OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE
Worldwide interest in British and Italian cinema was at its peak in the 1960s. Italy had Antonioni and Fellini for the intellectuals. Britain had Bond and the Beatles to attract the crowds. More than that, Britain was changing. The rest of the world was curious to see what would happen next. Last weekend the Queen celebrated her 90th birthday. No doubt some people have been disappointed by what followed the revolutionary decade. Nobody should be surprised. In the 60s British cinema was financed by Hollywood. The movies were not radical. They were critical of the past and the British class system but were also wary of the democratic vulgar Britain that was supposed to replace deference. Apart from the odd fascist fantasy, fear and not radicalism dominates British cinema and indeed its culture. Maybe that is how it should be.
Between 1960 and 1967 British cinema produced three ambitious films that featured children coping without parents. These three films were made by anxious adults and they speculated about good, evil and civilisation. Two have maintained their status as classics. These are The Innocents and Lord Of The Flies. The other film was Our Mother’s House. On release it received high praise especially outside Britain. Jack Clayton directed both The Innocents and Our Mother’s House. Dirk Bogarde, who plays the father of the children in the film, felt that Clayton and him had ‘failed to pull it off’. Bogarde is right. Our Mother’s House is not the equal of The Innocents but it is superior to the Jack Clayton adaptation of Something This Way Wicked Comes, which also features children and the occult. Our Mother’s House is flawed but it is a major movie.
In 1967 the film was marketed as upmarket British horror. The horror films from Hammer filled seats, and directors like Terence Fisher and Roger Corman had critical approval. Our Mother’s House does not contain the set pieces that we expect from horror films but the children do bury their mother in the garden and there is a subsequent murder. The murder has dramatic significance but the reaction of the audience to the murder is relief. Our Mother’s House does not scare and, whilst this is not important, neither does the film draw our sympathy for the children who have to survive alone. The colour photography does not help. The house is untidy but without ominous black and white shadows it resembles the weekend bohemian comfort of the kind of people who make films. Our Mother’s House combines elements of both Lord Of The Flies and The Innocents. Lord Of The Flies has iconic status but was not a complete success. Like The Innocents, it exploited conflict and a threatening environment. The audience worries about what will happen. This fear is missing from Our Mother’s House. The power struggle which follows the death of the mother in the film is low key and subtle. This is not a weakness in the film but the restraint obliges the film to rely on intellectual appeal rather than dramatic interest. The ending of the film is gloomy but nowhere near as dark as it should be. By then the children have stopped being people and have become weighty symbols for serious themes.
At the beginning of the film the dead mother leaves a will in which she instructs the children to ‘live together, to cherish each other and exist in Christian harmony’. The children obey their mother and establish what they think is a Christian household. When the young Gertie exchanges a platonic kiss with one of the neighbours, the children decide to cut her hair short so that she does not look and behave like a ‘harlot’. The garden shed is referred to as a tabernacle. The seven children sit in the tabernacle and worship their mother. Amongst the seven children are three teenagers. Two are daughters. Elsa manages the household and ensures that the children eat and go to school. Diana becomes the priest of the community and organises the worship in the tabernacle formerly known as the garden shed. Diana convinces herself that she can communicate with the dead mother but her conviction in her ability varies and depends on her personal strength. Faith makes the greatest demands of Diana as it does of all priests. Hubert is the other teenager and a sensitive soul. He writes to the missing father because he worries about the future and thinks his father should know what has happened. Diana is an aspirational goddess but Hubert represents English self-effacement and the doubt that British intellectuals valued in the last century.
Dirk Bogarde is the only name above the film title on the screen but he does not make an appearance until halfway through the film. Before he arrives the audience sees the children use what they know of the Bible to establish morality and responsibility. The children are people without science, and their religion is important to their survival, as it must have been to primitive societies. In Our Mother’s House religion is more than romantic myth. The children have to cope with their lack of knowledge. Christianity helps the children to do what their mother asked. They live in harmony and cherish each other. These scenes are the highlights of the film. Primitive society is not evoked in the film but it becomes clear that there must have been a time when human beings considered death and much more to be inexplicable. Human beings needed not just Christian faith but also its ideology. Diana, the priest in this community, seeks advice from the dead mother on the really difficult issues. Inevitably the dead mother becomes God, and there are no prizes for guessing what is Our Mother’s House.
Jack Clayton had to direct seven children and to reveal both their anxieties and elation. Their performances and his success are major achievements. Dirk Bogarde plays the father whose deferred arrival coincides with an opportune moment. The children have added a disciple called Louis. His schoolteacher does not think that this is a good idea and she is suspicious of what may have happened to the mother of the children. The father lets the schoolteacher take away the potential disciple. The father is the adult who reassures authority. If the dead mother had insisted on a religious code, the father provides entertainment. He cooks proper meals and tells funny stories and, like a tribal shaman, has a colourful wardrobe. His name is Charlie Hook, and he is there to tempt or hook the children away from their puritanism. The behaviour of the children deteriorates. The boys smoke and look at the photos in Playboy. When the father takes them to the boating lake, he chooses a park that has prehistoric monsters. We understand that Charlie has a past and form. He is the Devil we have been warned about.
Bogarde plays Hook as a working class Cockney wide-boy. Bogarde provides more than a lower class caricature but his performance is not brilliant. We know that Bogarde is pretending. The performance is tempered, and Bogarde may have been chosen to add dimension to the character. In one scene he wears a blazer that has a badge worn by men who have served in battle. The badge implies that Charlie has a flexible social status. He is, though, working class. Because his children are all middle class, this creates a hole in the plot. This can be forgiven because the film is a complicated metaphor. Unfortunately, the Devil only indulges his pleasures, which are sex, alcohol and gambling, with the working class. The Innocents and Lord Of The Flies suggest that the values of the upper class are flawed but they do not argue that good and evil can be defined by social class. This weakness in Our Mother’s House is a consequence of casting and actors. It does not exist in the text. The film is still fascinating. Charlie Hook uses arguments similar to Satan in Paradise Lost. Indeed the film can be viewed as Milton for beginners. Charlie Hook argues for entertainment and relaxation. This and not evil is his protest against God. He wants harmless fun and not piety. When Hook enters a betting shop he says, ‘They say that gambling is a sin but it’s not if you win.’
The arrival of Hook does improve the lives of the children but he does not understand that his harmless sins only offer pleasure in the short term. Gambling costs money, excessive alcohol produces addiction, and even promiscuous sex palls eventually. We either get old or have children. The chaos that arrives in the house is inevitable. Charlie Hook runs out of money and becomes tired of his family. Accused by the children of robbing them he reveals that his wife and their mother had slept with other men. None of the children are his. The children are either the result of a love for humanity or a consequence of the imperfect and indiscriminate lust that exists in the kingdom of God. The Devil was abandoned by a God or woman who could not refuse others.
The Devil, in this case Dirk Bogarde, is the proof that God exists. Without him the children do not have either a God to believe in or a Christian community to preserve. There is almost an ecological message in Our Mother’s House. Deny God and we deny the earth we inhabit. The complex messages are part of the climax. By then reality has been conquered by metaphor and the ideas, although stimulating, do weaken the impact of the final scenes. The film is not perfect but it is unforgettable and Our Mother’s House is as important to sixties British cinema as The Wicker Man was to the seventies. The great Italian director Luchino Visconti was unfamiliar with the British class system. For him the ideas and metaphor were not compromised by social reality. He described Our Mother’s House as a ‘beautiful film’ and he responded by offering Bogarde a part in A Death In Venice.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available very soon this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.