This is the seventeenth chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.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 road has many turnings
“HUCKLEBERRY FINN”’s father was not all one could wish for in a dad. We have left the Western genre far behind without noting the most often filmed Western tale of all. Few people think of “TOM SAWYER” and “HUCKLEBERRY FINN” as true Westerns, though that’s what they clearly are. It would almost require a study of this length just to compare and contrast the strengths and failings of the different screen Hucks (there have been dozens), or all of the “OLIVER TWIST”s and “TREASURE ISLAND”s for that matter. Television has serialised these titles almost as frequently as the cinema has remade them, and several Russian adaptations have appeared of “HUCKLEBERRY FINN”, at least as good as many American ones, while the most lavish production I know of is a six-hour French-German serialisation: “Tom Sawyers Und Huckleberry Finns Abenteuer” (68).
This highly episodic tale has several points of interest to the deconstructionist, but chiefly here his relationship with runaway slave Jim. Most (or all) later US versions have writhed in the pit of “politically correct” revisionism, totally at odds with Twain’s writing, casting Jim as a post-Civil Rights Act black man quietly dismayed by the (white) racism he encounters all around him. One of the better screen Jims, therefore, appeared in the otherwise lame 1960 “ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN” starring Eddie Hodges. Archie Moore was a former prizefighter with no prior acting experience and he played Jim — correctly — as a gentle, humble bear of a man, illiterate and superstitious, who does not even think to question the “rightness” or “wrongness” of slavery, but hopes to escape it if he may. His relationship with Huck is both tender and deferential, as it should have been, shaming the intolerant rather than wagging an ex post facto finger at them. Subsequent Jims comport themselves as though they’ve strolled off the streets of modern-day Watts or Harlem into a grotesque theme park. Their nonchalant black pride, travelling through negro-lynching territory, is both a howling anachronism and undermines the story’s dramatic tension.
Huck and Jim are, of course, desperados on the dodge, the “escaped convicts” of another metier and, even if most of their meandering occurs on the Mississippi, their tale is still a true antecedent of the “road movie”. Let us consider then another example of the road movie special friendship (there have been many), a Comedy Action Kung Fu Big-Buddy/Little Buddy Avenging Angel Road movie with a Heart, inspired by a Japanese Samurai genre, if you can credit such nonsense. “BLIND FURY” (90) was all of those things crammed into a clumsy mish-mash of a film, neither violent enough to satisfy the action film audience, nor funny enough to please a broader one, and like “LAST ACTION HERO”, it floundered by pairing the indestructible hero (Rutger Hauer, once again wasted) with a pugnacious young boy (Brandon Call), so revealing to us that “tender side” moviegoers were still not interested in hearing about.
Nick Parker (Hauer) is a blind Vietnam vet who carries the equivalent of a samurai sword, and has acquired the useful knack of being able to slice the eyelashes off a mosquito with it. He arrives, “SHANE”-like, at the home of a Vietnam buddy’s wife and young son, just in time to rescue the obnoxious boy from gangsters who have slain his mother. Man escorts boy across country to find the boy’s dad, chopping up sundry bad guys along the way (though mysteriously without a drop of blood being spilt). Impudent cocksure boy is honed down in the process — “CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS” style — until he becomes a devoted friend, so once again we have arrived at an awkward man/boy/man triangle, and the noble Hauer must bow gracefully out of the frame in the final, misty parting scene, allowing boy to reforge a relationship with errant dad (who cannot slice the eyelashes off a mosquito, sadly — nor raise a son with good manners, come to mention it). “BLIND FURY” is a full-on man-and-boy adventure film, but the script is crass. It was deemed too violent in content for kids of Call’s age to see it, and was just not violent enough to please the older crowd. It fell flat on its tender side between two stools.
Similar in some respects, though vastly more successful at the box office, was another latterday man/boy/man triangle cum road movie: “TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY” (91). What you find, on dismantling the narrative arc, is a tale of two grimly determined men from the future (Schwarzennegger and Robert Patrick) knocking seven bells out of one another to win the hand of the same fair laddie: Eddie Furlong. But this time one of them is a Bad Person (his hands can elongate into sleek probing weapons, get it? Get it?) and we hear burly mom Linda Hamilton telling herself that Schwarzennegger is, after all, the most suitable candidate in a long list of protector males to nurture her languid-locked offspring. Eddie likes the man because he comes complete with reinforced battle chassis, but is still a pushover to boss around. “Cool! My own terminator!”
