The Geometry of Fear: Joseph Losey’s The Damned

Both the changing public perception and the semiotics of post-war British motorcycle culture from the late-1950s to the mid-70s owed a tremendous debt to Hollywood, starting with László Benedek’s The Wild One in 1953. Motorcycling was now no longer viewed as the gentleman’s sporting hobby it had been in the early part of the century, when machines were high performance and expensive; neither was it affordable working-class transport, as it had become after the Second World War, when thousands of army surplus bikes flooded the market. Linked by The Wild One to the supposedly pernicious effects of rock ’n’ roll by parents and the establishment, and the antics of a newly affluent generation of teenagers, the ‘ton-up boys’ (and sometimes girls), bikers suddenly became social pariahs on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, as Stanley Cohen demonstrated in his seminal study Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) – using public concern about mods and rockers as a case study – in his sociological model of the ‘Deviance Amplification Spiral’, the ‘threat’ was greatly exaggerated by the media, then picked up by politicians. There were never the great gangs of rival teenage gangs fighting at seaside resorts reported in the tabloid press. But rockers, the next generation of teddy boys, who had swapped their drapes for full leathers and cafe racing British motorcycles, were still viewed as socially dangerous, dressed in black armour on oily and noisy machines, as opposed to tidy and clean cut like the mods, who favoured sharp suits and 2-stroke Italian scooters.

The Wild One had established the cultural signification of the black leather jacket, and forever after linked the image of the motorcycle to rebellion and delinquency, much to the chagrin of many ordinary riders and the American Motorcycle Association. In the UK, this was by reputation only, as The Wild One was denied a certificate in the UK until it was shown at the 59 Club in 1968. But by then, the biker movie was an established and prolific genre in the States. After The Wild One there had been Motorcycle Gang (1957) and Dragstrip Riot (1958). By the mid-60s, American International Pictures had raised the threat level from angst-ridden teenage gangs to motorcycle maniacs in a drive-in sub-genre that began with The Wild Angels in 1966, fueled by the press fascination with the real Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. Blurring the narrative codes of the crime thriller with westerns and horror, the low-budget biker movie flourished until the early-70s, when it finally ran out of road and was supplanted at the grindhouse box office by women’s prison movies.

By way of cultural response, three significant ‘biker’ films were shot in the UK in the early-60s, before the narrative of cultural anxiety moved onto the hippies, and psychedelia made the rockers suddenly appear quaint and old fashioned (until some of them became Hell’s Angels and the moral panic started over). These films adopted the rebellious theme of the US movies but filtered through our own national character and narrative traditions, producing a tight huddle of much more socially aware ‘kitchen sink’ and, in one case, sci-fi dramas. These were urban, claustrophobic, and bleak, with little of the romance of the open road that characterized their American counterparts. Neither were bikers the subjects of the movies. Rather, these were dramatic and genre pieces that featured rockers as primary characters within much more complex narratives than the AIP Hell’s Angels pictures.

Some People, directed by Clive Donner (1962) dealt with juvenile delinquency and the impossibility of genuine social mobility. Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964), from the 1961 novel by Gillian Freeman, explored working-class gender dynamics and homosexuality in the London rocker scene. And The Damned, (US These Are The Damned, 1961, released 1963), from a novel by H.L. Lawrence and directed by Joseph Losey for Hammer Films, was downright Shakespearean and apocalyptic…

Losey (1909–1984), who had worked with Bertolt Brecht, was a blacklisted director in his own country, having declined to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. He found sanctuary in Britain, and his UK film credits include The Servant; King and Country; Accident; Figures in a Landscape; The Go-Between; A Doll’s House; The Assassination of Trotsky; and Modesty Blaise. In The Damned, Losey takes the premise of Lawrence’s novel, The Children of Light (1960) – a blend of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and Wilmar H. Shiras’ Children of the Atom (1953) – in which a government-sanctioned military research facility is experimenting on children to breed a race capable of surviving a nuclear war, and uses it to explore the relationship between political and street-level violence. An American tourist, a Bohemian artist, and the leader of a gang of rockers and his sister stumble across the secret, and things do not end well.

