With most of the western world lifting bans and embracing lesbian and gay service members, we can expect military narratives to become something of a staple at LGBTQ film festivals in the years to come. But for nearly as long as there have been motion pictures, men and women in uniform have always been a part of gay film iconography. From the good to the bad to the Tom Cruise, check out these retro armed forces flicks.
William A. Wellman, 1927
When Jack Powell and David Armstrong are billeted together after enlisting as combat pilots in World War I, the two hometown rivals can hardly stand the sight of one another. After all, they had already been at war with each other back home, battling for the affections of the same girl. But as the reality of war begins to kick in, the two men seem to have fixed their sights on each other.
Although the relationship between Powell and Armstrong is portrayed as heterosexual — with legendary silent actress Clara Bow serving as a love interest who comes between them — the homoerotic subtext is undeniable. “Wings” went on to win the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, solidifying its significance with mainstream and queer film critics alike.
Kenneth Anger, 1947
Infamous director Kenneth Anger famously remarked that his experimental 14-minute film “Fireworks” was “all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July.”
“Fireworks” tells the story of a dreamer who goes on a surreal journey, one of seamen and BDSM, to get some satisfaction. Its explicit depictions of desire did not sneak by the censors unnoticed: A 1958 obscenity lawsuit regarding the film made it to the California Supreme Court, where the film was ultimately determined to be of artistic merit. Hooyah!
Reflections in a Golden Eye
John Huston, 1967
“Reflections in a Golden Eye” stars the iconic Elizabeth Taylor and the bisexual screen legend Marlon Brando as a doomed husband and wife duo, torn apart by affairs and Brando’s character’s desire to be with a man. The supporting cast lead equally dramatic lives, as the film explores loss, self-harm, and stalking.
To say the critics abhorred this 1967 melodrama would be a gross understatement, but its unsympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, coupled with the casting of Brando (who came out as bisexual in the 1970s) leaves this film a fascinating relic for LGBTQ film fans.
Tony Scott, 1986
Now, now. We’re not insinuating anything about Tom Cruise (we’d get sued), but “Top Gun” is the stuff “accidental” gay classics are made of. The 1986 film, which received quite the mixed bag of reviews, has a title suitable for porn, a then-closeted Kelly McGillis as a smoking-hot flight instructor, a bleached blonde and tanned Val Kilmer, a bromance, that song by Berlin, and, of course, Tom Cruise (again, not implying a thing).
The film is about two Navy members given the chance to train at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School. It’s a lot of mainstream military-movie/been-there-seen-that, but it’s got enough cheese to keep its viewers sated.
A bingo version of “Top Gun” had spirits at Cinema Q and Red Rocks sky-high this summer, so keep your eyes peeled for future rounds at the Denver Film Society.