Well, your humble host had the cast taken off her wrist yesterday. She fondly assumed it would emerge all healed and wonderful! Sadly she was wrong. I have a fat-lady wrist, and fingers like frankfurters, and I can hardly move the thing. The doctors tell me happily it will be six more weeks before the bone is properly mended and the swelling goes down and it stops being stiff and hurting like crap. So, no long wordy posts for a while.
Which is why I’m taking the moment to post something sent to me by reader-Cherry whose marvellous blog I’ve mentioned previously. She recently featured a quote from Fred Cavens, fight-supervisor on at least two of Rathbone’s swashbucklers. I asked her if she knew where it came from and she sent me this interesting article she found some years ago on a now-defunct Queer-theory website. We don’t have an author name, but if he/she should read this please inform us and we will add it. (Any muffled detonations you hear will be our Claude Rains’ head exploding)
I don’t necessarily agree with this interpretation wholly or even in part, but no one’s going to deny the bizarrely explicit double-entendres in ZORRO are they?
“The Capitaine’s sword is not so firm!”
“Firm enough to run you through!”
“…do you fancy the weapon?”
IMAGES OF HOMO-EROTICISM IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD:
THE FORMALISED DUEL.
Two men are locked together, their eyes devouring one another, their hot faces only inches apart, and contorted with the intensity of their physical and emotional experience.
For a second their bodies pulse together almost rhythmically, as they work to inevitable and almost ritualised climax. We watch, knowing what to expect and we aren’t disappointed. It ends in dissolution, stillness and a little death.
What is this? A piece of gay pornography c. 2000? No, it is the celebrated duel scene from the 1938 movie ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood,’ featuring Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. Watch the sequence again. Reappraise it – other have already done so. In fact for gays in the new millennium it has become a potent piece of subversive symbolism, the annexation of the very heart of Entertainment’s machismo.
The erotic significance it holds isn’t hard to understand. Here we have two profoundly beautiful men, movie stars, one a sexual icon, both in great physical shape. They wear clothing that emphasises and glorifies the lithe beauty of their competing bodies. They entangle, they sweat in a heat and intimacy the Hays office of the time was powerless to outlaw. But does it go beyond associated eroticism to a true political statement about gayness as some now suggest?
Undeniably, as Jarman said, the sequence could not be shot in this way today without admitting its own homo-erotic intent. But was the meaning present in the consciousness of the 1938 creators? At first glance this seems unlikely, but recent studies have suggested a more consciously homo-erotic substrata in the Golden Age than anyone had dared to imagine. They point to James Whale and Edmund Goulding with their unashamed celebrations of male love. They point to the bisexuality of macho icons like Flynn to suggest that they were powerfully aware of the unspoken agenda they were expressing.
Fred Cavens, fight choreographer for ‘Robin Hood’ described the dedication and trust needed to make a successful screen duel work as ‘a kind of love affair’ He said:
“The reliance on one another to go at full speed, where one slip could administer serious injury. You hold each other’s eyes. You see nothing else. The focus totally on one another, the almost telepathic sympathy, like one set of thoughts flowing through two bodies, and the hard hard work of sweating it out right time and time again. If you don’t love each other and trust each other and live in each other through the sequence you are going to fail”
So we have a potent symbol of the intimacy and shared physicality of the formalised duel scene as an emblem for the act of homosexual love. Of all the roughcuts and out-takes the most interesting section is a 104 second sequence of Flynn and Rathbone, with the camera tracking back behind Flynn’s left shoulder. As the director cuts for discontinuity Flynn and Rathbone go into an unashamed embrace and clinch. It is as if the intimacy described by Cavens permitted expressions of intimacy and enjoyment of other male bodies in an ethos acceptable to the time. In this regard we can’t ignore the fact that two of the most prominent symbols of this brand of machismo – Flynn and Power – have both been alleged as practising bisexuals, or closet homosexuals. Do we regard this as coincident? Or as, gay writers insist, a symptom of what the formalised duel actually represented in an age when overt screen imagess of homo-eroticism were taboo? In other words, were the images of this machismo specifically selected for their sublimated gay message?
In this regard consider the formal disrobing before the duel in ‘Mark of Zorro’, where both combatants strip down to a costume that is a near parody of flaunted masculine sexuality, with tight-fitting pants offering the closest Hollywood could then get to a genital display. In particular Rathbone’s skin-tight white pants and thigh high boots are unashamedly fetishsitic. This camp subversion of the militaristic is now a prominent feature of the gay culture. The repartee exchanged between Rathbone and Power is equally sexually loaded.Power questions the ‘firmness’ of Rathbone’s sword, and is assured it is firm enough to run Power through. What message is being sent here? The parallel with a sexual encounter could hardly be more emphatically made, from disrobing through tumescence, penetration and resolution.
Throughout the movie, Rathbone even more than Power is represented as an archetype of rampant masculine sexuality, the sword used as a barely disguised phallic symbol, with metaphors of penetration abounding. ‘He is forever thrusting at this and that’. He is the lover of his employer’s wife, Gale Sondegaard, as Power is the suitor of the innocent Linda Darnell, but the true energy of the film does not lie with either of these protagonisms.
In macro terms, the movie’s themes are heterosexual. But in micro terms, this certitude dissolves. The relationship that fascinates us, the one bedecked with the film’s subliminal sexual symbolism, is the one between Power and Rathbone, representing polarities of maleness, one effete, soft and sensual, the other hard, aggressive and thrusting. . It is their confrontations that are ripe with seemingly deliberately planted phallic allusions and a raw sadistic sexuality totally absent from the aseptic ‘love-scenes’ between Darnell and Power.