of the television camera, to end the interview.
The similarity of the two groups is brought out in many ways. The most obvious parallel is in dress. King's gang wear black leather jackets, ride high powered black motor cycles. Bernard's assistants look like spacemen in their black protective clothing and glass helmets. The children have dubbed these men 'The Black Death'. The guards drive black vans and take to the air in fast helicopters.
The members of both groups are almost totally anonymous, loyal to their leader and following his instructions implicitly. They show no individuality, they are never critical and display no signs of uncertainty or doubt. All these impressions are sinister and the old ideals of 'loyalty' and 'obedience' look rather featureless and subservient when represented in this way. Neither Bernard nor King will ever have to face criticism from his followers, that will have to come from outside, from Freya, from Joan, from Simon. And as at the end of the film, the outsiders, the individuals, are all dead, it doesn't hold out much hope that the Bernards of the world will ever be forced to re-examine their position.
Both groups employ violence — meaningless violence, and in each case the victims are innocent. The barbed wire, the alarm bells and searchlights, the dogs, the military alertness of the guards when intruders are signalled, convey violence as vividly as the knives and threats of King's gang. It is hard to detect any purpose in the acts of violence. Logically one could say that the public is being protected from contamination by radiation but the methods used are certainly not soothing and reassuring but menacing and threatening. I am quite sure that neither the gang member caught by the guards, nor Joan and Simon escaping a double enemy do feel the establishment is offering 'protection'.
It is true that if the children were allowed to escape they would endanger ordinary people, but Freya who does not know this, sees only the violence of their recapture — the powerful forces of modern warfare, helicopters, huge trucks, armed guards swooping down on nine small children. An eleven-year-old kicks and struggles vainly as, tucked unceremoniously under the arm of a 'Black Death', he is carried protesting back to captivity.
How can this separation of the means (violence) and the end (protection) be explained? Freya, in one of her arguments with Bernard, gives us the clue: "The public servant is the only servant who has secrets from his master". The decisions to protect the public for its own good are being made in secret … the public never hears the truth about the 'end' but sees only the 'means' employed to achieve it. So long as this continues, the ordinary person will feel the victim of oppression. Freya, King, Joan, Simon, the children, all feel bewildered, imprisoned, powerless, while they are denied the true facts of the situation. Angrily they strive to correct injustices, interpreting the situation in good faith, but also in ignorance. Their actions, thus based on incomplete knowledge, bring about their own destruction. This is why they are 'The Damned'.
Freya is the touchstone for all the characters; honest, thoughtful, strong-minded and warm-hearted, she speaks with such passionate sincerity that her words ring bell-like throughout the film. She is an artist, a creator, and she is free, uncommitted to any group or to any specific belief. Bernard may be, or may have been, her lover, but she is free to criticise him, to beg him not to have secrets from her. She lives alone, close to the sea and sky. She is free to say that she loves her work and loves what she has created, free to cry when King attacks one of her sculptures, free to wrestle with him on the cliff edge when he smashes it. Yet what happens when Bernard does tell her his secret, is she pleased? No, her horror leads her to reject him completely. Again we begin to see that an attitude like Bernard's must by its very nature be kept secret, simply because people like Freya will never, never, accept it.
The film ends with a series of terrifying scenes in which each of the contaminated persons is hunted down and killed. Simon and Joan, already weakened by radiation, are allowed to drift out to sea in the boat that was once to have seen the beginning of a new life together for them; Freya is shot by Bernard as she works on her sculptures (this shot was not planned by Losey, Freya was to be shot from the circling helicopter, but the producers wanted something more definite); King drives away in Bernard's car and is pursued by the helicopter until in despair he swerves off a bridge into the river; the children, having seen the outside world and conscious of their imprisonment, having met 'warm' people and aware of their own unnatural 'coldness', now call over and over again for help. But the secret is secure once more, and as the camera looks down on the desolate cliff face, the swift currents at its rocky base, we know that their plaintive cries will never reach outside ears.