Anton M Leader, 1963 ~ GB
Lacking the terrifying allegory of its grandparent novel John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’, ‘Children of the Damned’ instead uses the children as signifiers of man’s own warmongering ways. Unlike Wyndham, the film clearly offers the children as man advanced a million years, but like Wyndham they only kill when attacked. In the original, this violent self-preservation triggers the debate about Darwin’s survival of the fittest; here it only means that the children are innocents, misunderstood and abused by adult paranoia. We are soon on the side of the kids, for their alien silences and self-defensive unity soon overshadows the petty squabbling and eager militarism of the adults. “Do you really want to take them back to your embassies now?” Hendry asks the ambassadors, having demonstrated the unifying telepathic powers of the children. It is a fine moment that uncovers the ambassador’s latent motivation. Leader’s film is an anti-war fable with the children as blanks, reacting to adult, political violence.
This leaves little room for development or exploration of the children. Of course, the point is that they have no traditional individual character, that they possess a very collective alieness. But without Wyndham’s disturbing and exemplary theories on evolution and humanity, Jack Briley’s screenplay has very little idea how to develop these children, except to make them an international assortment of examples of man advanced and capable of resurrection. Having the Indian child Rashid resurrected in a church only adds to the martyrising of the alien kids, but achieves theoretically little. There is no debate on parenting, although the early scene with Paul’s mother hurling hateful abuse at her silent child is a powerful and promising moment. More interesting is The Aurum Film Encyclopedia’s (pg. 220) translation that the children “become pawns in the love-hate relationship between Hendry and Badel in which Badel seeks to destroy them almost in revenge for Hendry’s rejection of him for Ferris.” Further to this, the scenes with Hendry going to the church where the children keep Ferris possessively play like siblings protecting their mother from a potential step-father. But what remains is the film’s overall distrust of the adult ability to care for the young. Paul’s mother opens the door to her flat with undertones of sensuality; officials are too eager to use them for their own agenda; even Ferris cannot be trusted with a bread knife around the children.
Still in many ways ‘Children of the Damned’ is better shot and easier than ‘Village of the Damned’, and is certainly free of much of its stodginess. There is some snappy dialogue and memorable shots of the children wandering through deserted city streets. The film shares a church finale with particularly British sci-fi trailblazer, Nigel Kneale’s ‘The Quatermass Experiment’, although Kneale’s monster is a pitiable transformation that has to be destroyed, Wyndham’s children provide greater moral problems due to their human appearance. They are our own offspring, disgusted at the adult world and possessing the means to destroy and perhaps better it. In this way they are icons of Cold War guilt and liberal conscience.
Finally, the political powers only want the children for the weapons they can build. A fair amount of conflict and suspense is built due to sharp editing, but much of the outcome remains conventional. David Pirie says the finale “falls into some unconvincing liberal moralising,” and certainly it creates an easier resolution than ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’. That a last minute hope of co-existence is wiped out by accident, that human folly brings about genocide and destruction is both potentially an avoidance of the film’s issues and a universal truism.
As a sequel, ‘Children of the Damned’ is superior to many, acted with conviction, full of British Sixties atmosphere and crisp black-and-white moments. The silent, staring children remain unforgettable and impenetrable, a reminder of Wyndham’s original chilling concept. Like ‘Planet of the Apes’, it remains a quintessential allegory of the genre.