Tuesday, May 22, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though Cold War themes appear indirectly in many 1950s SF-films, THE GAMMA PEOPLE-- directed and co-written by John (PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES) Gilling-- is one among the few SF-movies of the period that addresses the ideological differences between democracy and totalitarianism.  To be sure, it's a phlegmatic film that makes its points in a fairly obvious fashion, but it's considerably more intelligent than 1952's RED PLANET MARS or 1957's THE 27TH DAY.

Communism is never explicitly mentioned in GAMMA, but the evils addressed by the story are clearly those that the democratic West found in Communist countries: isolationism, thought control, indifference to human rights.  Here, rather than being the creation of a revolutionary political system, they are the outgrowth of one man's mad scientific experiments, apparently abetted by his country's government though the scientist appears to act as a power unto himself, without governmental "handlers."

Two journalists, American Mike Wilson and British Howard Meade, begin the film traveling through postwar Europe by train, planning to undertake some story in Salzburg.  They happen to be traveling alone in the train's rearmost car, which, by a puzzling combination of chance and design, gets separated from the main train. By "chance" I mean that the coupling holding the rear car apparently breaks of its own accord, while by "design" I mean that two young locals see the separated car coming down the track, and they reroute the track to take the hurtling car into the postage-stamp land of Gudavia.  I thought for a moment that they might have been spies who knew the journalists were aboard, and might have even engineered the coupling-break.  But the two locals are never seen again, probably meaning that Gilling only wanted them for a quick setup.

Wilson and Meade are effectively contrasted as opposites in temperament. When Meade thinks of travel, he reminiscences on past romantic conquests and looks forward to new ones.  Wilson is the pragmatic American, who makes a curious association between the train's progress and going to meet someone's mother-in-law.  Innocence and experience, perhaps? In any case, both newsmen are exceedingly confused to find themselves in the forbidden "democracy" of Gudavia, where the authorities initially regard them as Western spies.  The aforementioned scientist, Dr. Boronski, orders the police to let the journalists have free run of the place so that they won't carry back news of ill treatment to the West-- a bad decision, since it leaves the newcomers free to observe the strange goings-on in Gudavia.

For a locale based on real Communist countries, it's axiomatic that the main city of Gudavia must be ruled by a climate of fear and oppression.  However, the fear is of Boronski's experiments with gamma radiation.  The reporters eventually learn that Boronski's using the townspeople as his private preserve, culling subjects and exposing them to radiation-- which either turns them into geniuses or morons.  Strangely, all the morons are male adults, who respond to Boronski's commands like zombies to a voodoo sorcerer, while the geniuses are children of both genders.  The reporters are flummoxed to see the dialectical conflict played out between young Hedda, who plays the piano like a maestro but demands to be allowed to play what she wants, and snotty Hugo, who demands that she play only what the State wants.

In  contrast to many mad-scientist films, Boronski is a rather pallid threat.  The more visceral threat is his creation Hugo, who has become not a physical but a moral monster: scorning sentimentality and mocking Western ways.  At the eleventh hour Hugo rather improbably finds his soul thanks to learning that he still has a living sister, and helps the reporters destroy Boronski and free Gudavia.  But he's much more convincing as an early version of a type of monster who would be seen more in the 1970s: the child who acts like an immoral adult.

Gilling's pace is never exciting, but he does work some interesting ideas into the mix of political thrills and SF-horror.  One interesting subplot is that when the reporters arrive, the populace is due to celebrate a festival descended from pagan times.  The locals look forward to it and one of Boronski's associates says that it's allowed to keep the people docile. Late in the film Boronski orders the festival cancelled, with the result that the peasants revolt and overthrow his reign, suggesting the cultural resonance of such archaic practices-- though nothing is related of the festival except that the citizens dress up in masquerade.  Interestingly, in one scene Wilson is pursued by several rock-throwing "zombies" in a scenario that actually recalls primitive sacrificial rituals rather strongly-- except that here, the victim escapes with his life..
GAMMA PEOPLE is far from one of the period's best offerings, but it's reasonably well thought out and takes a few unexpected terms even for a script convinced of its own ideological superiority. 

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