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Do you think you’ve got the monopoly on mind bending in Whitehall?


The Mind Benders


As lurid titles go, The Mind Benders takes some beating. Certainly, in comparison to its actual content. Indeed, this is pretty much a kitchen-sink Altered States, or Doctor in The Flotation Tank, as Dirk Bogarde’s Doctor Henry Longman goes where Doctor John Lilly’s highly dodge MKUltra experiments went before him. However, rather than regressing to primitive man, in all the deliriously OTT glory only Ken Russell could deliver, Basil Dearden delivers a tale of ruthlessly implemented domestic tribulation and strife. On that score, The Mind Benders is quite effective, but it’s ultimately rather uneven, navigating some excellent performances but also a screenplay that is at once cynical and hopelessly naïve.

The latter may or may not be down to genuine ignorance of the ramifications of the work cited in the picture’s opening title – “This story was suggested by experiments in ‘THE REDUCTION OF SENSATION’ recently carried out at certain Universities in the United States” – but the by-product is that the unapprised scientists look rather ignorant when the limits of their insight are continually pointed out by the military man (John Clements’ Colonel Hall).

In a sense, then, The Mind Benders has its eyes more consciously open than the later Altered States, where research scientist Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is beholden to no one but himself (and the effects his experiments have on his relationship); Pauline Kael noted the Altered States link when that movie came out, observing of Jessup, “The role is probably patterned on Dr. John Lilly, and maybe also on Dirk Bogarde’s professor in the 1963 English film The Mind Benders”. The sinister applications of this terrain are made explicit here, but in rather awkward, ungainly fashion.

Lilly’s influence on cinema can also be found in Day of the Dolphin, and undoubtedly, he was very much a celebrated figure in the backwash of the hippy era, a figurehead of the “human potential movement”. By most accounts, he didn’t only experiment on others – including, per Jay Dyer, dosing children in isolation tanks – but also himself, leading to certain eccentric theorising during the ’70s and beyond. Initially under the auspices of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health, also of Mrs Frisby fame), he officially left because he didn’t want his discoveries used for military purposes (but he received military funding for his later dolphin work, so draw your own conclusions). While it’s thus debatable that he was explicitly involved in MKUltra, one might reasonably argue this to be splitting hairs, as his experiments were evidently crucial to its objectives and execution. 

If we see Bogarde’s Henry Longman as a Lilly surrogate, then the movie supports his claims to ignorance and spurning of the military application. In both this and Altered States, the emphasis is on pure research. Hurt’s on a voyage of discovery to the end of time. Longman is less certain of his objectives, but he knows enough to have had enough, having initially provided key analysis in Professor Sharpey’s (Harold Goldblatt’s) experiments into the effects of prolonged isolation on the human organism. He’s drawn back in when Sharpey commits suicide, jumping out of a moving train following self-experimentation while simultaneously being under suspicion of passing secrets to the Soviets. Which is where Major Hall comes in.

Dr Bonvoulois: He came.
Interviewer: Who came?
Dr Bonvoulois: Not a man. An angel.

This initial process of experimentation is almost more interesting than the meat that follows, documenting an “experiment in space physiology”. Hall is shown a short film Isolation Part 1, in which Doctor Jean Bonvoulois (Roger Delgado, decidedly more benign than in his most famous role) emerges from an isolation experience in the Arctic Circle, 1959-60. Interviewed about his experience, he responds “No. Not alone. For a few days maybe. In the beginning”. This in itself is reminiscent of the eerie accounts of Shackleton et al in Antarctica (or should I say at the Ice Wall), of an additional presence(s) in their expeditions, often of a benign and guiding nature.

Per the film, Sharpey is initially on the wrong track, viewing cold as the deciding factor in his attempts to replicate Bonvoulois’ experience under laboratory conditions. So when Longman shows up and asks “What makes you think it’s got anything to do with temperature?” it’s a bit of a “Duh!” moment. As a consequence, they switch tacks, opting instead for prolonged isolation, taking away all sensation, “the sort of conditions that may well be experienced in space flight” (I mean, but of course). I have to admit, the encumbrance by which test subjects experience this state don’t seem especially conducive to free-state isolation. They’re in an elaborate tank, yes, but unlike Jessup, they are cocooned in claustrophobic layers of wetsuit and breathing apparatus. Nevertheless, the work elicits some pretty groovy theorising, embracing such unscientific language as “We seem to be dealing literally with the physics of the soul”.