There’s a scene where boy and man are picking out suitable weapons from an underground armoury for their assault on the Cyberdyne HQ. Schwarzennegger turns to Furlong with a half smile, brandishing an enormous cucaracha-style chain-gun. Furlong cocks head on one side and coos pertly, “That’s really you!” By some mysterious osmosis, as the boy tries to humanise his pet killer cyborg (it’s just another ‘Pinocchio’) so he loses all the repellant “street smart” edge he started the film with, becoming more “vulnerable” (women do so love that) for the approaching climax. His self-induced “CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS”-style conversion from brat to moral compass is the least plausible element in the film, since he does not undergo the same winnowing down of ego that Harvey does.
And it all ends, needless to say, with the hero immolating himself to save the boy he loves. After a passionate last embrace, tears stream down the photogenic cheeks of messiah-in-waiting (with potty mouth) John Connor, imploring him to stay and claim his prize: “Don’t go! Don’t go!” “I have to, John. It must end here” says the battered Schwarzenegger. Mom nods, understanding. Such boy/cyborg love affairs are best left unconsummated. Director Cameron might be scandalised by that reading of his film, but all the evidence is there on screen. You only need the wit to see it.
A far more improbable contender for the man and boy “road movie” bucket would have to be “THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER”, like “HUCKLEBERRY FINN” a much-filmed tale under one guise or another, and for my money the better story. It was in point of fact Twain’s favourite. It was filmed in (deep breath now) 1909, 1915, 1920, 1923, 1937, 1962, 1975, 1976 (as “P.J. AND THE PRESIDENT’S SON”), 1977, 1987 (as “DOUBLE SWITCH”), 1996 and 2000 — and that is discounting several animated versions. There will certainly be other, foreign language and TV versions that have not come to my notice yet. You will not, incidentally, find a comparable count in any published film reference source — on the web or elsewhere — but the Archive database from which this book has been compiled carries details on them all.
The schematic of the plot will begin to be recognisable to us now — rich boy is cast adrift in strange surroundings where he suddenly discovers his vulnerability, and is rescued — several times — by a gallant knight errant who does not for a moment believe his claim to be rightful heir to the throne, yet indulges his haughtiness with an almost superhuman forbearance, and escorts the lad back to safety. Perhaps surprisingly, given their doleful record with live action “classics”, one of the most agreeable film versions was the modest-budget 1962 Disney one, starring Australian Sean Scully in the dual roles. Other adaptations have been more expensive, more opulent on the eye, or with bigger star names in the cast, but the Disney version has a more engaging boy lead, and his special friendship with Miles Hendon (Guy Williams) is a hoot to mischievous viewers who care to read between the lines.
When the prince in pauper’s rags is first rescued from a drubbing and taken back to Hendon’s room at an inn, the boy immediately commandeers his bed and demands that the man wait on him at table. Hendon, for no accountable reason, taking the boy for a genuine urchin, defers to his every whim, and is off bright and early next morning to buy him some new tights. It all happens at the simple, “innocent” level of a boys’ adventure: the two merely hit it off, and no further explanations are required. As in all boys’ adventures — “KIDNAPPED” being another — special friendships with men encountered along the way are just part and parcel of their foray into the adult world. The 1996 British TV serialisation, with Philip Sarson in the boys’ parts, and Keith Michell reprising his famous role as Henry VIII, was also a fine production in its own right. “CROSSED SWORDS” (77) was an unmitigated disaster, with a geriatric Mark Lester stumbling woodenly through a role many years too young for him. Lester’s film credits, indeed, read like a battery farm of turkeys. A pretty boy doth not an actor make.
For a change of pace road film, try Takeshi Kitano’s “KIKUJIRO” (Japan 1999). It’s the slight comic tale of Masao, an unprepossessing 6 or 7 year old who lives in Tokyo with a grandmother. Finding his friends all away for the summer holidays, he takes it in his head to visit the mother he’s never known in a coastal town. A younger friend of his grandmother’s, on hearing this plan, tells him he’s far too young to make such a long journey alone, and cajoles her shiftless gambler husband (Beat Takeshi) into escorting the boy. The husband soon fritters their fare away at the races, so the trip becomes a painful slow progress, the man picking quarrels and arguments with just about everyone he encounters along the way. When they finally arrive at the boy’s mother’s address, she has long since left it, so they have to wend their penniless way back, but by this time the hopeless good-for-nothing has begun to feel a certain obligation to the child. He browbeats a friendly poet in a touring van and two easily cowed hell’s angels into playing games with him to amuse the boy, cavorting as red Indians, extraterrestrials, or fish the boy can haul out of the river. The taciturn boy only asks the man’s name as they part company at the end. It is Kikujiro. The film’s a slow starter, but persevere with it and it becomes quirky and interesting. The only off-colour note comes when the very first stranger Masao encounters on his journey promptly hauls him off to a park and tries to dive into the child’s underpants. Evidently by 1999 that particular Western obsession had found its way to Japan. Global pollution takes many forms.
