Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Classic Sci-Fi Movie: 'THE MIND OF MR SOAMES'




(1969) Amicus Productions. 
Directed by: Alan Cooke. Produced by 
Max Rosenberg & Milton Subotsky. 
Written by John Hale & Edward Simpson 
from the novel by Charles Eric Maine. 
With Terence Stamp, Nigel Davenport 
and Robert Vaughn. 
DVD and Blu-ray edition from 
Powerhouse Films, 2018. 1:38-minutes

He’s the man with the child in his eyes. The sign says ‘Cold Tank Room: No Admittance’. Dr Maitland (Nigel Davenport) is making his tour of inspection. They have white coats and clipboards, while Dr Joe Allan (Donal Donnelly) watches squiggles of light on the monitor screens. There’s a bearded naked man lying comatose in the tank. Meanwhile Dr Michael Bergen (Robert Vaughn) flies in from Los Angeles, to arrive at a snowy ‘Midland Institute of Neurophysiological Research’. 

The simultaneous arrival of the ‘Probe’ investigative TV crew, who are to document a procedure ‘unique in the history of medicine,’ offers the convenient opportunity to explain some back-story. John Soames is ‘a hibernating animal,’ who has been in a coma due to brain damage since birth. ‘He remain very deeply asleep’ explains Maitland, yet ‘in a strange way Mr Soames is very fit.’ The cigar-smoking Bergen is here to wake him. With the theatre staff wearing green brain-surgery outfits, an electrode is inserted into Soames’ shaved skull to stimulate his dormant consciousness… ‘six volts, one minute.’ Afterwards the bandaged man-child is on a drip as John Williams acoustic guitar plays pensively. 

His eyes open, he sees only blurred unfocused visions and cries in distress. ‘Don’t frighten him. He can see.’ He hears a jumble of disconnected noises from distorted conversations around him. ‘Welcome to the human race, John’ says Bergen, ‘it was never easy being born.’ He has awakened live on TV into a world he can’t comprehend, to be exploited as a living curiosity. Maitland offers Bergen a glass of neat vodka, as their two approaches polarise. ‘Soames is thirty years old. He hasn’t the time a child has to learn all the skills he’s going to need.’ So disciplinarian Maitland has worked out a rigid programme. ‘You won’t be teaching control’ argues Bergen, ‘you’ll be imposing it.’

Mr Soames is sympathetically animated by Terence Stamp, one of the iconic faces of the decade. It was widely assumed that he, alongside Julie Christie, were the ‘Terry and Julie’ figures in the Kinks “Waterloo Sunset”, despite Ray Davies’ denial. He’s charismatic as the socially-awkward Freddie in the psycho-thriller ‘The Collector’ (1965), with Samantha Eggar as his kidnapped victim, and as the feckless likeable rogue Dave opposite Carol White in the kitchen-sink classic ‘Poor Cow’ (1967), he achieved major-league stardom with costume drama ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ (1967) with Julie Christie. Yet he plays John Soames in an understated restrained manner. He jigs up and down like an excited child as an orderly feeds him. ‘Alice’s Crazy Tea Party’ quips the TV voice-over. Yet he never loses sight of the character’s credibility as a blank slate upon which the world draws its own designs. 

The film’s depiction of reality television and prurient media turpitude is prescient, as, under constant TV-camera surveillance, Soames has Speak & Spell tuition… ‘Fish. Fire.’ He slots mauve plastic shapes into yellow spaces. Daubs and tastes coloured paints. He has an abacus. A toy farm. Sums on a chalkboard. A Ladybird ‘Book of London’. Then he’s assisted to take his first steps using a red suspended tinkling sphere as a lure. Maitland goads him to ‘stand up. Now, walk Soames!’ Maitland controls, Bergen encourages. ‘Very good, we’re on our way.’ Soames gets petulant and angry. ‘Soames, stop sulking’ barks Maitland, ‘all children have tantrums.’ He grabs Maitland by the hair – and only releases him when Bergen throws a Union Jack ball in a throw-game. Then he crawls and sits in the corner, refuses to eat and fails to respond. Is he sinking back into a coma-state? He stares, unseeing as Bergen brings him a green toy train, a Space Crawler, a Scalextric. As critic David Pringle points out, ‘the core of the movie is the fact that a child’s ignorant mind resides inside an adult body’ a ‘tabula rasa at the age of thirty’ (in ‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’, 1997). 

