Jun 1, 2013

Captains Courageous: Boys Alone on a Boat

Literature is full of poor little rich boys, kids raised in unutterable wealth who nevertheless are missing something essential, something elemental -- and find it, either by design or by fortuitous accident.  Rudyard Kipling's 1897 novel Captains Courageous sends snobbish, practical-joking 15-year old Harvey Cheyne Jr. over the side of a steamship.  He is rescued by Captain Disko Troop, a Newfoundland fisherman, who refuses to take him to a port until the season is over -- and forces him to work alongside the rest of the crew.  At first Harvey complains, but then he learns the joy of work and the camaraderie of working men, and especially bonds with the Captain's teenage son, Dan.

When Harvey finally returns to his parents, he brings Dan along. Both go to work for his father's shipping line.  There are no women in the novel except for Harvey's mother.

There have been three movie versions that modify the romance in odd ways.

The 1937 version decreases Harvey's age (played by 13-year old Freddie Bartholomew), and minimized the role of Dan (Mickey Rooney, left and top photo), instead having him saved by an adult fisherman, Manuel (Spencer Tracey).  Their friendship becomes intense and intimate, but it is doomed: during a race with another ship, Manuel is entangled in the rigging and pulled under the water, where he drowns. The movie ends with Harvey back in civilization, throwing a wreath into the sea to honor Manuel's memory.

The 1977 tv version restores Harvey to adolescence (played by 17-year old Jonathan Kahn, right)  and minimizes both Dan (Johnny Doran) and Manuel (Ricardo Montalban), although Manuel still dies.  Harvey doesn't get a romantic partner, just a father figure in the Captain (Karl Malden).

The unwatchable 1996 tv version restores Harvey and Dan to prominence (Kenny Vadas, Kaj-Erik Eriksen), but this time Dan is entangled in the rigging and dies. By the way, the Captain (Robert Ulrich) gets a wife.

I can't even begin to speculate on why the writers or directors decided to transfer the gay subtext from peer to older-younger, but I know why they decided to have Harvey's partner die: to emphasize the heterosexist conceit that same-sex bonds are temporary, mere adolescent fancies.  Just as the Captain has a wife back home, when Harvey returns to port, he will abandon childhood romances and marry.

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