In “WENN DER VATER MIT DEM SOHNE” (W Germany 1955, aka “Night and Fog in Japan”, for reasons shrouded in mystery) toyshop owner Heinz Rühmann is besotted with his landlady’s adopted son Oliver Grimm (7, a major German boy star), and when she decides to have the boy “put in a home”, he grabs the child and hightails it for Switzerland. It’s a sentimental comedy “heimatfilm” guaranteed to cause wear and tear on the teeth enamel, and harking back all too plainly to those cloying weepies of the silent era such as “THE KID”. Continental boy stars like Grimm, Heintje, Lolo Garcia and Joselito were perpetually being orphaned, adopted, kidnapped or befriended in an orgy of childhood prettification. They are enchanting ornaments to adult life, the boy as stress reliever.
If we can stretch the road movie genre to encompass “HUCKLEBERRY FINN” and “THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER”, then why not “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA” (62) too? The Arab boys Daud and Faraj (Michel Ray and John Dimech) who attach themselves like limpets to “Orence” are only minor characters in Lean’s majestic epic, and since the film needed to be very elliptical about its hero’s homosexuality, his adoption of these strays – before a long and hazardous trek through the Nefud desert – is assumed to be just another of his foibles. Daud later perishes in quicksand, Lawrence has to shoot Faraj when he’s maimed by a detonator, and that’s the extent of their intimacy. Inferring what is omitted from a biopic is a futile pastime. There is the skeleton of a special friendship there, but the dry bones tell us nothing. (A few years previously Michel Ray had decamped from Britain to the US with hopes of becoming the next Freddie Bartholomew or Roddy McDowall. He made four low-budget studio productions – chiefly as the distraught Mexican owner of a prize bull in “THE BRAVE ONE” (56) – but stardom did not materialise.)
The significance of the “road movie” in the man and boy context is that the journey (and “TREASURE ISLAND” fits snugly into this reading too) prises the boy away from the structure and routine of ordinary domestic life, frees him from conventional duties and obligations, and casts him into the kinds of company from which he has hitherto been sheltered. New possibilities for alliances, and more intense friendships, are created by the vicissitudes of the journey. “SAMMY GOING SOUTH” (63. known in the US, possibly to escape racial connotations, as “A BOY TEN FEET TALL”) is an archetype of such films. Fergus McClelland (13, playing 10), his parents killed in a WWII air raid, trudges largely under his own steam from Port Said in Egypt to Durban in South Africa, bouncing from adult companion to adult companion en route. He takes a particular shine to grizzled smuggler Edward G Robinson, and implores the man to “adopt” him permanently, but this would scarcely be an appropriate outcome for an edifying boys’ adventure tale, so events intercede between them, and Sammy is hurried along to the (more appropriate) arms of his maiden aunt in Durban. Roll those end credits.
“SAMMY GOING SOUTH” did not work very well as cinema, because neither writer nor director Alexander Mackendrick dared to propel so young a boy into any genuine danger, were not much interested in him as a three-dimensional character, and hence — although the story purports to celebrate one boy’s grit and fortitude — made it a simple pass-the-parcel exercise, tossing Sammy from one adult chaperone to the next. He was less a free agent than the dogs and cat of Disney’s “THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY”. Also, like so many post-colonialist African “adventure” films, it shied away from portraying the continent red in tooth and claw. It was an epic journey as bland and demure as a fistful of faded postcards. Mackendrick was one of those directors — Truffaut, Spielberg, Leacock — frequently credited by critics with a gift for filming children, but unlike those other three there’s scant evidence from his films of any genuine rapport with kids. He made several films about them, which is not the same thing at all. He seems on far surer ground with “THE LADYKILLERS” (55).
Continue to the next chapter: Jealousy of the hired hand
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to email@example.com, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it. You could also indicate the name by which you wish to be known.