The similarity of the film’s title to The MGM movie Village of the Damned (1960), an adaptation of Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, was no coincidence, but an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the critical and box office success of the earlier film, with the notional similarities of uncanny and hyper-intelligent children. Unfortunately, co-producers Colombia Pictures stalled the release of The Damned until 1963 because of its political content. It was finally released in London as the second feature in a Hammer double bill with Michael Carreras’ Maniac. Although Village of the Damned had received an ‘A’ certificate in the UK, The Damned was rated ‘X’, despite only moderate violence and no more than veiled hints of sexual relationships. The film was released in the US as These Are The Damned, with 17 minutes of material removed, making the story practically incoherent.

After credits foregrounding sculptures of grotesque bodies overlooking the sea from a Dorset cliff top, the film opens with a powerful statement of aimless teenage violence, played out to a repetitive rock ’n’ roll song called ‘Black Leather Rock’, the tune of which becomes a leitmotif throughout the otherwise orchestral soundtrack:

Black leather, black leather, smash, smash, smash.

Black leather, black leather, crash, crash, crash.

Black leather, black leather, kill, kill, kill.

I’ve got that feeling, black leather rock!

‘Black Leather Rock’ was composed by Hammer stalwart James Bernard, who scored numerous films for the studio, including X the Unknown, The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. While it does have that familiar feeling of being rushed to meet a deadline, the nihilistic lyrics set the tone for the menacing and cynical narrative.

‘I never expected a thing like this to happen to me in England,’ says American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey from the US soap Days of Our Lives), after being picked up by Joanie (Shirley Anne Field) and mugged by her brother, King (Oliver Reed), and his Triumph riding entourage. ‘You thought England was a land of old ladies knitting socks,’ replies Bernard (Alexander Knox), who is apparently a civil servant, continuing, ‘The age of senseless violence has caught up with us too.’ Simon has been assisted by two plain clothes military men – Major Holland and Captain Gregory – who apparently answer to Bernard.

Bernard is meeting his longtime lover, the European artist Freya Neilson (Viveca Lindfors), in a seafront cafe. She presents him with a stark, expressionist sculpture of a crow, which she calls ‘My graveyard bird.’ He loves it. She detests Bernard’s ‘secrets’, but he explains that telling her ‘might be condemning you to death.’ Freya admires Simon, however, ‘because he doesn’t like the world.’

King and the gang, meanwhile, are spending Simon’s money in an arcade. Anticipating Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the intense King is a modern dandy in tweeds over motorcycle boots, affecting an upper-class accent with a Triumph Bonneville and an umbrella with a blade in the handle. (His gang are more conventional rockers, with leather jackets, jeans and pudding bowl helmets.) King is possessive of Joanie to the point of obsession, his dialogue suggesting they grew up as (possibly war) orphans: ‘You and me against the world. Been that way since we were kids.’ Joanie, who keeps her high heels around her neck with a piece of string when riding her bike, challenges the gang to a drag. She wins, and finds herself by Simon’s boat at the harbour, significantly named La Dolce Vita (‘The Good Life’, the name of Federico Fellini’s Dantesque neo-realist masterpiece of 1960). The two are attracted, but King intervenes. Simon asks Joanie to make a choice, and she eludes the gang and jumps onto his boat. Outraged, King and his droogies pursue along the quay on their motorcycles, beginning a long hunt episode, punctuated by existential and romantic scenes between Simon and Joanie, and a cryptic glimpse of Bernard’s work, teaching a small class of children via a TV monitor.

Simon tries to kiss Joanie, and she asks him to put her ashore. He does so, somewhere around Portland Bay, but accompanies her to a run-down cottage which is surrounded by weird statues and obviously Freya and Bernard’s retreat. They connect, and Simon proposes marriage. ‘I’ve never found this type of quietness before,’ he explains, ‘it’s as if I’m no longer afraid of dying.’ The sound of an engine disturbs them and, fearing it is King, they leave. It is actually Freya, although King arrives soon afterwards.

