I’ve been interested in seeing Alan Cooke’s film The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970) for many years mainly because it’s an Amicus production with a great cast that includes Terence Stamp, Robert Vaughn, Nigel Davenport, Christian Roberts, Donal Donnelly and Vickery Turner. The film also features cinematography by the talented Billy Williams. I’ve seen just about every film that Amicus produced during the ’60s and ’70s and many of them are personal favorites so I assumed I would probably really enjoy The Mind of Mr. Soames as well. The film didn’t exactly live up to my high expectations, but it had plenty of interesting moments and explored many fascinating ideas. The cast was truly exceptional and composer Michael Dress’s score is very good, but unfortunately Alan Cooke’s direction is rather dull and uninspired at times.
The Mind of Mr. Soames is based on a bestselling 1961 novel of the same name written by the British science fiction author Charles Eric Maine (pen name for David McIlwain). It tells the story of a thirty-year-old man named John Soames (Terence Stamp) who suffered a mild brain injury during birth that has kept him in a deep sleep his entire life. As the film opens Dr. Bergen (Robert Vaughn) is traveling to London to meet Dr. Maitland (Nigel Davenport) and perform a revolutionary type of brain surgery that will awaken Soames from his lifelong slumber, but he’s surprised by what he finds at the hospital when he arrives there.
Dr. Maitland (Nigel Davenport) has turned the entire hospital into a sort of set for a reality television program that plans to broadcast the operation and follow John Soames recovery. The ongoing interviews between the doctors and the television crew are conducted by a failed medical student and budding reporter named Thomas Fleming (Christian Roberts) who seems eager to exploit the situation as much as possible for his own gain.
When Soames awakens in a childlike state he is put under the care of the rather severe Dr. Maitland and his more sensitive assistant Joe (Donal Donnelly). Dr. Maitland is determined to accelerate Soames’ developmental process and he subjects him to countless tests and educational classes that leave no room for downtime or meaningful human interactions. Thankfully Dr. Bergen and Joe occasionally step in and try to offer Soames their friendship and understanding, but their acts of kindness seems strangely at odds with the cold and clinical environment Soames is trapped in.
One of the most fascinating things about the film is the way it explores early ideas about reality television. As John Soames slowly develops into an adult he is continually filmed by a television crew that watches his every move. Back in 1961 when The Mind of Mr. Soames was first written, reality television was a somewhat impossible idea and very few people besides smart science fiction writers could have imagined what television would be like today. So much of what is shown in The Mind of Mr. Soames has become commonplace now that it might be easy for some viewers to overlook the film’s somewhat groundbreaking take on modern media.
It’s possible that the British documentary series Seven Up! (1964) was a minor inspiration for director Alan Cooke when he decided to turn The Mind of Mr. Soames into a film, but that’s debatable. Before making The Mind of Mr. Soames the director had previously worked in television and his previous experience both hinders and adds to the film in my opinion. Cooke’s directing is very static at times and I sometimes wondered if I was watching a television production instead of a feature film, but he does a wonderful job of portraying the subtle effects that an unblinking camera can have when it’s pointed on an unwilling subject. Cooke clearly understood the power as well as the limits of television and his knowledge of the medium is occasionally used to great effect in The Mind of Mr. Soames.
As the film progresses John Soames becomes more and more disenchanted with the claustrophobic environment he’s trapped in and he longs to escape the hospital as well as the cameras. In some of the films best moments Terence Stamp beautifully portrays Soames as someone who longs to be outside among nature and naively imagines the freedom that it offers. When Soames finally gets to explore the world outside the confines of the hospital walls, the film takes on an unearthly beauty that makes you wish the director had chosen to spend more time there instead of spending so much time inside the sterile hospital.
In one beautiful scene Stamp’s character lays down in the grass and stares wistfully at some flowers which are just beginning to blossom. The scene recalls the wonderful moment in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955) when James Dean laid on the ground and willed the crops to grow. As I mentioned before in my previous piece about Terence Stamp, East of Eden is one of the actor’s favorite films and it was James Dean’s amazing performance as Cal that inspired Terence Stamp to become an actor. I have no idea if The Mind of Mr. Soames mimicked that important scene from East of Eden intentionally or if it was taken straight out of the book, but I can’t help wondering if Terence Stamp himself suggested it since the moment seems so clearly inspired by the film that encouraged him to start acting.
The Mind of Mr. Soames has an interesting, but somewhat unsatisfying ending. I liked the fact that the film didn’t offer any easy answers to John Soames complicated predicament but it somehow felt unfinished. Viewers are left to wonder what will finally become of this infantile character trapped in a man’s body and ruled by an adult world. I have no problem with inconclusive endings, but the movie seemed like it had more to say and never got the opportunity to say it.
Another complaint I have about the film is the lack of time given to the interesting cast of characters such as the kind and sensitive Joe who is played wonderfully by Donal Donnelly (The Knack …and How to Get It) and the pushy reporter Thomas who’s played by the edgy Christian Roberts (To Sir, with Love, Twisted Nerve, etc.) and his girlfriend Naomi who’s played by the cute Vickery Turner. Vickery Turner had lots of small roles in great British films and she was a popular stage actress in Britain during the sixties. When The Mind of Mr. Soames was released she was mostly known in the US as the wife of American actor Warren Oates who she met on the set of the 1969 comedy Crooks and Coronets a year earlier. The two were only married for five years and during that time Turner didn’t seem to do much acting. She’s terribly wasted in The Mind of Mr. Soames which is a shame. I think if her role had been fleshed out a bit more it would have given the film another interesting angle to explore.
The Mind of Mr. Soames is hard to see in the US now, but it was originally distributed by Columbia Pictures. The film is definitely worthy of an offical DVD release and I’d love to see a nice widescreen presentation of the film with audio commentary from the main actors who are all still alive, except for Vickery Turner who passed away last year. Even though the movie suffers from some lackluster direction at times and poor editing, the actors raise the production to unexpected heights and Terence Stamp is especially noteworthy as the childlike John Soames.
If you’d like to see more still shots from the film please visit my Mind of Mr. Soames Gallery at Flickr.