For their low-budget British productions Max Rosenberg & Milton Subotsky always work on the principle that they need one American name on the cast-list in order for the film to be considered marketable on the U.S. circuit. This time they’re fortunate in obtaining the services of Robert Vaughn who already boasted an impressive roster of TV roles for much-loved Westerns ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Wagon Train’ and ‘Bronco’ as well as movies, starting out with a minor role in Roger Corman’s exploitational ‘Teenage Cave Man’ (1958) before success in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) and achieving cult ubiquity as the smooth Bond-alike agent in the tongue-in-cheek Spy-Spoof series ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’. Bergen is the laid-back academic with the touchy-feely L.A. attitude, but this is an ensemble production, there’s no grandstanding, the cast slot collaboratively in around each other, with equally strong performances from TV and movie regular Nigel Davenport – usually cast as authoritarian figures, who had been a detective in ‘Peeping Tom’ (1960) and a Police Inspector in ‘Bitter Harvest’ (1963) as well as character parts in ‘The Saint’ and ‘The Avengers’. Irish actor Donal Donnelly, who also appeared in ‘The Avengers’ as well as ‘Z Cars’ and later opposite Liza Goddard in the ITV sitcom ‘Yes Honestly’, also provides convincingly strong support. 

Through barred windows Soames gazes out over the garden grounds where birds sing and a dog barks. He traps a white butterfly, but accidentally crushes it. He observes as the orderly locks the door, imprisoning him. Until, one misty morning, the orderly discovers that he’s not there. Bergen has released him and is following him outside, observing his reactions. Soames swings in a tree-branch and spins in circles, arms wide. He runs and watches snowdrops. He eats a snowdrop. In childlike delight he discovers water in the ornamental pool. And a frog. He submerges his head in the water in order to experience ‘Water’. 

Only for the staff to pursue and capture him. ‘Take him inside’ barks Maitland. He has ‘rebellious energy’ explains Bergen. But is he prisoner or patient? How long will he be here? When Bergen suggests six months, Soames asks ‘how long is six months?’ Instead the man-child seizes the opportunity of a more immediate break. He smashes a chair over the orderly’s head, leaving him concussed, and escapes wearing a pale pink zip-up onesie. This time he’s more focussed, he climbs the perimeter wall and out through the forest beyond. 

The police are called in to hunt ‘a runaway child.’ ‘What will they do with him?’ asks Bergen. ‘That depends on what he does between now and then’ says Maitland. The escaper awakes after spending the night rough-sleeping beside a river. As he investigates the hurtling traffic on a motorway a red mini pulls up and he’s offered a lift by a plastic cups-&-saucers salesman. An innocent abroad, he’s caught in a sequence of encounters both humorous and appealing, he enters a pub where he helps himself to a sandwich from beneath a display case, spits out the beer he’s offered, then runs off in bewilderment when they demand 4s 11d payment. He joins a school playground football game, until a Teacher challenges him and he lopes away. Running along a suburban street he steals a coat from a parked car… but then is struck violently by another car and tossed into the verge. 

The novelist known as Charles Eric Maine – the pseudonym of David McIlwain, was not unfamiliar with media cross-overs. He’d seen service in the RAF during World War II, after which he took up television engineering, his income supported by writing technical features about TV and radio. His debut novel – ‘Spaceways’ (1953) was not only astutely adapted from his own radio play, but became a moderately successful film from the Hammer studio directed by Terence Fisher. A further novel, ‘The Isotope Man’ (1957) became a BBC-TV play broadcast live 25 November 1953, then a film called ‘Timeslip’ (1955). But critic John Clute calls ‘The Mind of Mr Soames’ (1961) ‘his finest novel’ in which ‘the moral issues are dealt with quite sensitively.’ And, featuring luminous cinematography by the wonderful Billy Williams (‘Women In Love’ 1969, ‘The Wind And The Lion’, 1975, ‘Gandhi’, 1982), this might just about be his most accomplished big-screen outing too, which Clute concedes ‘despite its clichés, the film remains thoughtful’ (in ‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’, 1995). 

