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three pairs of lovers with space

This is the eighteenth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.


Jealousy of the hired hand

He went on to make “A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA” (65), but more interesting and relevant here was his earlier film “THE SPANISH GARDENER” (56). This is another full-blooded man/boy/man love triangle, between stuffy diplomat Robert Hordern, his delicate-looking principal choirboy type son Jon Whiteley, and affable pelota-playing gardener Dirk Bogarde, simmering with all those Latin passions choirboys presumably read about in their off-duty hours. Hordern grows intensely jealous (rather than suspicious) of the burgeoning friendship between his son and the hired hand, and intervenes clumsily to put a stop to it, provoking the boy — once again — into making a choice between the two men. Whiteley, like Bartholomew and Stockwell before him, chooses friend over family, but Bogarde — his steamy Latin passions reserved for the ladyfolk (this was 1956) — delicately quits the field. A worthy but intensely dull film, better played than the script deserved, it was fatally blighted by the British Disease.

Jon Whiteley and Dirk Bogarde in The Spanish Gardener

The British simply cannot do intimacy, they cannot do sultry, they cannot even hint at deep roiling pools of Byronic passion. They certainly cannot handle a delicate man/boy romance, which is what this was meant to be. Had the same tale been shot by a Scandinavian or Mediterranean film-maker, the tentative love between lonely boy and charismatic young gardener would have been more adequately developed, its eroticism implicit if not explicit on the screen. As a British film it is sterile, neutered, devoid of any trace of sensuality, which is what it badly needed. For clinching evidence of the British Disease, consider “THE WICKER MAN” (73, also remade recently, a vastly inferior effort). Whatever its other qualities, and it was a promising film in many ways, it signally failed to convey the hotbed of “heathen” lusts and illicit sexual goings-on which were the cornerstone of the islanders’ wicca culture, a culture where “sex education” was very high on the school curriculum. A body double for Britt Ekland writhing her naked behind at the camera did not suffice to hide the anaemic straight-laced inhibitions which dogged the making of the film. It simply bit off more than it dared to chew.

Jon Whiteley and Stewart Granger in Moonfleet (1955)

The year before he made “THE SPANISH GARDENER” Jon Whiteley (so fine in Leacock’s “THE KIDNAPPERS” (53)) had given his prim Scottish accent a workout in the period boys’ adventure “MOON-FLEET” as Jon Mahune, orphaned lad who presents himself for adoption at the gate of Stewart Granger, little suspecting that Granger is the head of a smuggler’s band. Despite his best intentions, rakehell Granger warms to the plucky lad and, true to the convention I’ve already described, sacrifices himself nobly in the final reel. “MOONFLEET” was an also-ran “TREASURE ISLAND”, with Whiteley as Jim Hawkins and Granger as Long John Silver, but there is more suggestion of intimacy in it, or in “SAMMY GOING SOUTH”, than in “THE SPANISH GARDENER”, where intimacy is supposedly a central theme.

Bobby Henrey and Ralph Richardson in The Fallen Idol

Class prejudice should have been a significant subtext of “THE SPANISH GARDENER” but wasn’t.  It played no noticeable part in the boy/butler friendship of Carol Reed’s “THE FALLEN IDOL” (48) either.  That film properly belongs in the “child as catastrophic friend” category discussed earlier, since ambassador’s son Bobby Henrey’s attempts to help butler Ralph Richardson only land him in trouble with the police.  Upstairs Downstairs man/boy friendships in cinema (John Howard Davies and John Mills in “THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER”) are invariably class-blind – race-blind too in America – and we should dismiss that as part and parcel of the fiction that is childhood “innocence”. Boys are hierarchical animals, not egalitarians, and they recognise class and racial caste systems only too keenly. If cinema was attempting to undermine these prejudices by just writing them out of the script and ignoring them, that certainly didn’t work.  Prejudice is only defeated by staring it full in the face, by exposing it. You can’t simply pretend it isn’t there.  That after all was the overt central theme of “GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT” (47), where Gregory Peck adopts a Jewish identity to expose discreet antisemitism (son Dean Stockwell bearing the brunt of the experiment with him).

Dominic Guard and Alan Bates in The Go-Between

There was a glimmer more class consciousness on view in Joseph Losey’s “THE GO-BETWEEN” (70). It kicks off as a boy-on-boy summer holiday (Dominic Guard and Richard Gibson), but when Marcus (Gibson) is felled and confined to bed with scarlet fever, diffident house guest Leo, 12, is left to meander about on his own, and falls into company with local farmer Alan Bates. Before he quite understands what’s going on, Leo is being exploited by Bates and Marcus’ sister Julie Christie as a bearer of secret love messages, and their kindnesses to him are entirely conditional on his performing this service.  The moment Leo senses the impropriety and tries to cancel the arrangement, he finds himself roundly scolded by Christie for ingratitude, and Bates reneges on his promise to explain the “Facts of Life”.  Losey’s film was well received, despite being out of kilter with the mood of the day, but its principal interest is in Dominic Guard’s nervous, socially awkward portrayal of Leo, trying to fathom the unwritten social codes of the upper class. Michel Legrand’s deafening, over-insistent score does distract from the period mood, and the bookend sequences bringing the adult Leo to a final meeting with the elderly Christie seem lame, but “THE GO-BETWEEN” was a reasonable evocation of Edwardian upper-crust life, even if it lacked the irony, subtlety and elegiac resonances of “THE SHOOTING PARTY” (84), or the period precision of Stephen Poliakoff’s fine TV drama “THE LOST PRINCE” (2003).

Continue to the next chapter: Footloose and fancy free




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