The Damned

by Dan Sallitt

From The Science Fiction Reader, published by Limelight Editions in May 2004.

Hammer Films' The Damned (later released in the US as These Are the Damned) was the last genre project that blacklisted American director Joseph Losey took on in England before Eva and The Servant gave him a foothold in the international art-house market.  Losey was uncomfortable with the science-fiction elements of the project, and never seemed enthusiastic about the finished film:

I undertook The Damned, from a novel I thought confused and not very good, because several other projects had fallen through at that moment, and it was a difficult period in my life.  This has never been sufficient reason for me to take on anything; but I did, because I thought the novel spoke passionately and felt passionately about the irresponsible use of the new atomic powers put into the hands of the human race, and about the lack of responsibility of scientists for what they create.  I knew I was making it for a company distinguished for making pretty horrid horror films, and I knew they were primarily interested in the science-fiction aspects of The Damned.  I, on the other hand, was interested in parallel levels of violence: the violence I saw in kids, the violence of rock 'n' roll and leather boys on motor cycles; the violence of the world everybody lives in, of the scientists, of the governments, of the nations, of the establishments, which has to accept some responsibility for the violence one saw then in the extreme young.

Richard MacDonald and I found the location--Weymouth, which was seedy-Victorian, and the astonishing landscape, bleak, marvelous, primitive and terrifying, of Portland Bill.  These were the things I wanted to play on; the science-fiction aspects of the story didn't interest me at all.1

Certainly many of the critics who embraced Losey in the sixties and seventies held his genre exercises in higher esteem than he did.  In the case of The Damned, the social and political angles that Losey valued come dangerously close to toppling the film into overstatement, and the science-fiction story that he dismissed is a crucial part of the formal plan that ultimately gives the film its great power.

Like Hitchcock's The Birds, which also saw theatrical release in 1963, The Damned begins as a character-based, lightly-plotted drama, and withholds its suspense/science-fiction elements until well into the film.  And, like The Birds, it gets off to such a shaky start that its ultimate success comes as a surprise.

After its credit sequence, the film begins with what amounts to an audio-visual thematic overture.  An American walking in Weymouth is picked up by an attractive young woman, who leads him into a trap: he is beaten by a gang of Teddy boys, who rob him and leave him lying in the street.  The sequence is ostentatiously scored with the rock 'n' roll song "Black Leather Rock," with its overtly violent lyrics, and is staged amid Weymouth's ornate and decaying public monuments, which add to the thematic overload with their evocation of England's old glory.  In retrospect, one speculates that Losey is working in broad strokes precisely because the film is destined not to focus on these issues in any sociological detail.  At any rate, the short mugging scene is remarkable, conveying an impression of sickening violence by means of rapid editing that shows almost nothing, accompanied by muffled, incongruous quiet on the soundtrack.

When the characters are introduced, it is in simple, almost allegorical terms.  The mugged American, Simon (Macdonald Carey), is a rebel, hostile to the system and to institutionalized authority.  Joanie, the young woman who lured him, is the harassed sister of the gang leader King (Oliver Reed), whose incestuous protectiveness of Joanie is conveyed way too clearly.  We meet two other main characters in the café where Simon is taken after his beating: Bernard (Alexander Knox), an enigmatic government official in charge of some secret program, and his lover Freya (Viveca Lindfors), a sculptor and free spirit who ratifies for us Simon's nonconformity ("He doesn't like the world.  It's a good start").  Freya's connection to Bernard is a bit mystifying, given the utter dissimilarity of their temperaments and worldviews; we gather that Bernard has changed over the years, become more solemn and dedicated to his work because of the threatening state of world affairs.  Meanwhile, Joanie decides to rebel against her brother's tyranny and throws herself onto Simon's boat as it pulls away from the harbor.  After a brief, awkward courtship (Simon's rather coercive romantic overtures don't seem to bother Losey and screenwriter Evan Jones), Simon and Joanie become lovers, while King waits on shore with his gang to kill the man who has touched his sister.

Each character is severely limited by his or her role in this morality play.  Only Bernard, who emerges as the representative of the forces of governmental evil, has enough room to breathe as a plausible character.  Losey and Jones seem to have a soft spot for this taciturn, buttoned-up Scotsman whose suppressed torment over the nuclear threat drives him to the exercise of absolute power.   Simon and Freya are set up in political opposition to Bernard: Jones' dialogue tags them as lovers of life turned pessimistic and bitter by the oppressive social and political realities of their time. But Losey and Jones's endorsement of Simon and Freya’s worldview is so blatant that the film takes on a tone of self-congratulatory negativity.  A further problem is that King's hysterical passion for his sister threatens to turn this section of the film into camp.  Still, this unmanageable character figures in one inexplicably effective scene, in which he encounters Freya while searching for his sister and destroys one of Freya's sculptures out of spite.  Losey characteristically directs the scene, set on the Portland Bill cliffs, with victimizer and victim equally anguished by the atrocity, sobbing side by side on the ground.

