Amicus tries for class-act science fiction: lifelong coma sleeper Terence Stamp is revived as an ‘adult baby’ and must be educated in a medical psychology lab. But hey, Doctors Nigel Davenport and Robert Vaughn differ on how to raise children! The bouncing baby Cockney is soon an infantile Clockwork Orange, defying his minders and running away to see the world for himself. No, you can’t explain youth rebellion that easily…
The Mind of Mr. Soames
1970 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 98 min. / Street Date September 24, 2018 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £14.99
Starring: Terence Stamp, Robert Vaughn, Nigel Davenport, Christian Roberts, Donal Donnelly, Dan Jackson, Vickery Turner, Judy Parfitt, Pamela Moiseiweisch.
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Film Editor: Bill Blunden
Original Music: Michael Dress
Written by John Hale, Edward Simpson, from a book by Charles Eric Maine
Produced by Max Rosenberg & Milton Subotsky
Directed by Alan Cooke
I’m not sure that the Subotsky-Rosenberg production company Amicus ever fully found its groove. They had commercial success with horror in both the ’60s and ’70s, but none of their productions really score among the great horror pictures, despite isolated elements of brilliance, as in 1965’s The Skull. Even when they got close to the brass ring, weak scriptwriting let them down, as with the thoroughly muddled Scream and Scream Again. It was made the same year as an Amicus show that courted mainstream viability. The laudibly ambitious The Mind of Mr. Soames isn’t an imitation Hammer gorefest, nor a campy EC Comics adaptation. Fairly well mounted, it has a very strong cast in Terence Stamp, Robert Vaughn and Nigel Davenport. The initial idea promises all manner of new possibilities, which the show really doesn’t pay off. On the other hand, it is definitely the first choice when you need to see Terence Stamp play a man with the mind of a newborn baby.
An experimental clinic in the English countryside has been taking care of John Soames, a man who has been in a coma for his entire life — thirty long years — waiting for the time when brain surgery is capable of correcting the injury incurred during his birth. The authoritarian clinic director Dr. Maitland (Nigel Davenport) invites a television crew led by Thomas Fleming (Christian Roberts) to publicize the operation performed by American brain surgeon Dr. Bergen (Robert Vaughn) that allows John Soames to regain consciousness. When John does wake up, days later, Bergen calls his initial howling, ‘the sound of being born.’
Maitland puts John on a tight learning schedule, with specialists Joe Allan (Donal Donnelly) and Nicholls (Dan Jackson) doing a lot of hands-on work. John has a fully developed adult brain, so he learns more quickly than an infant. But Maitland leaves no room for non-educational play or forming new relationships. John Soames begins to ‘grow up’ in a specially outfitted lab space. He plays with educational toys of farm animals and trees, but he’s never seen the outdoors. As soon as John can ask, ‘Why?’ he becomes uncooperative and rebellious. Maitland and Bergen’s approaches clash, and Bergen takes it upon himself to ignore Maitland’s rules and take John outdoors to the beautiful clinic gardens. John is herded back indoors, but immediately hatches a more developed plan of rebellion — he clobbers Nicholls over the head and makes a break for it. But how will John possibly cope, when he understands nothing of how things work in the real world?
We realize that behaviorial science, child development and associated concentrations have come a long way, but researchers and child psychologists in 1969 already knew that trying to educate a case like Soames’ would have serious problems. The human brain forms and develops in response to stimuli, and if some capabilities aren’t learned by a certain stage, they are never going to be at full strength. The ability to learn a language organically is apparently built into our mental blueprint, but it goes away at around puberty. Just from the start, John Soames might have a much more difficult time learning to talk. In the real-life case behind Franç’ois Truffaut’s The Wild Child, and other documented instances of feral children, researchers found definite limitations when trying to educate a mind that had already physically matured.
Setting aside such realities, The Mind of Mr. Soames still taxes our patience with its simpleminded approach. The ‘adult baby’ John Soames becomes a child-rearing battleground between notions of discipline and nurturing, all played out in a quiet, civilized tone. Nigel Davenport’s director treats John as a project that must fulfill a plan of learning and development. Robert Vaughn’s visiting surgeon is first seen playing with a baby on an jet plane; he of course wants to give John breaks from his rigid learning schedule, so he can just be himself. That’s the only issue under debate. If this weren’t a science fiction movie John might have had a chance. The subgenre decrees that every experiment must turn into a disaster, no matter how simple.