Hall wishes to know whether Sharpey – always a lefty, but a patriotic one – was acting under his own recognisees when he did what he did. He thus seeks to establish whether the mind of another can be turned, so as to believe something they otherwise would not. What with being a militaristic brute, he has no compunction about (re-)enacting this, and the movie, while observing his culpability, has no compunction in presenting him as a ethically persuasive force, one who is ultimately exonerated by Longman as having done the correct thing. Would that it were so simple for all those operating in such fetid waters (the answer is, of course, that he should not have allowed Longman to take that risk, and more still, the movie should not give Longman the easy validation of overcoming his programming and becoming totally recovered, normal and balanced again).

Longman: If you leave him there for a while, and if my guess is right, you can dissolve him, the stiff in the tank. Dissolve him mentally, I mean. Reduce him until he becomes a sort of soulless, mindless, will-less thing. Not even a man at all. A kind of sea anemone.

The subject’s four stages of submersion are detailed, with boredom and childishness giving way to lazy melancholy, then erotic hallucinations. After two or three hours the individual loses confidence in himself as a man. The third stage is panic, with complete nervous collapse after five hours. After seven he will be in a world of his own.

Hall’s plan is to get Longman to doubt his most avowed relationship with wife Oonagh (Mary Ure), which involves Doctor Tate (Michael Bryant) impugning both her and Henry’s belief in their tie while the latter is in a suggestive state. Initially, they believe this hasn’t work, as Longman dismisses their obvious ruse, but when Hall checks in months later, it is clear Henry is treating the now-pregnant Oonagh like dirt. Tate is in denial, meanwhile.

Of course, it should have been abundantly clear to even the least observant that something is very wrong with Henry, as he is attempting to embark on a fling with Wendy Craig. Hall’s attempts to explain what was done to Longman do no good; it’s only when confronted by the primal instinct to care for his wife in labour that he overcomes his conditioning. This is, obviously, very convenient, and not at all like actual MKUltra brainwashing. Then again, it isn’t as if Longman’s been through an extended and rigorous routine. More like an appetiser.

The real standout performances here come from Ure and Bryant, both rising above the limitations of their characters. Oonagh is long-suffering through her husband’s abuse, never losing sight of the man she loves beneath it all. Bryant suggests a man of mixed undercurrents, ones he’s unable or unwilling to locate. Initially, it seems possible he might nurse longings for Longman, but we later learn it’s for Oonagh he holds an unrequited passion, one he’s been unwilling to admit to (but which likely holds sway in his being pressed into Hall’s service in manipulating Henry). When he tells Oonagh how he feels, she calls him a baby, while Hall comforts him that he’ll “soon be as thick-skinned as I am”.

Longman: You’re nothing but a series of conditioned reflexes. That’s all you are. You’re not a dog at all… You’re just a machine in furry clothing, that’s all. But if it’s any comfort to you, we’re beginning to prove that your master’s much the same, and he hasn’t got a furry coat.

Perhaps the key moment comes during an off-the-cuff exchange (above) between soused Longman and his dog (not soused), in which he essentially extols the man-as-programmable-machine thesis Lilly was operating and which MKUltra takes to heart. 

Screenwriter James Kennaway also penned Tunes of Glory (and the novel), Battle of Britain and Country Dance. Dearden started out on Will Hay pictures before he was thirty, directed the framing narrative for Dead of Night, the first PC Dixon on screen in The Blue Lamp, The Smallest Show on Earth, The League of Gentlemen, Victim (also with Bogarde) and several Patrick McGoohan features (All Night Long, Life for Ruth) before The Mind Benders. You can see Terence Alexander and Edward Fox in the cast.

The picture isn’t as persuasive as Altered States, and considerably less Lilly than Day of the Dolphin. However, it largely lands dramatically, even if it rather falters in terms of verisimilitudinous hindsight. Clements’ performance is also a bit on the Bernard Quatermass side (the unsympathetic American version). It surely inspired the title of soft-disclosure TV play The News Benders in 1968, a much less comforting piece of work in its conclusions. The Mind Benders offers the sop that it will all be alright if you have something or someone grounding to see you through, whereas MK’s victims would surely attest very much otherwise.

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