The Mind of Mr. Soames
1970 / Alan Cooke
Synopsis. At the Midland Institute of Neuropsychological Research, a television crew gathers for the awakening of John Soames (Terence Stamp), an adult male who has been in a coma since birth. In charge of Soames’ care is the authoritarian Dr. Maitland (Nigel Davenport). American neurosurgeon Dr. Bergen (Robert Vaughn) has been invited to stimulate Soames’ sleep centres directly, with the aim of causing Soames to emerge from his 30-year coma.
In the unspecified period after Soames has been awakened, Maitland takes charge of his subject’s education, beginning with Soames learning to speak. Soames is confined entirely in a sealed room filled with educational toys. Bergen challenges Maitland’s approach to “raising” Soames, however, suggesting that a less strict and more humane regime would yield better results.
Eventually, realising there is a world outside the institute and tired of the manner in which he has been kept imprisoned, Soames seizes an opportunity to overwhelm one of the guards and escape. The police are drafted in to try to capture him, and news headlines suggest to the public that Soames may be potentially violent. (“Can This Baby Kill?” asks the front page headline of the Daily Mirror.)
With the mind of a child, Soames struggles with the outside world. Eventually, he becomes the victim of a drunken driver’s carelessness. Afraid of repercussions if Soames is taken to the hospital, the driver, Richard (Scott Forbes), drives the unconscious Soames back to his house; Richard’s wife Jenny (Judy Parfitt) takes care of Soames. Sympathetic to Soames, Jenny lets Soames leave before her husband returns.
Soames manages to purchase a train ticket and enters a carriage with a teenage girl. The girl mistakes Soames’ attempts to communicate with her and believes Soames wishes to sexually assault her. She pulls the emergency brake, and Soames escapes from the carriage with the police in close pursuit.
Frightened, Soames holes up in a barn, where he is surrounded by the police. Maitland and Bergen arrive on the scene and use their very different methods to try to coax Soames out of his hiding place: Maitland’s demands are contrasted with Bergen’s kindliness.
Critique. Made by Amicus in an attempt to diversify their output and explore genres other than horror, The Mind of Mr. Soames (UK, Alan Clarke, 1970) nevertheless draws on one of the narratives most closely associated with British horror cinema: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. There’s some subtle irony in this, given that Hammer’s own The Curse of Frankenstein (UK, Terence Fisher, 1957) was so well-received upon its release in 1957 that it led to Amicus’ rival focusing on gothic horror rather than the crime and science-fiction films for which it had previously been known.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, Soames is a tragic creature: a child born in an adult’s body, struggling to adjust to his surroundings, who is treated cruelly by those around him. Even the film’s final sequence, in which Soames is cornered in a barn and almost kills Bergen in panic, recalls the climax of Frankenstein. Of course, Mary Shelley’s novel sits at the intersection of gothic horror and science-fiction, and The Mind of Mr. Soames places itself firmly in the realm of SF by exploring this territory without the gothic trappings of other contemporaneous cinematic explorations of the Frankenstein mythos. Instead, Soames is set firmly in the present day, and chiefly in a scientific research institute.
Soames was adapted from the 1961 novel by Charles Eric Maine, a fairly prolific writer of both science-fiction and, under a pseudonym, detective novels. The Mind of Mr. Soames is probably Maine’s most well-known novel, though some of his other work had also been adapted for the screen—including the radio play Spaceways, which was filmed by Terence Fisher for Hammer in 1955 before both became associated with gothic horror following Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein.
Most of director Alan Cooke’s work was in television. (Cooke directed everything from episodes of Out of the Unknown and Armchair Theatre to Quincy and Airwolf). In fact, The Mind of Mr. Soames seems to be Cooke’s only feature film credit, though he had directed two “B” movies: the Edgar Wallace adaptation Flat Two (1962), and the odd Cornwall-set drama The Starfish (1952), which Cooke co-directed with John Schlesinger whilst both were students at university.
Admittedly, much of The Mind of Mr. Soames could be mistaken for a television production: there’s a “flatness” to the lighting and photography that feels uncinematic, almost clinical—which, given the setting, seems to be intentional. (The director of photography was Billy Williams, who also lensed Ken Russell’s Women in Love, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (UK, 1972), and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (UK, 1982), among many others).
However, bubbling beneath the surface is a sense of the surreal: the huge, adult-sized “nursery” in which Soames is encouraged to play with educational toys and Terence Stamp’s commitment to playing Soames as a wide-eyed man-child in a world that doesn’t forgive innocence. Treated cruelly by Maitland, Soames is manhandled by the nurses/wardens charged with his care. When he escapes the institute, he finds the outside world no more sympathetic. Wandering the streets in his peach “onesie” (commenting on this, one passer-by asks if Soames is training for the Olympics), Soames struggles to fit in during a brief visit to a pub (he orders milk and is given a pint of ale, which he spits out in disgust before being ejected because he doesn’t realise he must pay for his drink), and in a school playground (he tries to join in with a group of children playing football, and becomes involved in an altercation with a young boy over the rules of the game).
The sense of televisual realism undercut by the unusual, surreal, or simply “odd” is signposted by the film’s opening score: a strummed guitar is accompanied by discordant countermelodies played on a violin and a woodwind instrument; then percussion is added to this, and a tinkling piano. It’s an experimental and unsettling score, comparable to the disquieting music used at the start of Sidney Lumet’s later film The Offence (US, 1973). Soames’s score was by Michael Dress; notably, the guitar playing was by future soundtrack composer John Williams, and Soames was Williams’ first film credit.
