T.S. Eliot

Films about young men

T.S. Eliot, in his famous essay on Hamlet, talks about youth as a kind of pinnacle in a person’s life. There is a period between late adoles­cence and the early twen­ties, according to Eliot, when you see your life spread out before you as an endless array of oppor­tun­ities and it produces a sense of giddi­ness and euphoria.

This sense of euphoria must neces­sarily wither and die as a young person is forced to make choices; the ‘endless possib­il­ities’ becoming narrowed down to one partic­ular path, and the comprom­ises that life forces upon the indi­vidual. Refusal to compromise is an equally dangerous choice, leading to a kind of impot­ence, an inab­ility to act, that is Hamlet’s problem – or so Eliot contends.

But Eliot also claims that certain indi­viduals can keep alive some­thing of this vision in their imagin­a­tion; that this ability is, in fact, one of the key abil­ities of an artist. Even artists, however, must make some kind of commit­ment to their work or pay the penalty, as Jacques Riviere warns Antonin Artaud in this letter:

The mind is fragile in that it needs obstacles – adven­ti­tious obstacles. If it is alone, it loses its way, it destroys itself … I am quite sure that there is a kind of intox­ic­a­tion in the instant of its pure eman­a­tion; in the moment when its fluid escapes directly from the brain and encoun­ters a quantity of stages and levels where it spreads itself. But the punish­ment for this soaring follows close behind. The possible universal changes into concrete impossible. The phantom that is seized is avenged by twenty inner phantoms which para­lyse us, which devour our spir­itual substance.”

(Jacques Riviere, From a letter to Antonin Artaud.)

Perhaps this explains why artists of all kinds; novel­ists, poets, play­wrights, as well as film-makers; return repeatedly to this period of our lives for inspir­a­tion and for their subject matter. There are of course many films made specific­ally for a young audi­ence that cater to their preju­dices and whims but we are talking about those that have a quality of reflect­ive­ness and obser­va­tion about them.

Some of these are made by mature artists looking back upon their lives, others are an attempt to capture a partic­ular milieu and setting, and some combine elements of both ambi­tions. There are wide differ­ences in approach to the subject matter too. Like this selec­tion of clips: some affec­tionate, others judge­mental, or even satir­ical in their tone.

Rites and initiations

Eliot’s perspective on youth is centred on the indi­vidual and is typical of a western cultural tradi­tion. In other cultures, youth is regarded as a trans­itional phase and is marked out by rituals of initi­ation for a group of young men, with indi­vidual iden­tity given far less importance.

Just as there are cere­monies to mark these trans­itions, some cultures are far more patient with their young men than ours. Robert Bly, in his book Iron John, talks about young Viking and Native Amer­ican men going through long periods of  ‘strange’ beha­viour before taking their place in society. Because of their perspective on life as a series of trans­itions or stages, these cultures accept such beha­viour as a neces­sary part of the process of maturation.

In Amer­ican and European cinema it is the gang film, a very popular sub-genre, that celeb­rates this aber­rant beha­viour. A signi­ficant number of films that chart the trans­ition of young men to maturity involve a group or gang of their peers. A signi­ficant number also features a group that is, to some degree, in conflict with main­stream society.

No country for young men

Well, the old men do the fighting, while the young men all look on …”

Mick Jagger, Memo from Turner

The post-war gener­a­tion of the fifties had a partic­u­larly diffi­cult time being the sons (and daugh­ters) of  “war heroes.”  How do you live up to that? Some tried by dying in the jungles of Vietnam but others went looking for new ideals and ideas. This marked one of the greatest schisms between gener­a­tions that western civil­isa­tion had ever known; a time of great confu­sion as well as great exhilaration.

Films played an important part in this, perhaps more than they had ever done before. From Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One in the fifties to Easy Rider in the sixties, young men looked to the screen, and to iconic actors like Brando and Dean, for their role models.

That influ­ence was to persist and cinema continued to mirror the changes in society as the baby-boomers grew up and lost some of their naivety. What started as a pure reac­tion (“What are you rebelling against? Whaddya got?”) became some­thing more considered though it never quite shed its adoles­cent quality.

David Clough 2015

The Wild One 1953

This iconic film about youthful rebel­lion is diffi­cult to see with fresh eyes but, if you try, the inar­tic­u­late­ness and charisma of Brando’s char­acter somehow tran­scend the movie’s lowly ambi­tions and its many false notes.

The jive-talking and the anti­quated slang now seems quaint but it had the same impact on respect­able 1950’s America as gangsta rap has today. Banned in many places when it first came out, The Wild One was a contro­ver­sial B movie that found a lasting place in Amer­ican culture.

I Vitel­loni 1953

Directed by Frederico Fellini this is about a group of young men in a small provin­cial Italian town with too much time on their hands and little sense of purpose.

The sons of well-to-do families, the ‘vitel­loni’ or ‘young calves’, are recog­nis­able types; their frus­tra­tions and aspir­a­tions the source of comedy that has a bitter­sweet flavour. They are the gener­a­tion that has not yet been liber­ated by the sixties, still smothered by the small town atmo­sphere they live in.

