SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE THREE LOVES OF BOYHOOD
This is the fifth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.
The three loves of boyhood
There is not space within a work of this length to discuss the culture of boyhood itself in world cinema, but we can focus on one definable element of it: the special, intimate friendships which are quite unique to that phase of life and have formed the emotional core of so many of the fondest-remembered childhood films. Those special friendships took three distinct forms. The first and most obvious was the love that spoke its name as “pals” or “chums” or “best buddies” — those intense peer-group friendships which linger in the memory throughout our adult lives. Tom Brown and East, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, were classic tales of more than comradeship, but steadfast loyalty unto death, like Alexander and his Hephaestion. Philip Leacock’s fine “REACH FOR GLORY” (61) took this theme, so did “SCIUSCIA” (Italy 46), “AMICI PER LA PELLE” (Italy 55), “LES AMITIÉS PARTICULIÈRES” (France 64), “STAND BY ME” (86) and (so I gather) “MOI IVAN, TOI ABRAHAM” (France 93). A substrand of “LA GLOIRE DE MON PÉRE” (France 90), “DIMENTICARE VENEZIA” (Italy/Fr 79) and “BILLY ELLIOT” (2000), it was pivotal to “AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS” (France 87), and the Danish kids’ film “DU ER IKKE ALENE” (“You are not Alone”, 78) which had the eminently civilised goal of reassuring young boys any homosexual feelings they might experience were entirely “normal”.
The second variety of special friendship was that between the boy and a beloved animal — “BLACK BEAUTY”, “FREE WILLY”, “KES”, “LASSIE COME HOME”, “MY FRIEND FLICKA”, “OLD YELLER”, “WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS” and many thousands more. Boys who would shrink with a shudder of horror from a mother’s kiss would shamelessly lavish smooches on their Labrador or colt. Boys who would grumble and sulk over schoolwork or household chores would cheerfully labour like Hercules for the animal that owned their heart. With such animals the feral beast in boy would become gentle, tender and warm, expressing qualities in his nature wisely suppressed in the schoolyard. And if many of the films and TV series from this stable were bland and anodyne — “Flipper” was merely “Lassie” with a snorkel, “The Adventures of Skippy” a deliberate copy of “Flipper”, rejigged for an Australian setting — they recast the boy from mischief-maker to responsible carer. Animals being even lower down the pecking order than boys, good stewardship of them enhanced a boy’s social status. In the primordial sense, boy must learn to tend the flock.
The final form, and the one we shall look at here, was the special friendships that developed between a boy and an adult, sometimes a grandpa, but more usually someone outside the family circle. They are “male bonding” tales (a repugnant phrase) in that boys have always preferred the companionship of their own sex and sought recognition of their status as more than children through the companionship of men. Not infrequently, these are genuine love stories, though never characterised as such, and the intensity of emotion in them sets them quite apart from the casual camaraderie to be expected in any single sex environment. “DAVID COPPERFIELD” (1935) may have been fond of his Micawber, but the same Freddie Bartholomew experienced an attachment of a far higher order for the Portuguese fisherman Manoel in “CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS” (1937), something that went beyond mere friendship.