”Don’t ask, don’t tell” might sum up the status of gays currently serving in the armed forces, but homosexual characters in military movies have been coming out for years. Startlingly, what is believed to have been Hollywood’s first homosexual kiss took place in the military 25 years ago. In The Sergeant (1968, currently unavailable) Rod Steiger plays the spectacularly unhappy master sergeant who, after two hours of pining for a private (John Phillip Law), finally plants one on him. Almost immediately following the kiss, the tortured sergeant picks up his pistol and blows his own brains out.
The previous year, in Reflections in a Golden Eye (Warner), Marlon Brando played a repressed major living on a Southern army base, obsessed with another private (Robert Forster), who likes to ride tauntingly bareback on a horse and on whom the major spies in the woods. At the end of this one, the major shoots the private.
On those rare occasions when Hollywood felt like wrestling with the subject of homosexuality, it seems the military was very often the setting. Among the films in which gayness was either a major theme or a latent subtext: The Strange One (1957, currently unavailable), with Ben Gazzara as the sadistic Jocko, adored by his fellow military-academy cadets; Ben-Hur (1959, MGM/UA), in which Stephen Boyd’s Messala feels sexual resentment over his unrequited adolescent crush on Charlton Heston’s title character; Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Columbia TriStar), where Turkish officer José Ferrer makes adventurer Peter O’Toole his whipping boy; and Streamers (1983, FoxVideo), in which one army grunt was gay, another bisexual, and a third undecided.
But Hollywood has also been in denial about gays in the armed forces. Take Crossfire (1947, Fox Hills), adapted from a book about a homosexual-hating soldier who murders a gay man after being invited to his apartment for a drink. In the movie, the soldier, played by Robert Ryan, is an anti-Semite instead. Often, too, the studios have abandoned the courage of their convictions: Columbia removed scenes featuring a male prostitute from The Victors before its 1963 release, and Paramount excised Richard Pryor’s wartime affair with his buddy from 1982’s Some Kind of Hero. Some kind of bravery.