This is a strange scene, and very reminiscent of the encounter between Alex and the artist he subsequently beats to death with her own art in A Clockwork Orange. King assumes Freya is hiding Simon and Joanie. He further assumes that Freya and Simon are of the same social class, which he views as morally ‘degenerate’. ‘Maybe my morals are different from yours,’ replies Freya, dismissing King as ‘a very strange boy.’ King is furious. He seizes an axe and proceeds to smash the art, which he calls ‘junk’. ‘How can you be so cruel?’ pleads Freya. ‘I enjoyed it, my dear lady,’ he replies. They struggle, and whether or not their final embrace is one of anger or passion or both is not explained. As King stumbles awkwardly away, confused by his conflicted response to Freya, she calls after him, ‘I don’t believe you!’

Simon and Joanie are eventually cornered in a misty graveyard by King and the gang. (The rockers signal to each other by whistling a few bars of ‘Black Leather Rock’.) They escape, but their way is barred by the barbed-wire fence of a military base as their pursuers close in. A siren goes off, and soldiers with guns and dogs appear, rounding up most of the rockers. Simon and Joanie escape by climbing down a cliff, secretly followed by King. They fall and are rescued by a group of children who live in a complex beneath the rocks. The children are fascinated by the fact that the ‘big people’ are warm, as they are not. King, meanwhile, also falls into the sea and is rescued by a child called Henry, with whom he bonds. Brother and sister are reunited and an uneasy truce is reached. ‘Just don’t put your hands on her,’ King warns Simon, ‘or I’ll kill you both.’

Holland suspects intruders, but the children are hiding them in their secret place, a smuggler’s cave which is also a shrine to their imagined parents. They hope Simon and Joanie might be their parents and have lived here in waiting all their lives. (At one point, we see them learning Byron’s ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’.) On the surface, in her cottage above the secret underground complex, Freya is no longer happy with Bernard. He thinks it is because he has aged, but she replies that, ‘You have become a man with a purpose – a secret purpose.’ Bernard is fixated with preparations for the apocalypse. ‘I live with one fact,’ he explains, ‘a power has been released that will melt these stones,’ and that, ‘We must be ready when the time comes.’ His vision is essentially Nietzschean: ‘To survive the destruction that is inevitably coming we need a new kind of man.’ He is preparing for the inevitable holocaust by attempting to raise children irradiated in the womb who will be able to survive in the post-nuclear wasteland. Simon, King and Joanie attempt to fight their way out with the children, despite learning the horrible truth that, as Holland explains, ‘They can’t leave, they’re dangerous.’

It appears the escape has succeeded, but the military are watching the whole thing on closed-circuit cameras. The adults and children are free only long enough for Freya to see them, before they are rounded up by men in radiation suits. King escapes with Henry by stealing Freya’s Jaguar. Simon and Joanie are apprehended, but Bernard lets them return to their boat, knowing that they have been exposed to so much radiation that they will not survive long enough to reach land. Bernard offers Freya a chance to join him. She refuses and returns to her work. Bernard shoots her. King is pursued by helicopter, Henry is recaptured and, either by accident or design, King drives the Jag off a bridge. Simon and Joanie sail away, increasingly erratically, as a helicopter hovers overhead, simply watching. The camera pulls back, runs along the coast past Freya’s body and her sculptures, oblivious holidaymakers, and to the door in the wall of the rock. The children are heard screaming for help. The screen goes black, the film ends.

