Bright Lights Film Journal

All Is Fair in Love and War Videos: GLBT Men and Women in the Military

Wings (1927)

Don’t ask, don’t tell, but do watch

“If they took all the gays and lesbians out of the military there wouldn’t be enough people left to defend Rhode Island!” — Christopher Bradley, Leather Jacket Love Story (1997)

“America Declares War on Terrorism” has rapidly gone from a headline to a slogan to a merchandising opportunity for many businesses — including video stores. Those dusty, bottom-shelf military-themed videos are now front and center.

Every few years the military shifts its focus to a new target, but since the beginning of time — or so it seems — one enemy has remained in their sights — gay men and lesbians. But, like war itself, gay men and lesbians have been a part of the military for as long as there have been militaries. How do we know? It’s all been caught on film, of course.

From lesbian Nazis, to transgender Samurai, bisexual Roman soldiers, and gay African warriors, “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” videos have had a long and proud history. Then there are the inspiring real-life stories, such as Coming Out Under Fire (1994), an award-winning documentary based on Allen Bérubé’s book Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. The film concerns nine gay men and lesbian officers who share their experiences, both positive and negative, while serving a government that viewed them as pariahs.

But in the end, it usually all comes down to one category, “Soldiers in Love,” or at least in lust.

In William Wellman’s 1927 silent World War I classic, Wings (the first Best Picture Oscar winner), the story focuses on the friendship between two handsome young Top Guns, Jack and David (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) and the woman (Clara Bow) who comes between them. The film can be read as either a gay or straight love story (it was the 1920s, after all), but the attraction between the two men is quite obvious, especially during the deathbed scene, which plays more like a love scene.

The Canadian video For the Moment (1992) features flyboy Ari Cohen as a gay British pilot whom Russell Crowe catches having sex (offscreen) in the barracks showers with another gay pilot (Glen Thompson). Tragically, Cohen watches his lover die in a fiery plane crash in the end.

Director Max Farberbock’s lavish production of Aimée and Jaguar (Germany/2000) falls into the “Lesbian Nazi” category and is set in war-torn Berlin in 1943. Maria Schrader plays Felice, a free-spirited, Jewish lesbian, working undercover for a Nazi newspaper. Juliane Köhler plays her German lover Lilly Wust. Ignoring the fact that Berlin is being bombed daily, these Blitzkrieg lovers act as if it were Springtime in Paris. While Felice’s group of lesbian girlfriends are smuggled out of the country, Felice decides to take her chances and stay with the woman she loves, even if it means she will die.

Alexandra von Grote’s similarly themed earlier film, November Moon (Germany/1984), also focuses on the struggles of lesbians during World War II. Gabriela Osburg plays November, a Jewish lesbian who moves to Paris to flee the Nazis. Her lover Ferial, a young French woman, becomes a Nazi collaborator to save the life of her lover, when the Nazis arrive in France.

Military academy cadets were the focus of the 1986 drama Dress Gray, starring Alex Baldwin. On a combat mission for laughs is Up the Academy (1980). Tom Poston plays Master Sergeant Skip Sisson, a flamboyant, gay caricature who teaches ballroom dancing to a group of young male military cadets in this mindless teenage comedy. That’s when he’s not measuring their inseams or trying to get them out of their shorts. For balance, the women of the nearby Mildred S. Butch Academy are all lesbians.

While boot camp has often provided laughs at the movies, Neil Simon made a dramatic direct hit with his Biloxi Blues (1988). The Russian video 100 Days before the Command (1999) likewise goes for the heart. In this story about a group of young Russian soldiers, mostly in their late teens, trying to survive the difficulties of boot camp, Oleg Vasilokov and Alexander Chislov are singled out as gay and then ostracized. There’s almost no dialogue and little story, but this video, full of handsome young soldiers, hits its target nonetheless.

If naked Roman soldiers spin your compass, there are plenty of videos to choose from. One of the earliest, and more innocent, is Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). Laurence Olivier plays Crasius, the bisexual emperor, in this historical epic. Tony Curtis plays his poor, young slave, who runs away to join up with Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) after Olivier puts the make on him. The late Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (Italy/1976) featured even hunkier Roman soldiers and provided a satisfying full-frontal assault.