Fittingly, given the televisual aesthetic on display for much of the film, Soames takes television as a specific target. In the film’s opening sequences, the awakening of Soames is shown to be something of a media circus, and a television documentary crew aim to follow Soames’ life afterwards in order to produce a six-part television series about the event. The anchor for the programme, Tom (Christian Roberts), is an ambitious young man who was formerly a medical student; one of Tom’s colleagues notes that “they threw him [Tom] out when they found he had no heart.”
At the film’s climax, this narrative thread is pulled taut when Soames is hiding in the barn. Bergen enters in order to talk the frightened Soames into coming out. However, eager to get a good shot for the television show, Tom turns a set of floodlights to full beam. This causes Soames to panic and hurl the pitchfork he has been carrying towards Bergen. (Bergen is injured but fortunately not killed.) Soames howls from the trauma and collapses. There’s a clear sense, in this scene, that the ambitious Tom—whose presence is symbolic of a sensationalist media—is the true villain of the piece; that Tom, rather than the well-intentioned albeit authoritarian Maitland, is the film’s antagonist. However, by this point in the film, the television crew (and Tom) have disappeared from the screen for so long that an inattentive viewer may have forgotten who they are.
Soames foregrounds questions of ethics within the human sciences; in the almost ten-year period between the publication of Maine’s novel and Amicus’ film adaptation, a number of high-profile incidents led to the questioning of ethics within psychological experiments, in particular. These included Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority figures, in which participants were convinced by researchers to give what they believed to be fatal electric shocks to unseen counterparts; and Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment, which suggested children imitate the behaviour of adult role models. (Bandura’s focus on aggression—exposing children to aggressive stimuli in order to examine how the subjects mimicked the violence of adults—has been criticised for the potential long-term effects of exposing its child subjects to aggression.) In 1971, a year after the release of The Mind of Mr Soames, Philip Zimbardo would enact his infamous Stamford Prison Experiment.
In exploring this theme of scientific ethics, the film constructs a dialectical relationship between Bergen and Maitland. Performing as Dr. Bergen, Robert Vaughn was no doubt added to the cast in order to improve the film’s chances in the US market. That said, Vaughn is excellent in the role. He plays Bergen as empathetic towards Soames, but also with subtle hints of his own problems and challenges. Bergen is introduced on a commercial airliner, leaving his family in the US in order to assist Dr. Maitland in the UK. On the plane, he is drinking strong liquor, and this continues throughout the film. (His tipple of choice seems to be a generous measure of neat vodka.) Though the script doesn’t foreground it, the film seems to suggest that Bergen is a high-functioning alcoholic.
Bergen’s kindness is established in this opening sequence, as he comforts a young child who is seated near him. Later, we learn that Bergen has his own family, and this gives him a “hands-on” understanding of childhood and development that Maitland lacks. However, Bergen seems to have little to do with his own family, and seizes on opportunities to stay in Britain in order to be present for Soames; and a quiet, unimposing question mark hangs over Bergen’s relationship with his wife and children. We sense he is estranged from them, for some reason, perhaps because he is a workaholic or because of his drinking.
Much of the first half of the film (before Soames’ escape from the institute) is predicated on the contrast between Bergen’s humanity and Maitland’s “stiff upper lip” authoritarian approach to “raising” Soames. Bergen criticises Maitland’s “training programme” for Soames, labelling it as “a bit inflexible.” Maitland, it seems, expects Soames to rush through various developmental milestones—speaking, walking, eating—and Bergen wonders what Maitland may do if Soames doesn’t meet these targets. Might Maitland resort to punishing Soames? If so, how?
Where Maitland attempts to “train” Soames by using discipline, Bergen reaches Soames through kindness and empathy, playing games with Soames and speaking softly, like a patient father. Soames’ petulance poses a problem for his learning, and Maitland notes that “All children have tantrums. All id, with no superego. All drive, with no control.” “Yes, but you won’t be teaching him control,” Bergen responds in reference to Maitland’s methods, “You’ll be imposing it.” The distinction is subtle but key in theories of child development. Maitland continues, suggesting that the child must learn that “the world will not adapt to the child but he must adapt to it.” Suggesting this is “kinder” in the long run, Maitland gives the example of parents who, when their child cries, pick the child up in order to soothe it versus those who leave the child to learn to self-soothe; Maitland clearly favours the latter approach. “Well, I’ve got three kids,” Bergen offers, “I’ve always picked them up.” In this case, the experience of a parent seems to trump the theories and models of a scientist.
Ultimately, The Mind of Mr. Soames is a cry for Bergen’s style of parenting (and medical practice) over that of Maitland. “If you don’t let up, you’re going to teach Mr. Soames to death,” Bergen tells Maitland at one point, adding that it is better for the “child” to choose to learn for himself than to impose a strict regimen upon him.
With limited dialogue, John Soames was an unusual role for Terence Stamp, and The Mind of Mr. Soames takes an interesting position within Stamp’s body of work. During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s (beginning with Pasolini’s Theorem in 1968, and continuing through the likes of Nelo Risi’s A Season in Hell in 1971 and German Lorente’s Striptease in 1977), Stamp increasingly took roles in offbeat and sometimes outright experimental European films. This coincided with Stamp’s period spent in India, living in an ashram and studying under the mystic Krishnamurti. (This period in Stamp’s career would end with his appearance in Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978.) A role in a commercial film made by Amicus superficially seems out of place here, but given the opportunities the character of John Soames gives Stamp to deliver a quite challenging performance—mostly wordless, and always infantile—Stamp’s decision to appear in this picture makes perfect sense. Interestingly, Terence Stamp would play another very human victim of cruel experiments, in the strange and little-seen 1975 film Hu-Man.