It is the doomed Freya that represents the consciousness of The Damned, although her existential message goes unheard by both her lover and the ‘unhappy dangerous’ King. In the New York Times review, Eugene Archer called her ‘the voice of idealistic reason’ who ‘equates the meaningless violence with the corruption she senses in the ideals of postwar civilization.’ Freya’s argument to all she encounters (Bernard, his minions, King), is that there might be a different way of seeing the world to their own. She only connects with Sid (Kenneth Cope, destined to become a Carry On regular), one of King’s followers who has eluded capture and is loitering around her cottage looking for his leader. ‘I know it’s kid’s stuff knocking about in a gang,’ he confesses, ‘but what else is there to do?’ This is the question often posed but never answered in the narrative. Simon, for example, asks Bernard, ‘What’s it all for?’ while Joanie believes that: ‘I have to live with what I’ve got,’ refusing to ever really consider the alternative Simon offers until it is too late. The children’s questions are repeatedly evaded with the promise that all will be revealed ‘when the time is right’ – a mantra they pick up and repeat as an answer to Simon and Joanie’s questions. King and Bernard are similarly mired in their own dark ontology, which neither can transcend. Bernard kills his lover to protect his secret, and King kills himself. The children remain trapped. (The experiment is also a failure – we are told that two children have died and a third becomes sick during the story.) Freya’s answer to Sid is the only one that makes any sense: ‘What would you like to do?’

Freya’s response to Bernard’s unwavering belief in the impeding Armageddon is the same as her answer to King’s claim that he enjoyed destroying her work: ‘I don’t believe you.’ Her optimism, or at least her ability to visualise alternatives (social, sexual, political), and her intellectual and emotional freedom, are expressed through her art – art which dominates the film from opening to closing shot.  The post-war, existential and Cold War anxiety that infects the narrative (and the times) like a virus is laid bare in the jagged, harsh and alien sculptures, both animal and human, often fused, that surround Freya’s cottage. This art is real and contemporary, contributed by the sculptor Elisabeth Frink (1930 – 1993). Freya refuses to explain her work, teasing the amorous Captain Gregory (James Villiers), who wishes to ‘broaden his mind’ – with: ‘If I could explain these, I wouldn’t have to make them.’ The art poses another question within the film: how do we interpret the pieces, especially as the characters, including the artist, cannot or will not do so themselves? All we know is that Bernard loves Freya’s work, which he keeps in his office, while King hates it, is obviously disturbed by it, and wishes to make it go away. Simon, Joanie and Gregory, meanwhile, simply do not understand the sculptures at all. (When Simon asks Joanie what she thinks, she asks him what he thinks – neither ever arrives at an answer). To the majority of the audience of 1963, this work would also have been new and challenging. Bernard, who is obviously an intellectual, does appear to appreciate the work, but his response reflects his own warped world view, in which he delights in the ‘beautiful’ mutations that follow nuclear tests. Just as these alien figures gaze out across the English Channel (like the damned children), they are also looking at us, demanding answers that we do not have.

Losey was a meticulous director and, even working with Hammer, the use of Frink’s art is far from opportunistic, although this could be a charge as the artist chose to base herself in Dorest, where the film is set and shot. The film critic Lawrence Russell makes the connection between Frink and the so-called ‘Geometry of Fear’, a label applied to a group of expressionistic young British sculptors by the art historian and poet Herbert Read in his review of the British pavilion (dominated by Henry Moore) at the Venice Biennale of 1952. Like her contemporaries, Frink grew up during the Second World War. A native of Suffolk, her early life was dominated by the world of the surrounding USAAF and RAF airbases, where young men were routinely burnt, broken, mutilated and killed. Frink’s father was a cavalry officer, and her early work shows a tension between the heroic concept of the warrior and the miserable reality of the soldier, making an Oweneseque move from the aesthetic to the anti-war. For example, her ‘Warrior’s Head’ of 1954 is a noble and Classical piece, whereas her ‘Soldier’s Heads’ of 1965 (roughly the period of The Damned), have become brutal and dehumanized; lantern-jawed, with mean, squashed noses and dead eyes. In work such as this, Read saw a correlative with the fragmentation of Modernism, quoting T.S. Eliot:

Here are images of flight, of ragged claws ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas,’ of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex. the geometry of fear … These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt (Read, 1952).