Soames wakes into a plush bedroom. He’d been hit by the Bannerman’s car, wife Jenny (Judy Parfitt) suggests taking the unconscious runaway to hospital, but husband Richard (Scott Forbes) was scared of being found guilty of drink-driving, so they take him to their imposing detached home instead. She explains to him that they’d found him lying beside the roadside. He eats the boiled eggs and toast she makes for him. So far, he’s not been exposed to the female sex. And it seems that Richard is less than an attentive lover. She glimpses the headline in the ‘Daily Mirror’ – ‘CAN THIS BABY KILL?’, and recognises his photo. But as he strokes her hair she suggests that he stays, for a few days, until she can take him safely back to the institute. 

Bannerman tips off the police, and Soames slips away as their car pulls up outside. He reaches the rail station, and recognises the ‘London’ destination from the Ladybird book. Fortunately there happens to be enough for the fare – fifteen shillings and a penny, in the pocket of his stolen jacket. As the police car screeches to a halt at the station, he’s already on the train. It’s an old-fashioned compartment carriage, which means that he finds himself alone in the confined space with a music student fellow passenger. He innocently lifts an apple from her bag and bites into it. He attempts conversation – ‘London is the capital of England’ he tells her. ‘I am going to London. My name is John Soames.’ She warily tells him her name – Melanie, which he pronounces carefully, as she looks intently at the Communication Chord. She screams. The train judders to a stop. Panicked, he jumps out and rolls down the steep embankment, twisting his ankle. He staggers and lurches across a field, through a barbed-wire fence and across a field of grazing cows. 

The police track him with dogs and torches, to where he’s hiding inside a derelict barn. Bergen and the TV crew hurry to what will be the final dénouement. In falling rain, Maitland uses a loudhailer to peremptorily address Soames from the yard outside. Predictably, Bergen tries a more conciliatory approach, and enters the barn. ‘Do you think he can make him come out?’ enquires a Cop. ‘He won’t try to make him do anything’ says the orderly. 

‘You must decide for yourself’ Bergen tells Soames, ‘it’s up to you. It’s your decision.’ Soames stands up, using a pitchfork to steady himself. But as he emerges, the TV crew flip the switch and drench the scene in floodlights. In startled confusion Soames whirls the pitchfork and hits Bergen. In an American version of the film the police would open fire and Soames would die in a hail of bullets. Instead he’s lifted onto a stretcher and carried off. As the ambulance carries him back towards the institute, the man with the child in his eyes clasps the hand of the orderly for reassurance.



‘THE MIND OF MR SOAMES’ (1969 UK, 12 October 1970, USA) Amicus Productions, through Columbia Pictures. Directed by: Alan Cooke. Produced by Max J Rosenberg & Milton Subotsky. Written by John Hale & Edward Simpson from the 1961 novel by Charles Eric Maine. Lighting Cameraman: Billy Williams. With Terence Stamp (as John Soames), Nigel Davenport (as Doctor Maitland), Robert Vaughn (as Doctor Michael Bergen), Donal Donnelly (as Dr Joe Allan), Christian Roberts (as Thomas Fleming), Norman Jones (as Davis), Dan Jackson (as Nicholls), Vickery Turner (as Naomi), Joe Gladwin (Old Man In Car), Judy Parfitt (as Jenny Bannerman), Scott Forbes (as Richard Bannerman), Joe McPartland (as Inspector Moore), Billy Cornelius (as Sergeant Clifford), Pamela Moiseiwitsch (as Melanie Parks, Girl on Train). Music conducted by Michael Dress, with The Vesuvius Ensemble featuring John Williams (guitar). DVD and Blu-ray edition from Powerhouse Films, 2018. 1hr 38-minutes


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