Are human beings inherently cruel or do we learn cruelty by example? Does our genetic makeup dictate our personalities at birth or are we shaped by numerous circumstances including our environments and upbringing? To borrow the title of a current popular song, are we “born this way” or are we more complex creatures than our personal DNA map might suggest?

The nature vs. nurture debate has been going on for centuries and many films have attempted to tackle it head-on. One of the best examples of this is Peter Brooks’ extraordinary film adaptation of William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES (1963), which argues that people are savages at heart and in the right circumstances we are all likely to turn on one another. Another film, which I recently had the opportunity to watch, champions the other side of the argument. John Mackenzie’s haunting film adaptation of Giles Cooper’s radio play UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO (1971) questions the example set by LORD OF THE FLIES and suggests that we are taught savage behaviors that can manifest in acts of violence.

Both films use British schoolboys to illustrate their point and the settings are somewhat similar. In  LORD OF THE FLIES all of the action and drama takes place on an isolated island while UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO is set in a secluded school near the ocean. But the boys in UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO are not alone. They‘re watched over by a group of apathetic teachers and headmasters.

In to this tense setting comes a young teacher, John Ebony (David Hemmings), and his wife Silvia (Carolyn Seymour). At first, Ebony seems excited about his new job and he exhibits a genuine passion for teaching. He’s hopeful about the future and together with his attractive young wife, the two begin to set up home in a quaint country cottage near the school. But there’s something disquieting about the situation that creeps into conversations and colors the entire mood of the movie almost immediately. This uneasy feeling takes over when Ebony learns that his predecessor died after accidentally falling off an oceanside cliff and landed on the rocks below. But it’s compounded by the attitudes of the headmasters and teachers he finds himself working with. They seem to dismiss a large percentage of the boys at the school as troublemakers unworthy of their time or consideration. When the teachers aren’t complaining about their work they show indifference to the boy’s education and development or they rule with an iron fist and stress the school’s motto of “Authority Is the Child of Obedience.”

David Hemmings’ natural appeal as a counterculture figure is used to stress that he’s not like the other teachers and his portrayal of John Ebony is an interesting extension of his roles in films like Blowup (1966) and Fragment of Fear (1970). At first Ebony tries to develop a friendly and more casual relationship with his students but his lack of confidence and inexperience prove to be his undoing. His students enjoy bullying each other, which has obviously been encouraged by the school, and they immediately start to bully their new teacher. When Ebony finally tries to stress his authority the boys bluntly tell him that they murdered his predecessor and threaten to kill him as well if he doesn’t follow their instructions. Naturally Ebony is both shocked and horrified by his student’s casual admission of murder and throughout the course of the film he tries to find out if their story is true or merely an outrageous lie manufactured to intimidate him.

It’s tempting to compare UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO with Lindsay Anderson’s IF…. (1968) but besides their public school settings and clear desire to question the effectiveness of the British education system, these films have little in common. Their approach and concerns are very different. Anderson’s film is much more radical and it advances revolutionary ideas with a distinct style and an element of surrealism. UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO is more of a mystery or a thriller that seems to have its roots in classic British horror fiction. John Mackenzie’s direction is rather straightforward but he creates a stifling atmosphere where the disquiet and trepidation is palpable. UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO is chock-full of unspoken secrets and untapped mysteries, and the inescapable feeling that nothing is exactly as it seems.

One of the film’s unspoken secrets seems to be the homoerotic undercurrent that is emphasized by Ebony’s odd relationship with his wife who is clearly unhappy in their marriage and longs for a career of her own. She becomes increasingly frustrated when Ebony begins spending his evenings at the local pub with his fellow teachers who are mostly bachelors. This is underscored by odd dreams that Ebony has where he’s being attacked by a mob of students and stripped of his clothes. His wife tries to engage him in bed one morning but he pushes her away and when they finally make love it’s an aggressive act that seems passionless and cold. Their relationship is further tested when the couple attends a dinner party at the school and Ebony expresses his disappointment with his wife’s behavior because she merely mentioned the desire to get a job and become more independent. John Ebony might just be extremely old-fashioned in his attitudes towards women and marriage but his behavior seems at odds with his character. With his students, Ebony is lax and willingly gives up his authority to become “one of the boys” but with his wife he is very controlling. Carolyn Seymour does a wonderful job of portraying the teacher’s frustrated spouse and over time she becomes the most sympathetic character in the film. In the movie’s most frightening scene the students lure Sylvia to the school gym and attempt to sexually assault her. It’s a deeply disturbing moment in a film that hints at horrors we’ve only imagined until now.

The film gets its unusual title from the names of three students. Unman (Michael Howe) is a sort of everyman who seems at home at the school. “Wet” Wittering (Colin Barrie) is an effeminate blond who is teased by his classmates, as well as his teachers, and Zigo is mysteriously absent throughout the entire film. Because we never see Zigo he becomes a symbol for Ebony’s lack of control over his students. The mysterious missing boy also adds another level of ambiguity to this exceptional movie. Did the school boys kill their teacher? Or is the new teacher becoming paranoid and letting his inexperience cloud his judgment? I’ll let potential viewers discover the truth for themselves but it’s fair to say that unlike LORD OF THE FLIES, which blames the boys for their unruly behavior, UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO asks its audience to question why the boys behave the way that they do. It doesn’t provide any easy answers but it does suggest that children need levelheaded adult supervision and when tormented by bullying, apathetic and abusive teachers they’ll begin to act out in destructive ways.

As mentioned earlier, Giles Cooper wrote the original radio play that UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO was based on in 1958. Cooper was an important radio pioneer in Britain and he adapted many classic novels into radio plays including William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which was written in 1954. Golding’s work was based on a belief in “original sin” and according to John Carey’s biography of the author, William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies, the atrocities Golding experienced during WW2 convinced him that “man produces evil as a bee produces honey.” Giles Cooper also fought in WW2 but his life experiences left him feeling very differently. In British Radio Plays author John Drakakis describes Cooper’s philosophy; “… for Cooper the human condition cannot be divorced from an immediate gestalt. His characters stand on the edge of chaos but surrounded with the concrete realities that brought them there; their desperation is spiritual but grounded in a recognizable world.” It some ways Copper’s UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO could be seen as a direct rebuttal to Golding’s work and the concept of “original sin.”

Director John Mackenzie (THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY; 1980) makes great use of POV shots in UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO. They’re particularly effective when we’re seeing the world through John and Sylvia’s eyes. The bullying and intimidation that the Ebony’s suffer while they’re at the school is stressed through camera movements and the choice of shooting interiors in a way that makes them seem claustrophobic.

Oscar-winning cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (BECKET; 1964, 2001: A SPACE OdYSSEY; 1968, CABARET; 1972, TESS; 1979) photographed the film and it also features an eerie and effective score by Michael J. Lewis (THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF; 1970, THEATRE OF BLOOD; 1973, THE MEDUSA TOUCH; 1978). UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO was also one of the first films produced by David Hemmings. The actor and star of the film became interested in producing and directing in the early 1970s and this unusual project was just one of many thrillers that he was associated with.

As far as I know, UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO has never been released on video or DVD in the US and outside of Britain it’s a relatively unknown. The movie is currently available to watch on Amazon but the quality of the print is lacking and the picture has been cropped and formatted for television. This surprising thriller would benefit from being restored and made available on DVD in widescreen. Hopefully the film will air on TCM Underground one evening because I’m sure it would find an appreciative audience there.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2011