Losey is certainly surfing the zeitgeist by employing Frink, while similarly naming Simon’s boat after Fellini’s movie, another reference to the angst, despair, and ultimately cynicism of Cold War commodity culture, where art sees no solutions beyond hedonism and/or suicide while civilisation teeters on the brink of catastrophe. Freya’s death, the most poignant among many, perhaps offers the only clear answer. In an age where destruction hangs over the earth like Damocles’ sword and children are experimented upon to fight future, nuclear wars, all there is left to do is try to live the most honest life you can for the time that you have – in Sartre’s terms, to avoid a state of ‘Bad Faith’. When Bernard is exposed, he reminds Freya that, ‘You will remember my warning when you arrived?’ She chooses not to join him, and he chillingly continues, ‘Do you know what this means?’ ‘Yes,’ replies the defiant artist, ‘that you are wasting whatever time I have left.’ She returns to her final sculpture and is working when Bernard kills her.

Losey also draws on contemporary anxiety about juvenile delinquency, although the real villains of the film are government scientists and military police, making King’s anti-establishment stance ultimately noble. This is where Evan Jones’ screenplay departs from Lawrence’s original novel, which had depicted King and Joanie as street kids, almost Dickensian urchins, rather than allying them to a particular youth culture. As a brooding Romantic hero, King, the Byronic rocker with his sister complex is as much ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’ as are the children. King is also Bernard’s double, both are driven, probably mad, and both command a group of loyal followers. As previously noted, he is also the brother of Burgess’ Alex, who ‘dressed in the height of fashion’ with ‘flip horrorshow boots for kicking’ (Burgess: 1962, 5–6). Both affect aristocratic airs and carry swordsticks, both are similarly unboundaried and probably psychotic, both have issues with artists. But although Lawrence’s book and Losey’s movie both pre-date A Clockwork Orange, albeit very slightly, there is no evidence that Burgess knew of Lawrence’s work, and the film was completed just before the novel was published in 1962. All were merely picking characters from the contemporary teenage landscape, which meant in the UK, teddy boys, mods, and rockers.

Although neither the film’s protagonist nor true antagonist, the protean King – his morality as unstable as his temper – dominates the screen through the power of 23-year-old Oliver Reed’s performance. ‘Moody and sullen,’ wrote the American journalist and biker Mike Seate, ‘he is easily the best aspect of this movie’, adding that: ‘Reed at times appears so intent on destroying someone or something, that he makes the threat of radioactive offspring seem attractive by comparison’ (Seate: 2000, 52). 1961 was also the year of Reed’s first starring role, as the tragic hero of Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf for Hammer. He was popular at the studio, and in addition to The Damned, he had solid supporting roles in several Hammer films: The Pirates of Blood River (1962), Captain Clegg (1962), Paranoiac (1963), and The Scarlet Blade (1963), before beginning his long and fruitful associations with Michael Winner and Ken Russell and achieving international stardom as Bill Sikes in Carol Reed’s Oliver! in 1968.

Equally, it is the by-definition subversive nature of subcultures that makes King so compelling. Since the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club headed for Hollister and Brando and Marvin first kicked over their hogs and rode into cinema legend, it has been the raison d’etre of the biker to revolt. ‘What are you rebelling against?’ Johnny is asked in The Wild One, to which he famously replies, ‘What have you got?’ Like Pistolero, ‘Prez’ of the Victors MC in Larry Bishop’s homage to the biker movie Hell Ride (2008), who writes The Rebellion Against All That There Is (in 666 pages), King simply hates everything. As the classic biker patch and tattoo says ‘F.T.W.’ (‘Fuck the world.’) In The Damned, the sinister government scientist Bernard at least has a vision, however flawed and morally reprehensible it may be. He is also significantly more powerful than King, if less potent, yet it is King’s rebellion against both English (Bernard) and American (Simon) authority figures which lingers longest in the memory. King is chaos, the wild card, the rebel angel, who ultimately goes down fighting an evil eugenics project. Only it isn’t being run by Nazis in South America, but by British civil servants just outside Weymouth. Although Simon Wells, the film’s hero, spends more time fighting King than Bernard, it is the latter that is the true villain of the piece, his clinical execution of Freya suggesting the authoritarianism just below the surface of the Cold War UK Government. As King has redeemed himself, although his rescue of Henry is another failure, the moral responsibility for all this horror rests firmly with Bernard and, by extension, with the government for whom he works. The film’s ending is dark and pessimistic. No one is saved. Everyone is damned. As Russell writes: ‘The Damned is a subversive film, one which uses the horror genre not to titillate, but to insinuate and educate’ (Russell, 2007).

