“I like him because he doesn’t like the world. It’s a good beginning.”
– Freya Nielson (Viveca Lindfors)
When Joan accuses ex-patriot American Simon “you can’t spend your life running away,” maybe there’s a subtext? American director Joseph Losey was also ‘running away’, in British exile as a fugitive from rampant McCarthyism. He was taking whatever respectable work he could get – initially under pseudonyms, and yet The Damned (aka: These Are The Damned), his flawed masterpiece, is one of the most extraordinary films to emerge from Hammer, even if the studio didn’t quite know what to do with it.
It opened inauspiciously without even a press screening as the bottom half of a Hammer double-bill at the now long-defunct ABC Edgware Road. Cheap throw-away culture is often most acutely attuned to the pulse of the time, and this fascinating visually-dazzling allegory encompasses all the then-current social hang-ups, from dysfunctional teenage hoodlums, through beatnik art-weirdness into chilling state suppression of sinister nuclear secrets. Beat. Bohemia. Bikers. Juvenile delinquency. Sci-fi. Midwich Cuckoos. Children Of The Damned. Atomic paranoia. A Dr Strangelove bunker. Existential chill. All the elements I most love about the period.
It’s a genuinely disturbing, politically provocative anti-nukes SF conspiracy thriller, in which drifter Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey), Swedish sculptor Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors) and a biker gang led by Oliver Reed pay the ultimate price for breaching a top-secret Dorset research station. It begins in Weymouth. Why shabby down-at-heel Weymouth, of all places? Because if it can happen in this buttoned-up slightly claustrophobic seaside any-town, it could happen anywhere.
The promenade soundtrack opens with “black leather, black leather rock-rock-rock, smash-smash-smash, crash-crash-crash, black leather, black leather kill-kill-kill,” an artful pastiche of the early-crude jukebox coffee-bar rock ‘n’ roll cleverly contrived by James Bernard. As black leather-clad ne’r-do-wells hang out around the promenade clock-tower eyeing up Joan (Shirley Ann Field), who looks enticingly shapely in her tight slacks. Their leader, King (Oliver Reed) – with brolly, adopts an upper-class voice to taunt the police officer who tells them to ‘move along now’.
They mock-march across the promenade whistling Black Leather Rock, for these – after all, are the conscription-days of national service. Reed is now more renowned for his late-life booze-fuelled exploits, which is unfortunate. At this career-start phase he projects a brooding screen presence of considerable power. But, although undoubtedly ‘king’ of his rocker gang, his rebel posture will be discomfited by the more-focused bohemian art-existential protest of Freya. Then, when faced by the first intimations of real danger his bragging arrogance evaporates, while his petty thuggish tourist-mugging is placed in perspective by the surrounding vaster evils being inflicted by the faceless outwardly ultra-respectable ‘public servants’ controlling the mysterious Edgecliff establishment ‘project’, and by the impending Cold War nuclear holocaust which irradiates the movie mind-set.
Bernard – the self-justifying ‘public servant’, explains to Freya. “I live with one fact. A power has been released that will melt those stones. We must be ready when the time comes.” … “You really believe it’s going to happen, don’t you?” she argues back. “Certainly. There’s absolutely no question.” … “And there’s nothing we can do to prevent it?” … “Nothing.” … “Well,” shrugs paint-spattered Freya “back to work,” returning to sculpting a rough-hewn ‘graveyard bird’, the ‘weird’ art that accompanies the opening credits. Actually created by artist Elisabeth Frink to deliberately resemble the victims of nuclear tests, she infers that art is the only rational response to the political madness that threatens to overwhelm the world. The phenomenon that poet-artist Jeff Nuttall called ‘bomb culture’.