Diner 1982

In contrast to the previous films, this was made as a back­ward glance to the 50’s gener­a­tion in America and looks at a group of young men who are mostly aspir­a­tional, although some are having a hard time finding their way.

They have also already started to create the ‘youth culture’ that has its own iden­tity, its own music and clothes. The approach of writer and director Barry Levinson is possibly more affec­tionate than Fellini, perhaps due to hind­sight, but has some moments of sharp observation.

Little Malcolm (and his Struggle Against The Eunuchs) 1975

Origin­ally a stage play by David Halli­well, this is about a disaf­fected art student who has fantasies of starting a fascistic polit­ical move­ment. On one level it’s a comic reworking of Arturo Ui, a sharp-elbowed satire on 60’s student radicalism.

But it has a bit more edge than many of the other attempts to do some­thing similar that were made in the ’60s and ’70s. There are not only some genu­inely dark moments but the film also success­fully captures the inner struggle young men often have recon­ciling fantasy with reality – rather like a certain Shakespearean protagonist.

A Hard Day’s Night 1964

Lennon rather dispar­agingly called Alun Owen, the screen­writer of A Hard Day’s Night, a ‘profes­sional Liver­pudlian”.  A bit unfair. All Owen did was hang out with them and try and capture some of their indi­vidu­ality. In truth all Owen was really guilty of was myth­o­lo­gising  the Beatles, some­thing they even did themselves

Gener­a­tions model them­selves on their heroes – or, more accur­ately,  what the media shows them of their heroes. There’s more than an element of truth in this scene where a (scripted) George Harrison meets a myth-maker – and a great many multi­plied reflections.

Les Valseuses 1974

The title reputedly trans­lates into English vernacular as the “dog’s bollocks”, appro­priate language anyway for a pair of unashamed ne’er-do-wells that spend their time thieving and chasing women. The signa­ture sequence of the film is the two of them in full flight from their latest escapade.

This is a far from a polit­ic­ally correct film about two imma­ture men who you find charming – or not – because of their youthful candour and lack of refine­ment. (Gerard Depardieu still behaves like this but it’s less charming at his age.) There’s lots of sex, of course, some of it quite enter­taining, and a cameo from Jeanne Moreau as a sexy older woman.

If 1969

Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite 1933, about a rebel­lion at a French boarding school, is supposedly the inspir­a­tion for Lindsay Anderson’s land­mark study of the hothouse world within an English public school, but the reason it is such a seminal film has a lot more to do with its histor­ical and cultural confluences.

Made at the time of the Paris riots, when there was a definite whiff of revolu­tion in the air, the film some­times veers towards the self-indulgent; but, at its best moments, its surreal, larger-than-life quality bril­liantly evokes not just the feverish adoles­cent dreams of its prot­ag­on­ists but the aspir­a­tions of a whole gener­a­tion of young Englishmen.

Read the script

Extract from the novel­isa­tion of the “If” film-script by David Sher­wood (PDF)

Dark Star 1975

This quirky movie started as a gradu­ation film by students John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon who later scripted Alien but it rarely gets the credit for being the first of the later wave of cyber­punk space movies. The complete apotheosis of Kubrick’s 2001, with its sterile white envir­on­ment, the crew of Dark Star are unshaven, dirty, ill-disciplined, and live on a space­ship that constantly breaks down

This is a satir­ical black comedy in the vein of Catch 22 and Dr Stran­gelove but it’s also a convin­cing picture of how boring space travel would really be for a bunch of young men locked up together indefinitely.

Bronco Bull­frog 1970

Barney Platt-Mills study of London teen­agers is a low key affair with an appealing unpre­ten­tious­ness.  Like his companion piece about an aspiring middle-class kid, Private Road, it has a message of sorts but you don’t feel the hidden agenda – unlike films by contem­por­aries such as Ken Loach.

The Lords Of Flat­bush 1974

A nostalgia film that features both a young Sly Stal­lone and Henry Winkler trying out an early version of The Fonz might be excused from the occa­sional slide into stereo­types but this manages to be both affec­tionate and relat­ively unpatronising.

The main thing about this little group of blue-collar greasers is that they are given nothing to prove to the audi­ence – unlike say Brando’s bikers in The Wild One. They simply live in their own tribal envir­on­ment, their status already threatened with extinc­tion by tougher, more ruth­less competitors.

The Warriors 1979

An inter­esting and ambi­tious, if mostly unsuc­cessful, attempt to elevate a story of New York gangs to the status of Greek myth­o­logy. Never­the­less, it has achieved a B movie cult status over the years.

Maybe there were once – or still, are – gangs that dress up in wacky costumes and call them­selves by Greek names like Ajax and Achilles (some­thing similar did feature in Hill Street Blues) but this feels like the comic book it was based on. A more inter­esting attempt to mine the epic subtext of gang life is Coppola’s Rumble Fish simply because it doesn’t try so hard.


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