SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: THE OUTCAST WHO DOES WIN THE BOY
This is the thirteenth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.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 outcast who does win the boy
But two (fairly) recent titles in which the “adoption” motif came as close as possible to being a true special friendship as I’ve defined it, despite the “legalisation” of the relationship, were “SECOND BEST” (94) and “GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM” (98), both fine British films with a vaguely seditious premise, both of them avoiding the lazy compromise of planting a woman into the household, simply for appearance’s sake. In the first, lonely Welsh postmaster William Hurt decides to bring meaning into his life by adopting (in the teeth of social services opposition) an angry and violent young boy with a father in prison. So far as I could read it, this was a last vain plea from director Chris Menges that we restore some sanity and humanity to adult/child relationships, that we should put away all this feverish suspicion and mistrust. A noble cry, but bound to fall on deaf ears.
This is the kind of film I would like to praise more highly, running as it does so counter to the prevailing winds of the “child abuse” crusade, but creditable as the performances are, it is seriously hampered by improbable dialogue — both the boy and would-be adopter are given lines straight from the lexicon of a social worker manual, articulating their respective angsts in all-too-correct phraseology. What’s more, William Hurt’s character is just a tad too conveniently fragile — submitting to the logic that a strong, assertive foster father (who does not allow the boy to trash his kitchenware) would probably be A Bad Thing.
Hurt’s unresolved estrangement from his own father, his total lack of a social life, and his emotional breakdowns in the presence of the boy, seem calculated to reassure audiences that young James (Chris Cleary Miles) will have the whip-hand in any ensuing relationship, and this will be A Good Thing. It’s a thesis, clearly, I don’t agree with. And I doubt any responsible psychologist would advise a man with Hurt’s personality to latch himself onto an angry, hostile 10-year old still devoted to a father in prison. The seismic shocks of the experiment might impact more on the man than the boy.
What annoys me particularly is the godlike status bestowed on the prospective adoptee. Whereas often in the past the child would be packed off to his or her new family with no more say in the matter than a mule traded between farmers, today the child arrives on the scene with the status of a V.I.P, requiring and expecting the red carpet treatment all the way. I don’t doubt the film is a fair reflection of the status quo, but we’re still entitled to observe that the pendulum may have swung way too far in the other direction.
There’s a midway sequence where man and boy go on a camping and fishing trip to consolidate their relationship — described to the boy by Hurt as “a honeymoon period”. James injures his own forehead deliberately and forces Hurt to give it “a really long kiss” to make it better, after which he demands “But do you love me?” Duly reassured on that point, he snuggles down on the man’s lap with a seraphic smile of gratification. Again, the dialogue is totally implausible, but men and boys kissing, hugging and sharing tents in the woods is either “innocent” or “suspect” depending entirely on your own state of mind, the film whispers, sotto voce. It invites the viewer to measure his or her own prejudice. Sadly, prejudice is by definition an absolute blind spot.
“SECOND BEST” could be a valiant effort to implant the notion that so-called “unmarried” people can make every bit as suitable candidates for parenthood as many couples. The majority of hurt and angry kids in our children’s homes, after all, arrived there as casualties of traditional two-parent families, did they not? But out in the real world, “single” men permitted to adopt or foster children are rare as hen’s teeth, and even if Hurt has a rough time being “vetted”, the film’s whole central premise just rings false. In truth he wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance. We can’t quite escape the possibility, then, that director Menges was simply in cloud cuckoo land, trying to suggest there’s no deep gender bias in the adoption mechanisms. Of course there is.
“GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM” — cantankerous WWII widower Tom Oakley (John Thaw) takes in 10-year old Blitz refugee William Beech (Nick Robinson) — was a more conventional portrait in the “ODD COUPLE” vein. Oakley, an elderly furniture-maker in the picture postcard rustic nook of Weirwold, is anything but overjoyed to have a nervous London boy compulsorily billeted on him. The boy arrives supplied with a stout leather belt and a note from his mother granting full leave to use it. Oakley is disgusted, and when William wets his bed the first night, stifles his irritation, finding the boy’s back to be a mass of bruises and belt-weals. The (ahem) thaw sets in presently, and when it transpires William can neither read nor write, the old man coaches him with patience and sensitivity. Following the triumph of William’s birthday party, the inevitable letter arrives from his mother, summoning him back to London.
The boy’s wicked mother is grotesquely over-written, a Brothers Grimm ogress spitting with malice. She introduces a new baby sister to William (his father long dead) whilst fulminating against the sin and godlessness of the world outdoors. She is horrified to hear he has befriended a Jewish refugee boy in the village, enraged that he has dared to return home without that leather belt. She soon locks boy and baby into a tiny dark closet — this is London under the Blitz, remember — and abandons the house. Tom, much agitated at hearing no word from William, travels to London, tracks down the address, breaks in, and rescues starving boy and dead baby from dark closet. When a psychologist declares that William would be best shipped off to a children’s home (these have always been characterised by cinema as little better than a gulag or death camp) Tom says nay, kidnaps the boy from his hospital bed, and back to Weirwold, chuckling his defiance.
A showdown with the authorities ensues, William steadfastly refusing to be parted from the old man, but when news arrives of the mother’s (all too convenient) suicide Tom is allowed to formally adopt the boy, to their mutual delight. The awkward man/boy/mother triangle has been resolved as usual, by the sudden death of the latter. The love that has blossomed between William and Tom through simple human kindness has now been “legitimised” by society. And finally — an arch-cliché of such scenes — Tom is rewarded to hear the boy spontaneously address him as “Dad” (just as the orphaned “Newt” calls Ripley “Mommy” at the climax of “ALIENS” — a special friendship tale of the female kind).
Thaw is his taciturn best, and “GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM” is a pleasant, winning film, in its so-calculated fashion. Like “SECOND BEST” it validates the single man, an outsider in his own community, over both natural family and social services. But it is also shameless and manipulative, as though written to an audience of slow children. It hits rather too many contemporary cues — the bedwetting, the child battery, illiteracy, William’s shrieking nightmares about a man “coming to get him” (the psychologist, it turns out), and it seems altogether too neat that the cheerful boy who first befriends him in the village, Zacharias (Thomas Orange) is a Jewish refugee, who must go to his own premature reward to satisfy the story’s emotional trajectory.
The film lacks all subtlety, the idiosyncratic details of truth, but a more substantial criticism is that the boy himself, William, is not so much a human being, a rounded personality in his own right, but a Deserving Case, a neat clutch of social problems in short trousers. The actual relationship between lonely man and harrowed boy, the emotional crux of the whole story, remains oddly undelineated. William is a stray puppy who finds a loving home, and heals the old man’s long-nursed grief into the bargain. The best of special friendship tales invest their characters with a more credible inner life. Even if they are mere boys.
These two films bucked the prevailing trend (man is the enemy within, violent selfish and “predatory”, he must be driven from the household) but made little impact on public (or official) thinking. They reminded us of a truth that was always self-evident to men and women until very recent times — that men understand boys better than women ever can, they can find their way through a boy’s psychic defences more easily, to heal just as often as to hurt. Those “champions of childhood” who seek to protect kids from being harmed just as frequently “protect” them from the possibility of being healed. But then protection of children is not their sole motivation, and “collateral damage” is only to be expected. “Both films also,” (as my editor observes), “illustrate the trope of the wounded healer, where the deep emotional scars of the men are healed once they find it within them to love the boys.”