SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: DESPERADOES AND THEIR FELLOW TRAVELERS
This is the eighth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Desperadoes and their fellow travelers
Not all special friendships begin so serenely as Kim’s, though very frequently they end in the same style, with the noble death of the elder friend. Kevin Costner’s “A PERFECT WORLD” (93), for example, saw an 8-year old Jehovah’s Witness boy (T.J. Lowther) kidnapped from his parents at gunpoint by escaping desperadoes. The film plays out as a conventional manhunt or road movie, during which lean and mean (and borderline psychotic) Costner grows incensed at the sterility of Philip’s childhood, and does what little he can to bolster the boy’s mouse-like self-esteem and awaken him to the pleasures of life. Inevitably, the getting-to-know-you business later entails Philip witnessing the uglier side of Costner’s personality, but the warmth between them permits the boy to take his leave of the dying convict with regret, not relief.
Although “A PERFECT WORLD” echoed, perhaps too deliberately, the “fond strangers” relationship between Amish boy Lukas Haas and cop-on-the-run Harrison Ford in “WITNESS” (85), it was actually a much closer copy of the Canadian “MARTIN’S DAY” (84), in which the escaping convict was Richard Harris and the shy, affection-starved boy Justin Henry (who had earlier snagged himself an Oscar nomination as the property-in-dispute of “KRAMER vs KRAMER”). Earlier still, in “HUNTED” (52, aka “The Stranger in Between”), Dirk Bogarde had been the fleeing desperado and Jon Whiteley his companion of the road. But the seminal film of the escaping criminal befriended by child category remains “TIGER BAY” (59), which was in fact written to be played by a boy (from the novel “Rudolphe et le Revolver”). The central role of Gillie, 11, was filled admirably enough by debuting Hayley Mills — even though she had to play the lead soloist (preposterously) in an all-boy choir. Horst Buchholz was the escaping killer in that story, investing a shallow part with modest humanity.
The abiding subtext in all of these stories is that a young boy’s non-judgmentalism can soften even the hardest heart and restore a sense of human values in society’s outcasts. The boy is in the role of redeemer, a young face working rehabilitative wonders on the killer, the hermit, the recluse, the career criminal. The boy’s innate sense of honour (another of those undefined but generally understood qualities of boyhood), unmediated through the laws of society, restores in the desperado his own sense of moral rightness. Most of them, it’s true, will snuff it as a consequence, but that’s a small price to pay for being redeemed.
The cinema has always been especially fond of using young children to reveal the gentler, human aspects of the misfit — witness the little girl teaching the monster to toss flowers in “FRANKENSTEIN” (31) — so that the child serves unwittingly as a conduit by which society may reclaim such individuals. In “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” (62) the outcast is simpleton Boo Radley, the town bogeyman, who establishes a phantom relationship with Gregory Peck’s two children by leaving small tokens for them in the knot of a tree. He is the deus ex machina who ultimately comes to their rescue and thereby wins a small degree of social acceptance. He is, in one sense, a faint echo of Magwitch in “GREAT EXPECTATIONS”, perhaps the progenitor of the strain, a Caliban figure at the start of the tale but salvaged by the very briefest of liaisons with young Pip. The 1946 David Lean film is an unqualified masterpiece, but the first Pip/Magwitch meeting on celluloid was in “THE BOY AND THE CONVICT” (09), an epic of 13 minutes. In other films — “WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND”, “A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA” — the desperados’ encounters with children lead inexorably to their downfall, even before redemption can set in. Ironically, seen from today’s neurotic perspective, the danger in those films was from the child to the adult, and certainly not the reverse. Children can be sweet but lethal, when you happen to be an outlaw. It is after all the boy he’s taken under his wing, not the sheriffs doggedly pursuing him, who shoots Costner fatally in “A PERFECT WORLD”.