SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: A FRIEND IN NEED
A friend in need
But now that we have touched on teacher/pupil films, single man adoption films, father and son melodramas and kid sidekick titles, finally we must also disqualify many of those films about police detectives, child psychologists, social workers, hired bodyguards — all of whom can be clumsily grouped together as “state-authorised” rescuers and mentors. This category would include titles as various as “THE GOLDEN CHILD” (86), “MERCURY RISING” (98), “SILENT FALL” (94), “WITNESS” (85), “FIRST KID” (96), “THE SIXTH SENSE” (99) and “LADRO DI BAMBINI” (Italy 92). It would have included “THE CLIENT” (95) had young eyewitness Brad Renfro not saddled himself with a female attorney. The polemical subtext of a “good” woman rescuing a boy from the clutches of “bad” men was so explicit in that film I’m happy to discard it — women and boys vs men is a theme it’s not too difficult to spot in contemporary US cinema, but that must be grist for another discussion. Men who protect young girls from the predatory designs of womankind is a motif as yet untouched by screenwriters, you’ll be astonished to hear.
Each of those titles above clearly presents an unusually close bonding between a child and an unrelated adult, and several of them have real merit in themselves (Miko Hughes in “MERCURY RISING”), but Bruce Willis’ psychologist in “THE SIXTH SENSE”, or Eddie Murphy’s professional child-saver (pass the vomit bucket) in “THE GOLDEN CHILD” are only interested in the boy so long as he’s in need of rescuing. The relationship is strictly defined by a moment of crisis, in short, and terminates when the crisis does. All those “roving hero” family series of American TV have featured episodes where the hero springs to the rescue of a boy in distress. And then moves on at the end of the half hour to pastures new. Adversity makes for strange bedfellows, and if these are true special friendships (as I’ve defined the genre) then they are ones delineated by a brief time of need. All of the child rescuers here are, if you will, foul weather friends. The friendship expires when the storm passes. And unlike the one in “THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER”, protectors a boy may encounter willy nilly as he sallies forth into the wider world, most of the men in these cases are acting in some professional capacity.
Child-hating palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant is obliged to navigate Richard Attenborough’s two grandchildren through a meat-eating theme park in “JURASSIC PARK” (93), and was so enamoured of the experience he did it again for “JURASSIC PARK III” (2001), meandering about on Godzilla Island to rescue a 12-year old boy (Trevor Morgan) lost in a para-gliding accident. That particular boy was the only human on the planet to master the tricky skill of harvesting Tyrannosaurus piss, so he wasn’t in any especial danger – not that is until his squabbling parents arrive on the scene with Dr Grant to rescue him, at which point he was instantly demoted to “vulnerable child” status again, and got snatched by pterodactyls. The insistent “family values” subtext of the whole Jurassic Park trilogy are so calculating and strident that they do impair what should be simple, high octane fantasy adventures with superb state-of-the-art effects. The first film “groomed” Alan Grant (Sam Neill) for the joys of fatherhood (very much against his own wishes), the second film reproached Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) about his duties to the daughter of an ex-wife (off gallivanting in Paris with a new boyfriend), and the third was a crisis engineered to heal the rift in Trevor Morgan’s broken family. “THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK” (97) went one further, stressing again and again what solicitous nurturing parents the dinosaurs were. Hollywood, it seems, still reserves its prerogative as propaganda ministry for The Family (even now that the man has become a dispensable commodity in that unit.) We must guard our nests, like good dinosaurs.
Probably the best example of the “disinterested child rescuer” trope would be François Truffaut’s “L”ENFANT SAUVAGE” (69), in which humanist Dr Itard, played by Truffaut himself, takes in hand the captured feral boy Victor (a superb debut performance by the gypsy boy Jean-Pierre Cargol) and attempts to prove to a sceptical society that the child’s humanity can be salvaged, civilised. Patient and dedicated though he is, Truffaut’s Itard clearly relates to the boy as a test case in pedagogic theory, and not as a deprived human being. Their relationship is a purely clinical one (and in the historical case on which the film is based, Itard effectively abandoned Victor once his methods failed to yield measurable results.) It is a brave film certainly, eschewing all sentimentality, but it is hard to define it as a special friendship when scientific method takes precedence over empathy and compassion. In one sequence, Itard intentionally punishes Victor (by locking him in a closet) without any cause, to test whether the child has an innate sense of justice to be affronted. Victor protests most volubly, so Itard is pleased, but it also makes plain the boy’s status as laboratory animal. A human laboratory animal, most chillingly of all.
