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Produced by Warwick Film Corporation at MGM's British Studios in Elstree, England, and distributed by Columbia Pictures in America, The Gamma People (1956) ranks as one of the most peculiar movies of the 1950s. On paper, the plot (concerning the use of Gamma rays to evolve - and in many cases devolve - human beings) qualifies the movie as science fiction, a very popular genre during the decade. As written, directed and performed, however, The Gamma People brings forth elements of comedy, horror, fantasy, spy adventure and anti-Communism. Never dull, the film also never finds a proper balance and must have been quite perplexing to audiences in 1956 - even those who saw it on the bottom half of a double-bill with the George Orwell adaptation 1984 (1956).
The film opens as American journalist Mike Wilson (Paul Douglas) and his friend, British photographer Howard Meade (Leslie Phillips), are playing chess on a train winding through picturesque European mountains and countryside (actually filmed in Austria). The two are on their way to cover a music festival in Salzburg when the strangest thing happens: their passenger car becomes uncoupled from the rest of the train, and, thanks to some mischievous boys, rolls into an Eastern Bloc country called Gudavia, directly past an armed guardhouse with signs posted: Keep Out! The two are instantly arrested as spies. Referring to the flamboyantly dressed Captain-at-arms, Wilson says, "I'll get a hold of the American Counsel and get this Comic Opera character straightened out." This bit of self-reflexive dialogue points out the odd nature of the film; the characters have stumbled into Mythical Kingdom territory, usually the exclusive province of comedies, musicals and fairy tales.
Wilson and Meade are released from prison but find that the oppressed Gudavia has no car for them to escape with, no communication with the outside world, and a population that is kept in line by the military and by a literal squad of "Goons." The Goons are mental defects - idiots - the result of experiments being conducted by Dr. Boronski (Walter Rilla), the leading citizen and scientist in the country. Boronski is trying to develop geniuses through his Mark-5 Gamma Ray machine, but it turns out many more defective subjects than brilliant ones; he writes off the results saying, "Science is a series of risks, all therapy eventually reaches a point of no return." Wilson and Meade encounter two young products of the doctor's experiments: Hedda (Pauline Drewett), a piano virtuoso, and Hugo (Michael Caridia), a boy genius with an ego as large as his intellect (bearing a smart uniform, Germanic accent and superior, judgmental manner, Hugo suggests nothing less than a Hitler Youth). As the reporters are held captive in their hotel room, they are slipped an ominous note that reads, "You must help us. Our situation is desperate. Our children must be saved. Dr. Boronski must be destroyed."
The Gamma People evolved from a script treatment originally written in the early 1950s by Robert Aldrich, then a screenwriter and the future iconoclastic director of such films as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and The Dirty Dozen (1967). According to Aldrich biographers Alain Silver and James Ursini, the original treatment was optioned by producer Irving Allen, but "...was shelved when its would-be star, John Garfield, was gray-listed." Eventually, The Gamma People was made by Allen with his partner Albert R. Broccoli, an American producer based in England who would later go on to gain fame for the James Bond series of films (co-produced with Harry Saltzman). The final version of The Gamma People did not list Aldrich in the credits, instead crediting John Gossage and John Gilling with the script, from a story by Louis Pollock.
The original cast was to include Brian Donlevy as American Mike Wilson. Donlevy would have brought a burly gravitas to the role, and he had already appeared in a classic British science fiction film, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955 aka The Creeping Unknown), as the deadly-serious Professor Quatermass. Apparently, comedic actor Paul Douglas was instead asked to do the part after he accompanied his wife Jan Sterling to England; Sterling had been cast in 1984, the film that would eventually be co-billed with The Gamma People. Douglas was an A-list actor with such credits as A Letter to Three Wives (1949), Angels in the Outfield (1951), Clash by Night (1952), and Executive Suite (1954). For The Gamma People, he was paired with Leslie Phillips, who was just beginning his long career of portraying quintessentially British stereotypes (he is still active as of 2011). The two talented comic actors share much of the screen time, and they came up with, or were given, several "bits of business" in their scenes together. The comedy is constantly juggled with more disturbing scenes of madness, shock, and callousness arising from the mind experiments that are taking place.
At the time of release, reviewers made note of the odd mixing of genres; the writer for the Monthly Film Bulletin, for example, noted that "old fashioned melodramatics are interspersed with some lumbering ventures into comedy, and, in spite of Austrian locations, the treatment is on a distinctly elementary level." The critic in Variety called the film "minor league entertainment" and wrote, "The characters and situations are clumsily handled, as is the comedy injected in an attempt to lighten proceedings. The dialogue is trite and there is virtually no suspense as the film unspools [at] a very draggy 78 minutes."
Modern writers have noted the flaws in The Gamma People while admitting that it remains interesting and watchable. In his exhaustive book Keep Watching the Skies: The 21st Century Edition, Bill Warren calls The Gamma People "...rather pokey, but always interesting in a what-will-they-think-of-next style. It would not have seemed out of keeping at all for the film to have included a few musical numbers and a car chase. It keeps threatening to turn into a comedy... despite some scenes of rather unpleasant horror." Michael R. Pitts, in his book Columbia Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1982, writes that "performance-wise, the film is best served by Walter Rilla as the mad scientist and Michael Caridia as the brainwashed Hugo. While The Gamma People captures the smothering atmosphere of an authoritarian state, its admixture of too many plot themes keeps it from building up any real excitement." In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy writes, "Director Gilling... blends an uneasy but not uninteresting mixture of comic opera and drama... Considering the plot's possibilities, its anti-communist propaganda is surprisingly muted..."
Following The Gamma People, British director John Gilling would go on to helm several more science fiction and horror movies; his most fondly remembered are a pair of shockers shot back-to-back for Hammer Films, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile (both 1966).
Producer: John Gossage
Director: John Gilling
Screenplay: John Gossage, John Gilling (screenplay); Louis Pollock (story); Robert Aldrich (original story, uncredited)
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Art Direction: John Box
Music: George Melachrino
Film Editing: Jack Slade
Cast: Paul Douglas (Mike Wilson), Eva Bartok (Paula Wendt), Leslie Phillips (Howard Meade), Walter Rilla (Boronski), Philip Leaver (Koerner), Martin Miller (Lochner), Michael Caridia (Hugo Wendt), Pauline Drewett (Hedda Lochner), Jackie Lane (Anna), Olaf Pooley (Bikstein)
By John M. Miller
Keep Watching the Skies: The 21st Century Edition, Bill Warren, McFarland, 2010.
Columbia Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1982, Michael R. Pitts, McFarland, 2010.
What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films, Alain Silver and James Ursini, Limelight Editions, 1995
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Phil Hardy , Woodbury Press, 1984.