Meanwhile, Joan leads a ‘mark’, along an up-hill side street. The fact that she sings along to the lyrics of Black Leather – which is the ‘teddy boys’ call-sign and motif, fails to alert Simon, but provides a viewer-clue. She is the bait, he is the victim. King’s biker gang are waiting to mug him in a violent assault. Their jolly music-paced fun-violence predicts A Clockwork Orange. Later, “It’s me and you against the world,” King tells Joan, his sister. The bikers dress identically, only King wears a check-jacket and no helmet as they roar into town and along the prom.
When they meet again, at his motor-yacht ‘Dolce Vita’ moored in the harbour beside the Royal Oak Inn, Wells quizzes Joan “Why do you do it, for kicks?” … “It takes two to play pretty little games,” she retorts. Why was he so easily lured? By the promise of sex, which makes his motives morally equivalent – “with a figure like that you don’t need a name,” he snipes dismissively. In the answering skirmish the gang pull knives on him. Like Steed in The Avengers, King has a blade concealed in the hilt of his brolly! King’s ambitions extend no further than the gang. But, although controlled by her over-protective possessive brother, by ‘King’s rules’, Joan is attracted to Simon. And, emerging as the stronger sibling, at the last moment she opts to sail with him (‘I don’t want to be just somebody’s girl!’). Making her choice to escape, she jumps as he pulls away from the mooring.
When ‘Simple Simon’ returns “he’s a dead man,” vows King, kicking off the petty vendetta that will precipitate the plunge into more lethal action. “I’m not afraid of King,” says Simon. “Well, I am,” admits Joan. The focus abruptly pulls away to the cliff-top where biker Sid (Kenneth Cope) spies on the yacht from a headland, near the fenced-off ‘restricted zone’, and near Freya’s house. At Joan’s insistence, Simon puts the motor-yacht ashore, and she plans to ‘hide out’ in Freya’s ‘bird house’ studio as “a bird in a gilded cage.” They kiss. She’s wary, but then kisses back.
They hear a car, imagine it’s King, and hide. But although it’s Freya, Sid has reported their location back to King, who is close behind. King confronts the artist. To him, she’s a bohemian who uses her intellect to patronise him. “Maybe my morals are different to you,” she challenges him, and teasingly, about her art, “if I could explain them, I wouldn’t have to make them.” He retaliates in the only way he knows, by smashing one of her sculptures, and attacking her when she defends it – in a sequence which also future-echoes droog Alex killing his victim with a sculptured penis. “I enjoyed it, dear lady,” he sneers, by way of explaining his violence.
On the run, Simon and Joan escape into the night through a graveyard, pursued by the gang, who use the ‘Black Leather’ theme as a signal. Attempting to scale the perimeter barrier, they alert security. As dogs and guards pursue, they appear to fall over the cliff, but King determinedly climbs down after them. One of the gang is apprehended and interrogated by Major Holland. “I hope you’ll remember my rights as one of her majesty’s loyal subjects,” he brags in Clockwork Orange style.
While, in an English reflection of The Wild One (1953) – “what are you rebelling against?” … “What have you got?” – when Sid is asked to justify his gang-life, he shrugs “what else is there?” Drenched in seawater, Joan and Simon are rescued by two children, Victoria and Henry, in a cave-mouth. The girl’s hands are abnormally cold. When she responds “I don’t know what you mean” by cold, and they realise “they’ve never touched warm people before” it becomes evident they’ve stumbled upon the project’s sinister secret.
The children lead them deeper into the installation. Henry opens the door, the radiation of his own body activating a cell, leading them into their ‘hide-out’ because everywhere else their ‘teachers’ watch them. The nine children are all aged eleven, and they’ve always been here. One child suggests they’re no longer even on Earth, but on a generation-ship between worlds, “we’re on a huge spaceship travelling to a star,” and once there the magic doors will open and they’ll emerge.