Our sympathy is of course with Terence Stamp’s John Soames, a baby boy whose early stages of development almost immediately turn to resentment and rebellion. Hey, what a statement about contemporary youth! The morons at the clinic don’t even expose John to both men and women, and his handlers Nicholls and Allan just use kindness to get him to follow Dr. Maitland’s schedule. Although there’s little or no visual poetry in director Alan Cooke’s work, we still exult with John when he finally gets outdoors, to dance on the grass and feel the rain on his face. I think I’d feel like dancing in that beautiful green garden — John isn’t exactly getting an accurate impression of the real world. Things go badly from this point forward, as per formula for misfits in Sci-fi pictures. Soames becomes just another guinea pig with bad luck: George Segal in Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man comes to mind.
The ever self-confident Dr. Maitland is convinced that the fugitive Soames will be easy to round up. The attending policeman shows that he’s got more brains than any of them, when he dryly states that finding escaped children can be a real chore. Dressed in a pink jumper that can be confused for a running outfit, John makes his dash in the rain. He gets a ride in a car, and is thrown out of a pub when he accepts food and drink and has no idea what ‘pay up’ means. He finds some money in a coat that he steals. John terrorizes a girl in a train compartment (Pamela Moiseiwitsch), when his 3 year-old level of conversation convinces her that he’s a maniac. He exits the train in motion, cutting off the cops’ hopes of catching him easily.
All through the film we wonder why John’s handlers are so dense. Maitland’s idea of education is horrible. He seems to believe that somewhere inside the adult John is a child hiding, and he must be made to cooperate. The martinet doesn’t empathize with John for a minute, or see him as anything more than a path to big success, huge grants and maybe a knighthood.
Dr. Bergen isn’t much better, although it is good to see Robert Vaughn playing a basically decent person instead of his usual elitist S.O.B.. Bergen’s answer to John’s problems are to ignore procedures in ways that will obviously backfire, like allowing John to escape into the garden without even telling anybody. Of course a crackdown will result. Instead of offering concrete recommendations, Bergen just shakes his head in regret. Where are the real child psychologists? At the very least there would be an entire panel of experts debating the right way to nurture the growing John Soames. England’s interest in this field bloomed in the 1950s, as can be seen in wonderful short subjects like Lindsay Anderson’s Thursday’s Children. Even the arrogant scientist ‘who knows all the answers’ in Joseph Losey’s These are the Damned has a team of psychologists helping to raise his group of macabre children. That movie makes major statements about the concepts of education, freedom, and moral and political responsibility. Compared to that classic, Mr. Soames really has little to say.
John Soames instead becomes another lost innocent being hunted by angry villagers with torches uncomprehending authorities. As happens with stories that want to be socially progressive but haven’t a clue, when John is trapped in a barn, Vaughn’s Bergen flakes out just when the frightened child-man needs him most, with a completely unfair challenge. He asks John to make a choice about ‘the right thing to do’ on his own. For criminy sakes, John is developmentally still a toddler. He’s incapable of making such a decision.
I note that contemporary reviewers recognized The Mind of Mr. Soames as a variation on the Frankenstein idea, with two doctors confusing the innocent John with their demands. True, John thinks he’s being tortured with work and duties and rules and instructions. Unlike a new child, he doesn’t choose a ‘mother’ figure from his minders, to be his protector. Unlike Karloff’s pathetic monster, John doesn’t look like he’s searching for love or understanding, just his freedom. He thinks the women he meets during his escape are nice, but he doesn’t make a play for affection from any of them.
The film’s ‘lazy liberal’ conclusion reminds me more of the left-wing sequel Children of the Damned, which also has two child psychologists warring on how to approach ‘dangerous’ children with psychic powers. Both films end with an armed standoff at night, with guns aimed and ready. In both films, a happy ending is ruined by the intervention of an unfeeling press.
It’s probably not a fair comparison, but the ending standoff in a barn also mirrors Bryan Forbes’ Whistle Down the Wind, a more allegorical look at child psychology. At least Mr. Soames doesn’t put Terence Stamp through any crucifixion imagery; the actor had already done that for Billy Budd.
