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Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Mind of Mr. Soames

Late in 1970, Columbia distributed an Amicus Productions film that was not overtly sci-fi, yet fits well in that Oort Cloud movies that have a smidgeon of sci-fi. The Mind of Mr. Soames (MMS) is thoughtful drama that explores, at least in part, some threads inherent in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It also explores, in subtle ways that rift between a tightly structured society (via science) and humanity. To American audiences, the cast of british actors were unknowns. The exception was Robert Vaughn (of Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame). For the most part, though, MMS made a minimal impression when released and quickly sank into obscurity.

Quick Plot Synopsis
John Soames has been in a coma since he was born, 30 years ago. He has been kept alive at a research institute by intravenous feeding and respirator. A talented neurosurgeon, Dr. Bergen (Vaughn) arrives to attempt to awaken him. The institute's director, Dr. Maitland (Nigel Davenport ) is keen to use John as an experiment to prove his theories of education. Right off, there is a clash in philosophies between the two doctors. The operation is a success. John awakens, some days later, like a newborn infant in a man's body. Maitland begins his strict regimen. John progresses, but eventually matures to the "terrible twos" stage with some tantrums and refusing to cooperate. Maitland pushes for tight discipline. John goes into a funk, refusing to do anything. Maitland frets that John is lapsing back into a coma. Bergen thinks it's more a case of pouting. He uses toys and games to win over John. Maitland is not keen on the wasteful frivolity, but the improvement in John undermines his complaints. One day, Bergen lets John out onto the grounds and gardens. John loves the freedom and sensations. Maitland has him rounded up like an escaped prisoner. Later, John seizes an opportunity to get outside again, by cracking a chair across the head of one of the aides. Now John is loose in the country. He gets picked up by a chatty salesman and dropped off near Chelsea. He is chased out of a pub for not paying for his sandwich. He takes a coat from an unlocked car, and is chased into the woods. He is grazed by a car on a back road. The husband and wife take him to their house to nurse him back to health. Newspapers clue them in that he is the escaped "baby." John escapes the Bannerman home before the police arrive. He found money in the coat pocket, so buys a ticket to London. In the train compartment, the young woman music student mistakes his friendliness for an assault and stops the train. John runs and hides in a barn. The police, Maitland, Bergen and a news crew come to the barn. Maitland tries to order John out, or theater him out, to no avail. Bergen goes in and coaxes John out. When the TV crew switch on the flood lights, John is frightened and tosses the pitchfork he was using as a crutch. It flies and stabs Bergen in the leg. John is reduced sobs, in a fetal position in the rain-soaked mud. He is taken away. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Actor Terrence Stamp does an excellent job of playing Soames -- an infant or young boy in a man's body. He's quite believable. The conflicting philosophies of human nature are interestingly explored. Neither is entirely right, nor wrong. Many scenes are shot from John's POV, which add depth.

Cultural Connections
Several films around this time, explore the rift between Science (harsh, demanding, inflexible) and Humanity (emotional, variable). Exploring this conflict has been part of sci-fi for years. (Orwell's 1984, for instance). The early 70s would spawn several films -- some obscure, some famous -- that explore that oil-and-water mix of Science and Man

Shades of Shelley -- MMS plays out a facet of Mary Shelley's famous Frankenstein. Like Soames, her monster was "born" a full grown man, but a tabula rasa. Her monster escaped and taught himself, more or less, the basic life skills and speech. John is taught by others, yet his chief teacher, Maitland, has that Frankenstein quality of an unrelenting scientific pursuit, ignoring the human cost. MMS is like a glimpse between the lines of what Shelley's monster had to go through.

Hint of Passion -- A nice subtle element in MMS is how "love" (or at least, the desire for love) is handled. Seems that modern movie formulas demand full-tilt bedroom scenes. MMS was able to broach the topic in delightfully understated British way. When John is convalescing at the Bannerman's home, he strokes the side of Jenny's face while she talks to him. A 30 year-old would come with a libido, which toddlers don't (if you except Freud). She doesn't mind and tells him how her husband is a drunk and a jerk. Clearly, she is attracted to the innocent affections of John. She even gives him a kiss goodbye shortly before he escapes again.

Homo Guinea -- At the core of MMS is John, the victim of unrelenting science to mold him into the image the scientists think he should have. In this way, John is the guinea pig, rather like a "good" parallel to Alex in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange ('71). Like Alex, his humanity is driven into rebellion by the process. Other films coming up will also feature this flavor of technophobia -- men as guinea pigs of Science.

Bottom line? MMS is not a fast-action popcorn munching film, which may explain its obscurity. It is a slower paced, more thoughtful look into the nature of mankind. The sci-fi elements are there, but overshadowed by their ramifications. If you want aliens or monsters, MMS will seem boring. If you want something to muse over for a few days, check it out.

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