An unseen ‘big brother’ figure addresses their schoolroom through a closed-circuit TV, the only way they can communicate with the outside. The children are tutored by hair-dryer-like devices, tape-teaching them from spools on the wall, and all the while, they’re under constant surveillance through screens by unseen scientists and military. Their hide-out is the only area the watchers don’t have access to, and in this secret place the children have chosen ‘parents’ photos for themselves. Henry returns to the rocky inaccessible cove to rescue King. ‘He’s dead’ exclaims a frightened King when he touches Henry’s face.
Later, a point-of-view eye travels around the bunker, the chairs, toys, a world globe, dexion shelving, a table set with cutlery, the children asleep in their beds. Drawing back, the observer is seen to be wearing a radiation suit. One of the children, Mary, is ill in bed. And “nothing that’s warm” can live down here. An earlier rabbit-pet died of what the children call ‘the black death’, which is actually the radioactivity emitted by their own bodies.
The watchers, who have by now observed the intruders and know they will already be lethally affected, don’t want the children further disturbed by seeing them die. So the security guards move in. Radiation-suited men descend the lifts and into the cove. The children rebel, smashing and concealing, the TV-links, while King attacks one of the suited men and clubs him down. Taking the machine-gun, he shoots another. Simon attacks a third. Using a snatched Geiger-counter, Simon finally registers that all the children are radioactive. Carrying the ill Mary they lead the children in an escape out through the cove, into the unfamiliar daylight, and up the cliffs. To SF academic John Clute “the children, their keepers, and the doomed would-be rescuers are skilfully depicted and the careful imagery impresses,” the contrasting imagery of Joan giving Mary a flower, a moment before she’s snatched by a suited guard.
Chillingly, they drag the squealing children back into subterranean captivity. King escapes in his sports car with Henry, as Simon is apprehended and indignantly demands answers. Bernard says nothing, but allows him and Joan to return to their motor-yacht. They are now contaminated. They will die. Bernard finally divulges the truth to Freya. The children were born “as they are,” the freak results of accidentally-irradiated mothers. Three hundred of them have been born in the past 15 years. “Life,” he says, “has the power to change… after the first great explosion (nuclear testing) strange wonderful flowers unknown before bloomed in the desert. To survive the destruction that is inevitably coming we need a new kind of man.” And “my children are the buried seeds of life.” After the mega-death nuclear holocaust “my children will go out to inherit the world.”
“What Earth?” demands Freya, “what Earth will you leave them?” In a dramatic sequence King’s speeding car is hunted down by a predatory helicopter. King fights off his attackers although Henry is snatched, and once more King is pursued by the copter until he crashes over the bridge into the river, and is killed. Simon and Joan are on the boat at sea. “We can start again Joan, we can go back again to the beginning.” … “We can’t Simon, we can’t leave the children.” A carrion-bird like ‘copter circles, while their boat drifts. Once they’re dead, the boat burns. Focus pulls back to the cliffs. Bernard shoots Freya. She witnessed the truth; she can no longer be allowed to live. Through the concealing cliffs the voices of the re-interred children shout “please help us. Someone please help us,” in a cold, chilling, bleakly evocative closure, as Weymouth returns to its sleepy barely-interrupted summer season.
Although its American distributors Columbia were so dismayed by what they were presented with that they kept it on the shelf for two years, before releasing it with several cuts, The Observer’s film critic Philip French vindicates Losey’s vision by listing it at #10 in his ’50 lost movie classics’ as late as 17th December 2006. Joseph Losey went on to direct further excellent work. A few months later his film of Harold Pinter’s screenplay for The Servant with Dirk Bogarde, finally brought him the recognition he deserved, and for French, the ex-patriot American director’s 30-year ‘running away’ exile in Britain was among the greatest things that happened to our cinema. Oliver Reed and other members of the crew would also progress to greater things. But The Damned taps into and time-freezes a unique interface of sub-cultural angst in ways that only supposedly cheap throwaway culture can, and as such it holds a special place in my esteem.
“The age of senseless violence has caught up with us too.”
– Bernard (Alexander Knox)