Kubrick fans will also remember Barry Lyndon (Great Britain/1975), in which two gay privates are spied skinny-dipping in a river. They also hold hands and pledge their love to one another. Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) watches from the river bank and then steals one of their horses.

But when it comes to romantic wartime tales featuring enlisted men, For a Lost Soldier (Netherlands/1992) is tough to beat. Jeroen Krabbe plays Jeroen, a middle-aged gay man who flashes back to his childhood and recalls the unforgettable summer of 1944. The setting is Holland at the end of World War II. Maarten Smit plays the 12-year-old Jeroen. Just becoming aware of his sexual attraction to other boys, he is befriended by Walt (Andrew Kelley), a handsome American soldier who has come to liberate Holland from the Nazis. Their friendship blossoms into a mutually gratifying sexual relationship, only to be cut short by the soldier’s departure at the end of summer.

On the lighter side, Goldie Hawn plays a “Jewish American Princess” who enlists in the Army in Private Benjamin (1980). Eileen Brennan plays Captain Lewis, a frustrated officer who turns to women when she is shipped off to Europe. The advertising tag line read, “Can the Army Make a Man out of Judy Benjamin?”

A gay African warrior is certainly a novelty, as in Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls (1995). And gay French Foreign Legion recruits are exotic, as in Beau Travail (France/2000). But in Beautiful Mystery (Japan/1983), gay Samurai add an element of surprise. In Gohatto, also known as Taboo (Japan/2000), the action is set in Kyoto, Japan in 1865. Ryuhei Matsuda plays Kano, an androgynous, eighteen-year-old Samurai soldier who is recruited by an elite militia. Toshiro (Tadanobu Asano), a fellow warrior, falls in love with Kano, as do many of the Samurai, old and young. Homosexuality is openly discussed and accepted among the Samurai of this period. But while everyone is in love with Kano, and under his spell, Kano is a manipulative, cold-blooded killer who is only in love with killing.

Draft dodgers, as in The Gay Deceivers (1969), and deserters, like the one featured in We Were One Man (France/1981), are another common category. But being discharged or court-martialed is even more routine. For instance, Dean Cain plays a Green Beret in Best Men (1998) discharged for being gay. In Toby Philips’ Lover’s Leap (1995), Andria Mann, in a small role, plays a lesbian novelist who writes lesbian romance books. In researching a story, she discovers that two lesbian lovers committed suicide at Lover’s Leap after being kicked out of the military in the early ’70s.

Breaking new ground, 1995’s Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story is a moving dramatization of the life and career of the lesbian Army National Guard officer who was the highest-ranking woman in the Armed Forces. She was also drummed out of the military for coming out as a lesbian. Oscar winner Glenn Close turns in one of the most memorable performances of her career. Judy Davis plays her lover Diana.

Being booted out of the military will likely continue to be a common theme for some time. Common Ground (2000) is a trilogy focusing on three generations of gay men and lesbians and how they dealt with the homophobia of their time. Beginning in the 1950s, Brittany Murphy plays Dorothy and Jason Priestley plays Billy, gay friends who meet in the Navy. Mimi Rogers plays Brittany’s closeted and homophobic Naval Officer, McPherson. When Billy takes Dorothy to a gay bar, McPherson has it raided. Dorothy receives a dishonorable discharge for sexual deviancy while Billy is court-martialed and receives hard labor. If this film had been made in the 1950s, he likely would have just been killed.

It may be a while before the rumored Bin Laden in a Burka film makes it to your local Blockbuster. But each of the videos mentioned here is worthy of a “Purple Heart” film award for courage under fire on the screen. They’ll also make you proud of our finest men and women, in blue — and pink.

And, while Uncle Sam may not want us in the bunks and the showers, when it comes to the movies, we’re likely to have the last laugh, as did Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in the 1981 comedy Stripes. When an Army recruiter asks “Are either of you homosexual?” Murray asks, “You mean flaming?” “Naw, we’re not homosexual, but we are willing to learn,” adds Ramis in earnest.

Now that’s patriotic!