The Damned (Review)

By the end of the 1950s, the public perception of motorcycling culture had radically altered in the wake of Brando, Dean and Elvis. 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 simply affordable working-class transport, as it had become after the Second World War, when thousands of army surplus bikes flooded the market. Conceptually linked by László Benedek’s seminal rebel movie The Wild One (1953) 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 the UK, this was further exacerbated by a moral panic about mods and rockers, greatly exaggerated by the media. 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 big British café racers, were still viewed as socially dangerous, more than the smartly dressed mods, in fact. In decorated leather armour, bikers have always appeared a bit barbarian. That’s always been the appeal of the look to me, at any rate.

The Wild One had established the cultural significance 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. In the UK, this was by reputation only, as The Wild One was denied a certificate until it was shown at the 59 Club in 1968. But by then, it was already out of date and the ‘biker movie’ was an established and prolific genre in the States.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 teenagers to motorcycle maniacs in a drive-in sub-genre that began with The Wild Angels in 1966. This was fueled by the press fascination with the real Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club; much as our papers ran sensational stories about seaside rumbles and luridly reported every ton-up boy wipe out while calling for more motorcycle legislation.

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 film history, 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 storylines than the AIP Hell’s Angels pictures. Some People, directed by Clive Donner (1962) dealt with juvenile delinquency and the impossibility of transcending social class. Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964), from the 1961 novel by Gillian Freeman, explored a tragic hetero/gay love triangle in the London rocker scene. And The Damned (1963), from a novel by H.L. Lawrence and directed by Joseph Losey for Hammer Films, was downright apocalyptic…

Losey (1909–1984) was an artistic rebel. He was a blacklisted director in his own country, having declined to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He found sanctuary in Britain, making a series of edgy and politically charged films, often dealing with social class and sexuality. 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 institutional and street-level violence. Although completed in 1961, US co-producers Colombia Pictures stalled the release of The Damned until 1963 because of its political content. It was finally released quietly in London as the second feature in an X-rated Hammer double bill with Michael Carreras’ Maniac. The film was released in the US as These Are The Damned, with 17 minutes of material removed, making the story practically incoherent.

While Some People foregrounds provincial rocker culture, just as The Leather Boys is set in and around The Ace Café, The Damned is not a film about rockers in the same way. For our purposes, in fact, the most important motorcycle content all takes place in the First Act, with only the gang’s leader, his sister, and to a lesser extent, his lieutenant, maintaining a presence throughout the movie, only sans bikes, which are largely abandoned at Plot Point One. But what there is, is electric, largely because of the intense portrayal of Triumph riding gang leader ‘King’ by the 23-year-old Oliver Reed.

 

After credits foregrounding sculptures of grotesque bodies overlooking the sea by the avant-garde British artist Elizabeth Frink (who lived in Dorset, where the film is shot), The Damned opens with King and the gang hanging around the middle of Weymouth in Bronx leathers and ‘Kiss-me-kwik’ hats – all except King, who has a very distinct look – leering at tourists to a repetitive rock ’n’ roll song called ‘Black Leather Rock’:

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!

This always reminded me of ‘Smash it Up’ by The Damned, and well, Dave Vanian is in The 59 Club and they wouldn’t be the first band to nick their name off a movie (looking at you, Black Sabbath). It’s a stupid song, but put it in context: this is 1961, although it’s a shame they couldn’t have got Joe Meek involved. We could’ve had a theme by Gene Vincent or Billy Fury… ‘Black Leather Rock’ was composed by Hammer stalwart James Bernard, who scored numerous films for the studio, including 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 bleak storyline, even if the rockers take to whistling it like extras from West Side Story. And it is kind of an earworm.

Meanwhile, the middle-aged American tourist Simon Wells (Macdonald Carey from the US soap Days of Our Lives), gets picked up by pretty young waif Joanie (the gorgeous Shirley Anne Field) and led provocatively up a side street. The gang follow, walking in step like a military unit, and King pulls the ‘What are you doing with my sister?’ line before they kick the crap out of Simon and steal his wallet, Joanie leaving with them. ‘I never expected a thing like this to happen to me in England,’ he says, after being helped by some mysterious men wearing civilian clothes but referring to each other by rank. ‘You thought England was a land of old ladies knitting socks,’ replies ‘Bernard’ (Alexander Knox), who is apparently in charge, continuing, ‘The age of senseless violence has caught up with us too.’