The introduction of the science fiction story transforms the film.  From the moment one of Knox's underlings rolls a big, blocky television screen across the floor of Bernard's compound, a contrast of décor is established.  The early story has a distinctive look, more typical of Losey: the ornate, aged facades and monuments of Weymouth; the hypernatural crags and cliffs of Portland Bill; a deep-focus camera style with extreme foreground-background oppositions, so that we are visually unsettled by the proliferation of detail both near and far.  But when the television shows us that Bernard's secret project involves a roomful of twelve-year-old children kept sequestered even from their teachers/captors, we enter a studio-bound environment with a bare, modernistic design, of the sort that signified "the future" in fifties and sixties movies and television.  (Even the sound effects in this section, like the door that opens in the presence of radioactivity, seem left over from other science-fiction films.)  The sound track becomes sparser in the children's scenes, with little or no background noise; and the line delivery more discrete and theatrical.  (Losey has expressed displeasure with some of these stylings: "The children were a bit 'theatrical children,' which is something one is often stuck with here in England"2; "The science fiction things were all done in the studio and I found them difficult to do."3)  This long first sequence in science-fiction land is emphatically set off from the rest of the film by a landscape shot of the Portland Bill cliffs that dollies slowly back through a window until the barren military compound is established.   The sequence ends symmetrically with the camera dollying through the window again and rediscovering the detailed, naturalistic world outside.

Interestingly, this new and artificial science-fiction story line is more immediately compelling than the more realistically filmed personal story.  The children's isolation and confusion gives the film an emotional center even before we understand their plight, and Jones's script, despite its clumsiness at establishing characterizations, rations out information about the military project skillfully.  James Bernard's admirable score moves decisively away from the "Black Leather Rock" motif of the early scenes and favors an unearthly, mournful theme in the children's scenes.  Losey alternates between placing his camera with the children in their underground quarters, and showing them on the banks of TV monitors in the military control room, their voices hanging in an artificial electronic silence.  The contrast between the direct, theatrical emotionality of the children and the blank technological routine of the control room is desolating: childish gestures, like a boy spinning in his chair between each answer he marks in an exam, strain against being converted to data.

The two movies (the first characterized by free-floating social commentary, photographic realism, and an unfocused narrative; the second by science-fiction elements, a spare visual scheme, and a compelling narrative) collide when Simon and Joanie, fleeing King's gang, fall off a cliff into the ocean and are rescued by the children, who have a secret passage out of their quarters.  Losey's films typically opt for sudden, unbalanced transitions instead of gradual dramatic construction, and the two narrative strands of The Damned meet in a jolting shot, from Simon and Joanie's point of view, of the children dragging the dazed adults into their hiding place.

The narrative of the first section of the film immediately begins to break down when it is exposed to the increasingly frightening science-fiction story.  The protagonists are rendered speechless by the inexplicable condition of the children, who are cold to the touch and have never felt warm beings, with the exception of a rabbit who died after they befriended it.  Simon and Joanie can only assume that the children are prisoners, and make vague plans to free them.  But we already know enough to suspect that these plans are inappropriate to the situation, that the reflexive heroism of the protagonists is vestigial, rendered useless by the new developments.  They have become an audience to the now-dominant science-fiction narrative.  Soon the three interlopers (King has found his way into the children's lair as well) are experiencing periodic dizzy spells.  A grim Bernard, overseeing the damage control effort from his bunker above, officially obsoletes the old narrative when he orders his men to capture the intruder that has been detected: "I do not want the children to watch him die."  The finality of the announcement is shocking.

From this point on, the movie slowly empties out, until, like so many other Losey universes, it becomes a void, characterized by the absence of the violent emotions that had once played out there.  Asked to give up their new companions, the children rebel decisively, tearing the joint apart and destroying surveillance cameras like convicts in a cell block riot.   The rebellion is captured and safely contained on Bernard's TV monitors; he is all too believable when he patiently tells the children that their gesture is hopeless.  Still unable to grasp the big picture, Simon and King help the children win the first battle against the military.  We are aware, as they are not, that they are killing or maiming an officer by denying him his radiation-proof helmet; Simon's characteristic self-righteous rhetoric ("No, let's be equal!"--truer than Simon knows) has lost its power to command our identification.  The military's pleas with the rebels to give up the fight seem increasingly sensible from the viewer's knowing perspective.  But the fight to liberate the children has become a purely existential action even before Simon learns that the children themselves are radioactive.  (The results of an atomic accident, the children are cultivated by the government as the only beings able to survive a nuclear holocaust.)  And so the rebellion is played out to the end, while the protagonists stagger and weaken from radiation sickness, slowly receding from the film's center like Lee Marvin's dream-bound killer in Boorman's Point Blank.

As the military organizes itself to crush resistance, the children escape the science-fiction sets in which they were confined and wander out into the detailed physicality of the Portland Bill cliffscapes.  They squint at the sun and marvel at flowers, but these signifiers of life and growth are given a reversed meaning: James Bernard's ominous theme on the soundtrack telegraphs the scene's outcome, as the radiation-suited soldiers make short work of their opposition and move in to recapture the dazed, overwhelmed children.   As the end approaches for the protagonists, Losey makes increasing use of extreme long shots, using frames scaled more to the size of the military's pursuing helicopters than to the human figure.  King's death by automobile is filmed in characteristic Losey style: as King's car plunges off a bridge and hits the water, Losey cuts to the impersonal point of view of one of the helicopters, which quickly distances itself from the death scene as if indifferent.  Simon and Joanie are allowed to return to Simon's boat, but Bernard loses no time dispelling any hopes for their safety: "They are dying already.  They will never make contact with another human being--and when they die, the boat will be destroyed."

In the end, the helicopters rule the film, visually and narratively.  The last shots of the film proper are of the now-emptied spaces of Portland Bill and Weymouth, with the disembodied voices of the recaptured children calling out for help.  But the credits run over a ghostly shot of a helicopter following Simon's boat, whose occupants may now be dead.  The struggle that Losey and Jones so admired has been extinguished, and the camera collaborates with the forces that destroyed it.


1    Tom Milne, Losey on Losey (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 32-33.
2    Ibid, 34.
3    Michel Ciment, Conversations with Losey (London: Methuen, 1985), 198.