Things Seen Too Young

Last week I argued for the need for openness and honesty in regards to what we tell our young people about the darker aspects of the world. I strongly believe that a well-intentioned lie is not helpful to child or adult in the long run, since young people generally see through our attempts to shield them from matters that are obviously troubling.

But are there things seen too young? And is there a difference between reading something horrific and watching it? I think the answer to both these questions is, probably, yes and that brings me to the reason I’m writing today: Apaches.

Apaches was, and I suppose still is, (but that past tense I instinctively reached for shows how it is something that haunts my early memories) a public information film released in 1977. It was shown extensively in schools throughout Britain over the next few years and also received more limited airings in Canada, Australia and the United States.

I was nine years old. And of course one’s memory can be unreliable, but I’m reasonably confident that we were shown the film at least twice at my rural English primary school. (I just mistyped that and autocorrect turned rural into ritual, which is not inappropriate for reasons I’ll come back to). We were led into the school hall one summery day and told we were going to watch a film. Oh goody, we must have all thought, and I think it was at least the top half of the whole school who marched happily in for the screening. The curtains were drawn and the projector started to whirl. And twenty-six minutes later, we filed back out into the sunny day. Scarred for life.

Apaches is a strange beast. The story can be told quickly enough – six pre-teens – four boys and two girls – play at being in a Western, in and around a farm, where all but one of them die horrible deaths, and I mean horrible, as narrated by one of the six, Danny. If you’re thinking that Danny at least, being the narrator, must be the one to escape with his life, well, think again. Yes, he’s narrating from beyond the grave, and commenting on his own wake, with Michael, his cousin, the only one of the six to survive the outing to the farm.

Tom slips from the fence and into the slurry pit.
Tom slips from the fence and into the slurry pit.

I remember each death, but two stayed with me my whole life: Tom slipping from a fence and drowning in a slurry pit; and then the worst of all: Sharon drinking some unknown chemical from an old glass bottle found in a barn. This scene alone is a masterpiece in horror: it cuts from Sharon’s worried face; to her saying goodnight to the three (surviving) boys; then to the farmhouse with just one light on, then a second, as wild screaming drifts down; to a daylight scene of her room being cleared, and a shot of her empty bed.

We do not process the death or its horror, just as we know PTSD victims are eternally stuck in their moment of horror because they were not able to process it at the time.

Ask anyone who was shown Apaches and they will undoubtedly talk to you about Sharon’s death. No masters of horror film could have shot, directed or edited this sequence to greater effect, and it is no great surprise that the film was made by talented filmmakers. Director John Mackenzie would later direct The Long Good Friday (1980), writer Neville Smith, in addition to acting credits in a wide variety of things from Doctor Who to Z-Cars, wrote many things, most notably Gumshoe (1971). The film was perhaps so remarkably powerful simply because it was so well made – the child actors are not the best, but they play their roles with an intensity and earnestness that cuts through. But for me what gives the piece its final edge is the somewhat surreal nature of it all. The truly inexplicable thing is that, as each one dies, the other continue with their games, seemingly oblivious. The filmmakers play with time a little; we see a name-tag being removed from a school coat peg, for example, and then we’re back to the continuous time stream of the accidents around the farm. Preparations for a party, that Danny keeps referring to through the piece, turn out to be his own wake. But as a young viewer, I think I just took away the fact that despite these horrendous deaths, the others go on merrily, as if nothing has happened – in some way we do not process the death or its horror, just as we know PTSD victims are eternally stuck in the moment of horror because they were not able to process it at the time.

Danny on the tractor, seconds before his death.

Was it too much? I honestly don’t know the answer to that. It remains a huge part of my childhood psyche, and is the absolute epitome for me of that hard-to-define-but-you-know-it-when-you-see-it world now known as hauntology, alongside other works from the 70s; things I also perhaps saw too young: The ‘Lonely Water‘ safety films, the TV adapatation of Alan Garner’s Red Shift (also directed by Apaches’ Mackenzie), other TV programs and series like The Tomorrow People; Quatermass; The Stone Tape; the rural, ritual slaughter of the Wicker Man, and so on and so on. Scarred for life, maybe, but maybe in a good way? Do I wish I had not seen these things? No, I don’t. They inform and shape a world inside my head of a powerful, dark realm; a feeling of the 70s that was more substantial to me than ‘Chopper’ bikes, or bad clothes, or dodgy disco music. They are all a part of an England I knew, and even if I don’t want to go back there, they feel as much a part of me as any other memory should.

And, as I always joke when talking about Apaches, I never drowned in a slurry pit, or drank weedkiller from an old lemonade bottle, and none of my rural dwelling friends did either, so maybe the thing did its work.

Who knows what’s appropriate? What’s right for one child but isn’t for another? I do feel sure there is a difference between reading such horror, and watching it. In written form, a child can only make something as horrible as they can imagine. They are creating something horrific from the word cues on the page – with film, there are no limits – all horror can be seen, and it is too late to shut one’s eyes once the images have hit the retina.

Okay: here it is in its entirety. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.


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