Fighting True Son
Earlier this week I wrote a footnote to one of my posts in which I spoke of my boyhood crush on James MacArthur, son of playwright Charles MacArthur and actress Helen Hayes. He is best remembered as "Danno" in Hawaii Five-O (the original series). I mentioned his character's sibling rivalry with Tommy Kirk in Disney's Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and its imprint on my developing sexuality when I first saw it at age seven. (In my twenties I went alone to a theater to watch a re-release of the movie and found myself growing a boner during the climactic wrestling scene in the river.)
Having piqued a nostalgic interest in my old heartthrob, I did some online research and discovered Sean Griffin's book-length critique Tinker Belles and Evil Queens (2000), which analyzes erotic subtexts in Disney films, including Swiss Family Robinson. It also mentions The Light in the Forest, another MacArthur film for Disney, shot two years earlier, in which MacArthur plays a white boy raised as an American Indian, named True Son. I had never had an interest in seeing this film (typical early live-action Disney fare: blandly white-bread and somewhat racist) until reading Griffin's description:
The success of such live-action productions as Treasure Island (1949) and Old Yeller (1957), as well as the Davy Crockett episodes of the Disneyland TV series, spurred further "Boys' Life" stories, stories that often had the potential to fodder the imaginations of proto-queer young men as much as "Spin and Marty" did [series on the original Mickey Mouse Club TV show, which I saw only when the series was rerun in the 1970s]. ... In Swiss Family Robinson, for example, Tommy Kirk and James MacArthur play brothers who come upon a young woman disguised as a boy. Both find the boy strangely appealing and have trouble coming to terms with their hormonal reactions until the ruse is revealed. An even longer sustained reading can be applied to the little-known The Light in the Forest (1958) starring James MacArthur as a white boy raised by Indians who is recaptured and must readjust to his new environment. Throughout the film, MacArthur's character rebels by peeling off his confining clothes and running off to wrestle and swim with his male Indian friend. It is only with the stern and loving hand of the Army camp commander (Fess Parker) that the young man begins to revise his attitude. It is an uphill battle, though, as a remarkable sequence in which the commander forces the boy to take a bath is supposed to demonstrate. In the scene, MacArthur sits in a small iron washtub with his knees sticking out, and Parker actually reaches between the boy's legs to get the soap and lather up his chest! Later, as MacArthur's character begins to look up to the commander, the camp holds a dance and one of the activities involves fighting for a prize, which the winner will give to the one he cares for most. MacArthur, of course, wins and immediately hands it to Parker. The rest of the crowd laughs and explains that it is meant for a girl, assuming that MacArthur just didn't understand. Such a moment makes it all the more plausible to read the feelings the boy has for the commander as an adolescent proto-queer crush.About this time, though, MacArthur's character finds an appropriate (female, white, young) love interest in Carol Lynley. Later, his young male Indian friend, Half Arrow (Rafael Campos), is shot and killed by a white man (Wendell Corey), when Campos tries to sneak into the camp to visit MacArthur. The incident causes an Indian uprising, which forces MacArthur to choose sides once and for all. He helps the white settlers, but he's captured and humiliated by his former tribesmen, stripped of his Indian identity, his face painted half black and half white. Parker rescues him, but back at the camp, MacArthur challenges Corey to a fistfight, in revenge for Campos' unnecessary death. MacArthur wins again, and he and Corey shake hands, signifying that peace has been restored, through this archetypal male-bonding ritual. Corey praises the young victor, "He's white all right," and the settlers break for a prayer meeting. MacArthur and Lynley share their first kiss in the film's final shot, showing that MacArthur is now everything he's supposed to be: white, heterosexual, and presumably Christian.