SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: INVISIBLE BOYS IN PERIOD FILMS
This is the fourth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
Invisible boys in period films
However, contrast this with any film or television “re-creation” of the past, whether it be Dickensian London, the Nottingham of Robin Hood, or imperial Rome, and you will have to look very hard to spot any boys at all, children of either sex being vastly outnumbered by adults. Squires, pages, office boys, apprentices and slaves are all mysteriously over 18, and the royal palaces of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, or any continental monarch, are strangely boy-free zones. Where have all the drummer boys and powder-monkeys gone, the goat-herds, match-sellers and tavern-boys, the unwashed urchins who were not kicking their heels and sallying forth from Fagin’s den? Even where a couple of young extras are roped into a crowd or street scene – one child per twenty adults, which is absurd – then they will be gamboling merrily in the background, playing tag or some other “child-appropriate” activity. They are not members of the working population. The historical truth on the other hand is that, from Neolithic times onward, children (and especially boys) were put to fruitful work just as soon as they could hold a broom or carry a bucket, and would have been everywhere in evidence, doing so. Why does historical drama not reflect this?
Take Mel Gibson’s “APOCALYPTO” (2006). The hero tribe at the start of that film is composed entirely of adults and nursing infants, with not a single boy (or girl) between the ages of six and sixteen. Not one. Clearly this is absurd, especially given all the early joking about fertility (Gibson deferring there to the time-old cliché of the rainforest as a sensual playground, a liberation from the constraints of civilised life) but did anybody notice? A tribe without children, in the rainforest or anywhere else, is a tribe marked for extinction, but they were left out for other reasons. In cinema today, boys should be not seen and not heard.
The cinema is adult-fixated, it believes the world is composed of people over 18. We live in a society which has shunted all of its young into special barns called “schools”, where they are out of sight and out of mind, and it simply hasn’t occurred to film-makers that this convenience is a very recent invention indeed. In the long ages of man when infant mortality was high, contraception unheard of, and families were small herds, children were a ubiquitous presence, like fleas. On film they only crop up in domestic settings, where they properly belong, or one or two may be added to garnish a throng. So the next time you’re watching a period film, any period film, try counting up the boys under 16 you can spot in the crowd scenes, and then turn to the latest news footage from Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan or India.
Beards, moustaches and men’s hats are seriously out of fashion in our own little day, and by some odd coincidence, beards moustaches and men’s hats are often absent in film reconstructions of times when they were commonplace. Designer stubble is in, however. These are just small illustrations of the way cinema deceives its audience about the past, for these are not mistakes or oversights, they are deliberate revisions. It is one such revision I mean to write about.
Cinema is a liar, and we would be a fool to trust it. It is the very quintessence of spin, the triumph of image over substance, but we collude in our own deception, knowing that reality is too muddy, confused and complex , too mundane and uninspiring, to render into entertainment. This is what is known as the suspension of disbelief. If the story grabs us, we don’t even notice the carpet of deceits that lead us there.
But that deception can sometimes have other purposes, when social engineering determines what is added in or left out. Boys may have been scarce on the screen in the 1940s due to more stringent child performance laws, today they are airbrushed from the picture for other reasons, just as they are elbowed to the background in political “photo opportunities” at schools, have been relegated to supporting roles in children’s television. The default human being of today’s TV — and this is especially noticeable in advertising — has become female, therefore the default child is always a girl. It has passed virtually without comment, but incrementally the male sex has been relegated to subordinate status across much of television, and nowhere more so than in children’s programming. Slowly but surely all our notions about the past are being “revised” to comply with the politics of the present, just as Orwell predicted they would be. He envisaged that a “Newspeak” would emerge to deceive us about past and present, and he was right on that score too. “Thought control” and “Political Correctness” are about as far apart as two pees in a pot. Where Orwell got it wrong, perhaps, was in the gender of Big Brother. The New Nanny State under free market capitalism is no male construct.
Cinema’s busy revisionism of the past usually puts on the cosmetics of CGI (computer-generated imagery), so that we are dazzled by the spectacle and distracted from the agenda. “BRAVEHEART”, “GLADIATOR”, “ELIZABETH”, “ROBIN HOOD, PRINCE OF THIEVES”, “SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE”, “1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE”, “ALEXANDER”, “300” — the contemporary historical film is as wildly inaccurate and humming with anachronisms as any WWII propaganda piece was dishonest about the war. But are audiences any more alert to this than they were in the 1940s? No, because for all our familiarity with the manipulative tricks of the medium, most of cinema bypasses the intellect and addresses itself to our emotions. And frequent repetition is used to pound the message home (what else are soaps good for?). Cinema shapes (and distorts) our understanding of the past just as TV mediates (and controls) our outlook on the present.