Contemporary critics understood and approved of Losey’s politically charged anti-war/anti-establishment movie. The Times said of it: ‘Joseph Losey is one of the most intelligent, ambitious and constantly exciting film-makers now working in this country, if not indeed in the world—The Damned is very much a film to be seen, for at its best it hits with a certainty of aim which is as exciting as it is devastating, and hits perhaps in a place where it is important we should be hurt’ (Anon: 1963, 6); while the New York Times similarly concluded: ‘Mr. Losey, proceeding with grim logic toward his apocalyptic climax, has made a strong comment about the nuclear age—while arrestingly demonstrating just how much a gifted filmmaker can accomplish with limited means’ (Archer, 1965).

Only in the First Act does The Damned follow the tramlines of the teenage rebel and biker movie, and once the action shifts to Bernard’s radioactive schoolroom the genre shifts emphatically to science fiction, doing what science fiction at its best does, that is allegorising the culture and politics of its present. And though King’s rockers are therefore no more than a subplot, they are ultimately portrayed by Losey in a way no other director had done, at least in America, that is sympathetically. Both King and Sid are different sides of the same coin; they each have unrequited feelings for Joanie, both are confused and frustrated. But as a social problem, as the rockers were so often portrayed in the media, they are not even symptoms of the disease, just more of its victims. The disease, shows Losey, is the political system that has frivolously unleased the threat of global annihilation with no idea how to contain the resultant arms race, and which lies to its citizens about the true nature of the threat by scapegoating harmless minorities, such as the mods and rockers, and pushing a hegemonic consumer dream over the stark reality of modern geopolitical conflict. It’s hardly a surprise, in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that the film’s American backers sought to bury it and censor it, just as Senator McCarthy and his enablers had attempted to silence its director. And although the original rockers have long gone, the nuclear arsenals of the world have grown exponentially in numbers and in destructive power. It would seem that Losey’s core message is every bit as relevant now as it was in 1963. Perhaps even more so.

NB. For more on biker movies please see my new blog The Biker Professor

WORKS CITED

Anon. (1963). ‘An Exciting Director: Joseph Losey’s Latest Film’. The Times, 20 May, page 6.

Archer, Eugene. (1965). ‘Film Fantasy: These Are the Damned an English Shocker’. Screen, New York Times, July 8. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1965/07/08/archives/screen-film-fantasy-these-are-the-damned-an-english-shocker.html (Accessed February 12, 2021).

Burgess, Anthony. (1962). A Clockwork Orange. London: Penguin.

Losey, Joseph (Dir). (1963). The Damned (Script by Evan Jones. Starring: Oliver Reed, Shirley Anne Field, Vivica Lindfors, Macdonald Carey, Alexander Knox). United Kingdom: Hammer Films. Icons of Suspense. UK: Hammer, 2010. DVD.

Read, Herbert. (1952). ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, XXVI Venice Biennale. Designing Britain: 1945 – 1975, University of Brighton. Available at: http://vads.ahds.ac.uk/learning/designingbritain/html/language.html (Accessed December 24, 2008).

Russell, Lawrence. (2007). ‘The Damned’, Culture Court. Available at: www.culturecourt.com/F/filmcourt.htm (Accessed February 12, 2021).

Seate, Mike. (2000), Two Wheels on Two Reels: A History of Biker Movies. New Hampshire: Whitehorse Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s