The acting of the leads is uniformly good; director Cooke keeps them all on the same page, and it’s the script’s fault if none of the characters make meaningful connections with each other. Terence Stamp has himself a jolly good time with the trick role of a literally empty-headed man, showing John Soames’ impishly natural sense of humor when he throws his food around, just like a kid in a high chair. The experienced actors Davenport and Vaughn seem to know that the show just isn’t going to dig very deep. They turn in capable low-key performances, perhaps trying to cover for their characters’ crazy lack of imagination.
Subotsky and/or Cooke lined up good supporting talent, starting with the great Donal Donnelly (The Knack… And How to Get It) in the thankless role of the only person who might have become John’s friend, if he didn’t have to be his jailer. The show is another chance to see actor Dan Jackson at work; he played Ned in Columbia’s Mysterious Island. In the extras Christian Roberts tells us that Columbia mandated his casting as the mod-coiffed TV director; he received star billing but says that Cooke wouldn’t direct him, and had his part re-dubbed by someone else.
There are no good parts for the film’s worthy actresses. The bright-looking Vickery Turner has about thirty seconds onscreen as a TV assistant, and the accomplished Judy Parfitt has a few thoughtful moments as a woman who takes John in for a night. As the girl on the train, Pamela Moiseiwitsch gets to use two faces, intimidated and finally terrorized.
I was intrigued to hear the experts on Indicator’s commentary track say that Milton Subotsky found this property after trying to buy the film rights for Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which became Ralph Nelson’s Charly (1968), a big hit. Me, my girlfriend and others in the theater where I saw The Mind of Mr. Soames were immediately vocal that it was just like the movie in which Cliff Robertson won an acting Oscar. We teenagers thought Charly was pretty neat, but now it’s just proof of our inexperience and lack of exposure to good acting — Terence Stamp’s baby act is ten times better than Cliff Robertson’s leering and face-pulling. Charly constantly tugs at us, like a stray dog asking for affection; the movie now seems an unwatchable pile of clichés. Mr. Soames is better, if only because it has some class and self-restraint. It gives Terence Stamp an almost-worthy acting showcase.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Blu-ray of The Mind of Mr. Soames is a fine-looking transfer that renders Billy Williams’s richly colored images at full value. (It looks far better than the low-res images I’ve found.) The film element in use seems flawless, so kudos to the restorers at Sony, if any restoration was necessary. Also scoring high is the music score by composer Michael Dress, which at times brings the ornate clinic to life, overcoming the director’s TV-like coverage of most scenes. Too much of the picture isolates characters in single shots or close-ups.
We’re given an original trailer and a still & publicity gallery. Two new featurettes are present. A short with Christian Roberts, Billy Williams and another surviving crew member is a so-so collection of bites, apparently whatever they could think of to say. Roberts relates his unhappy story of being re-dubbed. A longer talking head opportunity for Terence Stamp just lets the charming actor rattle on for about 18 minutes. We hear some fine stories about his background, his first jobs and the female companionship he enjoyed while acting — but unless I missed it he has nothing to say about The Mind of Mr. Soames.
Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby have much to say about Mr. Soames in their feature commentary. They joke and toss pleasantries back and forth quite a bit, as if coached to keep it light, but we also hear a lot of useful information, such as the important Subotsky- Charly connection I reacted to above. We also learn that the impressive country house that serves as the film’s medical clinic is the same Sussex location seen several years later in Richard Donner’s The Omen. Lyons and Rigby aren’t very impressed by the work of source author Charles Eric Maine, the auteur of odd items like Hammer’s early sci-fi Spaceways.
A 19-page illustrated booklet comes with first pressings of the disc. The capable essayist Laura Mayne also compares Mr. Soames with Flowers for Algernon and makes the Frankenstein connection as well. We get contemporary interview snippets with the three stars, and pieces on Billy Williams and Charles Eric Maine. In Maine’s 1961 book, Soames is seduced by a woman who almost runs him over in her car. He accidentally murders a man, stands trial, and goes to prison.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Mind of Mr. Soames
Movie: Good -minus
Supplements: Audio commentary with film historians Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby; Interview with actor Christian Roberts; trailer; Image gallery; Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Laura Mayne, an overview of contemporary critical responses, historic articles, and film credits.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 22, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson