Village of the Damned (1960)

*. What’s in a name? A lot. You sure as hell weren’t goint to call the movie The Midwich Cuckoos, which was the title of the John Wyndham novel it was based on. Steve Haberman actually begins his DVD commentary by telling us what a cuckoo is and how it relates to the story, which is a bit of information that’s probably even more necessary to explain today than it was in 1960. Plus any title with “cuckoo” in it just sounds funny.
*. What’s in a name? Pauline Kael thought the moniker of Wolf Rilla “a terrific name for the director of this particular film.” Remarkably, it was his real name. Habermas calls Village of the Damned “by far his most important film” so despite having a long career in the business, and writing a couple of well-regarded books on filmmaking, he never had a breakthrough. He later remarked “I’ve made 27 films and this is the only one that people remember.” That’s a bit odd, as I think he does a good turn here. But it does happen.
*. Martin Stephens was another disappearing act. At the time he was Britain’s best known child actor, and just the next year would appear in the remarkable horror gem The Innocents. But he didn’t continue with acting and went on to become an architect.

*. Wyndham thought the novel would be unfilmable, and I can understand why. It has an odd structure that doesn’t lend itself to a dramatic adaptation, with a gap of quite a few years between the first part of the story and when we pick it up later on, with the children all of school age. It’s also the case that the children have mental powers that are difficult to show. Only their effects can be seen.
*. Another problem had to do with the subject matter. This was pretty risky stuff for 1960. You’ll note they don’t even say the word “pregnant” out loud. They only refer to the women’s “condition.” And at first the script was rejected because it was thought to represent an anti-Catholic mocking of the virgin birth (which Haberman confuses with the doctrine of the immaculate conception). [Note: A helpful reader provides some more information on this in the comments below.]

*. Overall, I think the script does a good job. The number of children is cut by quite a bit (there are around sixty of them in the novel). The use of their mental powers is signaled by the effect of their glowing eyes, which was a good idea (insisted on by MGM to liven things up a bit) but is undercut by the fact that they have to use what are obvious freeze frames to show it, except for one scene.
*. In the novel the children don’t have the ability to read minds. They can control other people, but can’t see what they’re thinking. This is a pretty major change, and leads to the film’s climax (which John Carpenter would follow in his remake), of Zellaby hiding the presence of the bomb in his satchel behind a mental brick wall. it’s another example of a change that made things more dramatic.
*. Barbara Shelley thought the script mistakenly marginalized the mothers. Carpenter’s remake would try to correct this, though I’m not sure if this was an improvement. For what it’s worth, Wyndham’s novel doesn’t play up this angle at all.
*. I don’t think this is necessarily sexism. Is there anything so depressing as that line-up of gloomy cuckolds at the pub? Nobody has to say anything.

*. The political reading is kind of interesting. On the one hand the kids may be the advance guard of a Nazi master race: little Aryans with a ruthless social Darwinist agenda. Or they may be communist cells, unfeeling apparatchiks with no individual identity looking to disperse and submerge themselves in their host society’s bloodstream.
*. The problem with either of these interpretations is that the children aren’t monsters. Sure they kill people, but they are being threatened with extermination and when they lash out it’s usually because of poor impulse control. I mean, they could behave a lot worse. They’re not as sympathetically drawn as the kids in the sequel, Children of the Damned, but if we were in their shoes would we behave any different?

*. This is a point that could never be resolved. As noted, in the sequel the case is made that the children are potentially forces for good who are destroyed by accident only because they’re misunderstood. In the Carpenter remake one of the children is saved, having learned to achieve a certain level of empathy. Both films pull back from the harsh law of survival advanced by Wyndham’s book: that this world isn’t big enough for our two species and that one of us must be destroyed. Is that a political point though, or a more philosophical one? I guess it depends on how alien you see the children as being.
*. I think it’s this ambiguity that keeps Village of the Damned relevant. It’s also an interesting looking film, and the little blonde kids have become iconic But the suggestion that mankind is something to be surpassed, quickly and violently, is one that still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable. We could probably make our own genetically-engineered cuckoos now, and there may be some people who want to. Are they the enemy? I’m not drinking their Kool-Aid.

7 thoughts on “Village of the Damned (1960)

  1. Anthony McKay

    “And at first the script was rejected because it was thought to represent an anti-Catholic mocking of the virgin birth” – this comes from Stirling Silliphant interviews.
    Stirling’s original screenplay from December 1957 is pretty much the same as the final filmed version which got an ‘A II’ rating from the Catholic (National) League of Decency – Morally Unobjectionable for Adolescents and Adults’
    Stirling left M-G-M to start work on ‘The Naked City’ while production planning for a Spring 1958 slot at Culver City was still proceeding.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Anthony! Perhaps the studio was more concerned about potential controversy? I don’t know how it actually played out, or what changes were made.

      1. Anthony McKay

        There is no indication that there was any ‘Catholic’ controversy over the film – the Production Code documents suggests its script was okay in the early versions, other than a few minor points about the village inhabitants – the progress of the film, including the delays, are well documented from 1957 to 1959 in the trade press – never ‘shelved.’
        M-G-M kept all the versions of the script in their archive and there is nothing at all in there to suggest changes made due to ‘Catholic’ issues.
        Stirling Silliphant left the studio just as the film was in the advanced planning stage in late 1957 – so it looks like he got his wires crossed.
        The finished film that was ok with the Catholics when it was released in 1960 is virtually the same film that was being readied for production in Culver City in November 1957.

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