This is the twenty-first chapter of Special Friendships, Steven Freeman's unpublished book about the depiction of close friendships between men and boys in film, which is introduced here.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 cane in the cupboard
I am excluding school films from this notional genre altogether, because while these frequently cast a sympathetic teacher or master (it’s generally a male, even though they’re rapidly becoming freak occurrences in the teaching profession) as friend and confidant of his pupils, the essential authority divide remains in place. Benign Robert Donat in “GOODBYE MR CHIPS” (39) still had to wield the cane when circumstance required, and benign Otto Kruger kicked off his role in “THE HOUSEMASTER” (38) by ceremonially dusting the bottom of young Bimbo: “Did that hurt?” “Ooh yes sir!” “Good. Otherwise we’d both have been wasting our time!” The camaraderie of pupil and teacher has strict demarcations, and the teacher is, as a point of law, considered to be in loco parentis — the parent at hand. Teacher Colin Welland certainly shows more kindness and sensitivity to pupil David Bradley than his mother ever does in “KES” (69), but it is still a very friable, tentative bond, like that of a humane camp guard with a P.O.W. The boyhood love in that story is clearly of the second variety.
French cinema has yielded a particularly rich harvest of these gentle schoolmaster titles — to name just a few “LA CAGE AUX ROSSIGNOLS” (44), “LE NAÏF AUX 40 ENFANTS” (57) “MAITRE D’ÉCOLE” (81), “ETRE ET AVOIR” (2002), “LES CHORISTES” (2004) — but no special friendship emerges from them. “CHILD’S PLAY” (72) had a boys’ school sports master (Robert Preston), adored by his pupils, setting them to persecute another master (James Mason). “THE SCAMP” (57) had benign schoolteacher Richard Attenborough formally adopt the renegade Australian (Colin Petersen, 11) of the title, but that relationship must be doubly disqualified, the adult being both teacher and legal guardian.
A one to one teacher/pupil bond does arise in Bertolucci’s “THE LAST EMPEROR” (87), where British tutor Peter O’Toole is the only person to recognise the wretched lonely boy inside the Lord of Ten Thousand Years, Pu Yi, but their relationship is additionally stifled by the deadweight of Forbidden City protocol, and must content itself in small tokens: the emperor’s secret mouse, the spectacles, the bicycle. That film covers such an enormous canvas, in any case, that while the boyhood section is certainly not skimped as much as usually, it is not the film’s centre of focus. We must concentrate on films which do not treat boyhood as a kind of prologue to real life.
In “PAPER TIGER” (75) David Niven plays a hired tutor for Japanese ambassador’s son Ando, 11, more a pedagogue than a tutor in fact, and the two of them quickly get embroiled in a half-cocked crook-foiling adventure, exposing Niven as a sham hero. But we’ve already wasted enough words on such a witless film. The pleasant charms of Niven and Kazuhito Ando were wasted on it. It merely illustrates the point that teacher/pupil bonds can become personal, in extremis.
Terence Rattigan’s play “THE BROWNING VERSION” does have some kind of a claim to inclusion. Although the one-to-one relationship between retiring classics master Crocker-Harris and his lower fifth pupil Taplow was a strictly professional one (Taplow’s father was paying for extra Greek tuition), the boy’s humanity, his compassion for this intensely dull and lifeless man, prompts a gesture which forms the dramatic crux of the whole tale. He presents “the croc” with a copy of an obscure verse translation of Aeschyllus’ “Agamemnon”, and in it he inscribes the quotation “The gods smile from afar upon a gentle master”. Crocker-Harris is moved to tears by this simple kindness – his career and marriage have been a wretched failure and he knows it, but always there was the lingering hope he would touch at least one mind with his love of the classics.
“THE BROWNING VERSION” was recorded in 1959 for US television’s “Du Pont Show of the Month”, with John Gielgud in the lead, Ian Holm starred in a much later version for UK TV, and there was a needlessly “updated” remake in 1994 with a creditable performance from Albert Finney. None of these eclipsed the original Anthony Asquith film of 1951, for which Michael Redgrave delivered his career-best performance. Asquith and Rattigan had already collaborated on the 1948 film version of “THE WINSLOW BOY”, but the titular boy in that film, as in this one, has a very miniscule role.
As I’ve already indicated about boys’ school films, “THE BROWNING VERSION” bizarrely casts an 18-year old (Brian Smith, diminutive and fresh-faced) as the 15-year old Taplow, but glance at the other pupils hugger-muggering in the background of shots as they file out of morning service, and fifth-former Taplow still looks like the youngest boy in the entire school. How absurd. As a film it is dry and static, with a tacked-on “happy” ending, but otherwise scant attempt is made to translate the stage original for the different medium of cinema. It remains quietly moving as the portrait of a soul-broken man, and deserves note here because the schoolboy’s offhand kindness to a master he faintly pities holds more weight and significance than all the shabby infidelities and petty cruelties of Crocker-Harris’ wife, or the mean betrayals of his headmaster. Tenderness and encouragement flow from Taplow to his schoolmaster, not the reverse. It is a cup of water offered in the desert.
There have been a number of borderline cases worthy of special mention. The hard-won bonding between a remedial teacher and his violent 13-year old pupil Paul Smith in the Australian “FIGHTING BACK” (82) leads to them taking a secret camping holiday together, and the teacher nearly losing his career because of it. The Japanese black comedy “KAZOKU GEMU” (“The Family Game”, 83) had a private tutor move into the home of his lazy pupil to cram him for the forthcoming exams, and steadily becoming a despot over the entire household, Monty Woolley fashion. The bleak French “ANTHRACITE” (80) described a boys’ internate where a new master conceives a barely-disguised homoerotic passion for one of his more “sensitive” pupils, Jérôme Zucca, and in attempting to shield him from bullying only exposes him to more of it. The film ends with the master’s dismissal, and him being literally clubbed senseless in the playground by a furious mob of boys — his protégé joining the clubbing with more vigour than most. The school principal watches sadly from his study window, but turns away, taking no step to intervene.
In Bernard MacLaverty’s “LAMB” (86) Liam Neeson is a brother in yet another grim, boy-flogging Catholic boarding school in Ireland, and becomes so attached to epileptic pupil Hugh O’Conor that he and the boy take flight together and try to go underground in London. They cannot evade notice by the authorities for long however, and the story has a suitably downbeat, hope-extinguishing conclusion. A special friendship it is, but mired in a bleak and misanthropic view of society, its mechanisms and outcasts. The critics liked it, the audiences stayed away in droves, and it seldom resurfaces on television. Three years later Hugh O’Conor delivered an excellent performance as the boyhood Christy Brown, grappling with cerebral palsy in “MY LEFT FOOT”. Daniel Day-Lewis was showered with praise and awards for his role, the boy O’Conor was not. The more things change, the more they stay the same.