These are the Damned is a 1963 film made by Hammer Studios. I remember finding it very disturbing when I saw it on TV as a kid. With its grim predictions and its tragic end, it is an unusual film, even among the others of this genre. It presents a morally complex picture too, raising difficult questions . How do we prepare for the possibility of nuclear war, or for some other existential crisis affecting the planet, the whole of civilization? Do our efforts center on prevention, or do we also prepare for the worst, adopting a bomb-shelter mentality, setting aside, like Aeneas feeling the burning city of Troy, what we feel to be most worth saving in a civilization that is coming to an end? TATD seems to address these issues. It also introduces some military characters. This gives the film added interest for me, since it is one of the themes of my book that soldiers have sometimes been called on to preserve values when a civilization falls, or in other times of great change. In this, Aeneas is perhaps the prototype, with historical examples occurring in late antiquity and the early modern period. Will the soldiers of our time or of the near future be called on to perform this function?
The movie begins with an American tourist docking his boat at an English seaside resort town. A pretty young woman lures him to a back street where he is beaten and robbed by her brother and his gang of thugs. Later, the tourist is helped by some people at a restaurant. One of the people, a government official of obscure function, observes that England is seeing more random violence of this kind. He seems to take a very dim view of the modern world and future. Two of the other people in the group are army officers, and another is an artist. It turns out that the officers and government official are engaged in a project involving mutated children who are capable of surviving nuclear fallout. The children are themselves radioactive, so that exposure to them is fatal to ordinary people, and their own health can be precarious. They are being carefully schooled in the western tradition of art, history, and culture so that they can preserve these things after the nuclear war that the people responsible for the project believe is inevitable.
The government official is the true believer in this. The artist is his mistress, but she doesn’t really know what is going on in the project. She makes sculptures that evoke the corpses after Pompei or Dresden and that also seem to warn of a nuclear war. Her modern, allusive, admonitory sculptures are arguably more in keeping with and even preservative of the values of civilization than is the rather dismal activity of stuffing facts into lethal, sickly children in a remote-controlled classroom. (See picture.) The two officers are very different. The older one seems overly willing to resort to violence, and the younger officer strongly implies that his senior is merely a bully capable of commanding obedience but not loyalty. The younger officer is more humane and even intellectually curious. He views the artist’s sculptures appreciatively, saying that he hopes that looking at them will improve his mind. One of the other characters observes that the young officer is the type that made the empire. Perhaps it is also true that his combination of civility and open-mindedness is closer to the real values of civilization than the pedantry, subterfuge, and manipulation that characterize the government project. The movie also calls into question the T.S. Eliot-like pessimism that is behind the whole project. There are still some decent people left: the young officer, the artist, the American, and even the young woman (she and the American become somewhat unlikely lovers). Maybe civilization isn’t doomed. It can be redeemed, like the young woman. (She and the American try to rescue the children from their captivity.)
I was reminded of TATD when I recently attended a conference at USNA on the ethics of future warfare. This was a sobering experience. Threats and new weapons are combining to make the world a highly uncertain and hazardous place, even more than it was in 1963. Almost in response to this, some today seem too willing, like the government bureaucrat in the film, to embrace apocalypse, to spurn present and future, or to say Apres moi, le deluge. Our emphasis must be on preventing WWIII, not on scraping callous survival out of conflicts likely to be terribly destructive to everyone. And if soldiers are ever again required to salvage the wreck of a doomed civilization, we must keep in mind what is really worth saving. If we survive without love, what has been saved?
Next: Back to The Aeneid.