King and the gang, meanwhile, are spending Simon’s money in an arcade. Anticipating Alex in A Clockwork Orange, King is a modern dandy in tweeds over motorcycle boots, affecting an upper-class accent. His signature weapon is an umbrella with a blade in the handle. (His gang are more conventional rockers, with leathers, jeans, pudding bowl helmets and goggles. King bizarrely looks more like a mod.) King is possessive of Joanie to the point of near-incestuous obsession, using a controlling ‘outsider’ narrative suggesting they were evacuees or 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, leading to a glorious extended racing scene which culminates with King locking the brakes on his Bonnie in the town centre, which isn’t an easy thing to do! She wins, and finds herself by Simon’s boat at the harbour. 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 bikes, beginning the long hunt that drives Simon, Joanie and King towards Bernard’s terrible secret, where they must work together to survive. ‘Just don’t put your hands on her,’ King warns Simon, ‘or I’ll kill you both.’

Before the secret island base – is there any other kind? – King blunders into the cottage of the bohemian artist ‘Freya’ (the wonderful Vivica Lindfors), the maker of the unsetting sculptures from the opening credits. Freya is Bernard’s lover and seems to represent the conscious of The Damned, resenting his ‘secrets’. (In a contemporary review, the New York Times film critic 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.’) 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!’

Freya only connects with ‘Sid’ (Kenneth Cope, destined to become a Carry On regular), one of King’s followers who 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 story. Freya’s answer to Sid is the only one that makes any sense, for all of us: ‘What would you like to do?’

Needless to say, when tourist, artist and rockers do discover Bernard’s secrets, things do not go well.

As well as the Cold War politics and beatnik existentialism, Losey is obviously drawing 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 associating them with a particular youth culture. The parallels between Reed’s portrayal of King and Anthony Burgess’ Alex (later played memorably by Malcolm McDowell), who ‘dressed in the height of fashion’ with ‘flip horrorshow boots for kicking’, are striking. Both affect aristocratic airs and carry swordsticks; both are similarly intelligent, charismatic, unboundaried and probably psychotic. They also both have issues with artists. But although Lawrence’s book and Losey’s movie both pre-date A Clockwork Orange, there is no evidence that Burgess knew their work, and even though the film was completed a year before the novel was published in 1962, it was not released until a year later. More likely, they were all picking characters from the contemporary teenage landscape, which meant in the UK, teddy boys, mods, and rockers.

Reed dominates the film throughout. ‘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’. 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 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.

For me, it’s the fluid and subversive nature of teenage subcultures that makes King so compelling, especially in that period in history. Since the Boozefighters 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?’/‘What have you got?’) Like Pistolero in Larry Bishop’ mental homage to 60s biker movies Hell Ride (2008) – who writes The Rebellion Against All That There Is (in 666 pages) – King simply hates everything. FTW and all that… In The Damned, the sinister government scientist Bernard is the Frankensteinian villain, but it’s King’s rebellion against both English and American authority figures which gives the movie its edge. 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.

The Damned is one of those films that changes gear on you. The first half hour or so promises a British Wild One before it morphs into something between Dr Strangelove and Village of the Damned. King’s rockers are therefore no more than a subplot, but they are ultimately portrayed by Losey in a way no other director had done, at least in America, that is, ultimately, 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. It’s hardly a surprise 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.

OK, this is an old movie, with a premise like an early Doctor Who story, a ridiculous theme song, and which reduces rockers to the lazy stereotype of leather-clad hooligans and then makes them about as threatening as the squad in Carry on Sergeant. It’s also philosophical and preachy, which is not to everyone’s taste, especially in a Hammer film, but that said, track it down anyway and just bask in the glory of the legendary hellraiser’s performance when he was still young, hungry and beautiful…

You can find a crisp print of The Damned on DVD (complete with a great booklet) on the 2010 Hammer Icons of Suspense series. It turns up quite a lot on eBay too. I got mine for a fiver.

For a longer, more academic essay on The Damned by yours truly, please click here. Warning: This does contain spoilers.

 

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