Truffaut himself was actually rather too sentimental about childhood, leaning to the romantic view of it as a pristine state not infrequently defiled by contact with adults. His partisanship towards kids was as much political as emotional, and expressed quite overtly in several of his films. This, if it was a flaw in him, was a becoming one, his fondness for children entirely genuine, unpatronising and committed. All of which makes this particular film something of an enigma, because he keeps camera and audience always at a safe observational remove from the eponymous child, never quite allowing us to recognise Victor as a baffled human in a strange world of mouth-moving, fabric-wearing beings. Victor is clearly the alien, Truffaut’s “E.T.” or “ELEPHANT MAN”, and while our sympathies may extend to him, as they would to any caged animal, the film is so cold and analytical on its surface, so inconclusive in its findings, that we are left puzzling at the end what the director intended us to elicit from the whole sad tale. One critic suggested he was too embroiled with his acting performance to give the mise-en-scène the attention it required. I doubt that, but his twin themes — the importance of true communication, and the vanities of enlightenment scientific objectivity — clearly work against each other on the screen. The result is disappointing, and strangely unengaging.
One could group under the same heading all those films of the 1930s and 40s about heroic priests rescuing boys from the Road To Crime (this was before, of course, the priesthood itself came under concerted attack — in America yet again — for “inappropriate” relationships with boys.) We considered earlier how the child’s non-judgmentalism serves as a conduit for society to redeem its outcasts, desperadoes, career criminals, but more frequently the opera of redemption works in the other direction — it is the adult who redeems the wayward boy. 1930s Hollywood saw a stampede of such social conscience titles (chiefly from Warner Bros) in which delinquent boys were steered gently back to the straight and narrow, usually through the offices of a benign Catholic priest, but sometimes — no, don’t laugh — even a social worker. “ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES” and “BOYS TOWN” were only two of the larger buffalo in that stampede, and young actors like Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney and Billy Halop all but cornered the market in streetboys going bad but secretly hankering for a Better Way of Life. Other examples were “DEAD END” (37), “GOING MY WAY” (44), “JOHNNY HOLIDAY” (49), “CRIME IN THE STREETS” (56) and “YOUNG PAUL BARONI” (52). One would love to include the delirious melodrama “BOY SLAVES” (39), but there was no special friendship to speak of in that hand-wringing piece.
The priest redeemer is, in effect, just doing his job, like god’s fireman. His feeling for the boys he rescues may be sincere, but he is nevertheless “on duty”, and the relationships in these films are a kind of informal youth counselling, rather than spontaneous human friend-ship. One way or another, boys do need a good scrubbing down before they can enter adult life, spick and span and fit for commerce. The cinema of the 80s and 90s had other social concerns, and what boys needed rescuing from was not the Road To Crime, but brutish stepfathers, malign government agencies, bad men of one shade or other. Take your scalpel to that one and you find that, whereas boys of the 30s needed saving, not from poverty but from temptations within themselves (society would put them right), boys of the 80s and 90s needed saving from external threats. They are all “vulnerable people” (a vile construct) and we demonstrate this by exposing them to harm, then rescuing them from it, reasserting their dependency on adult grace.
Monty Woolley in “THE PIED PIPER” (42) was no priest or professional child counselor of any stripe. Like Dr Grant in “JURASSIC PARK” his child-hater dues were fully paid up. He is prevailed upon by the parents of Roddy McDowall (13) and Peggy Ann Garner to chaperone the children out of France shortly after Dunkirk. With ill grace he consents, only to find that other waifs and strays latch themselves onto him at every step of the journey. Exasperation mounting, he shepherds this embryonic united nations to safer shores (getting “humanised” by them en route), the most reluctant of child savers. Some humour is found in his exposure to child logic and his petulant arguments with McDowall, but the children themselves are little more than cyphers (accompanied by treacly kindergarten music every time they appear on camera) so it’s another special friendship that might have been, like “SHANE”. And yes, it too was remade in 1990 (Peter O’Toole blundering into the same trap again), and we have to ask why did they bother? The 1941 film was unalloyed US wartime propaganda, and thin fare at that.