— Guest post by Wolff —
Alrighty we’re in the homestretch! This week, in honor of Pride, I thought I would review stuff that has main characters who are LGBT+. So I took a stroll through Netflix to see what they had to offer and I found this. Directed by Alan Brown and released in 2011, Private Romeo is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in a boys-only military academy in the present. The film is meant to be a commentary on the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that was then present in US military branches. Most of the dialogue used in the movie is taken directly from Romeo and Juliet, and the story is meant not so much as a retelling of the play, but an examination of a story that parallels the play at certain points but diverges at others. I really, really loved what Brown did with the ending so there will be major spoilers in my plot summary and my first discussion paragraph (aka the first three paragraphs).
We meet the boys of McKinley Military Academy as they are sitting in class reading Romeo and Juliet aloud. We soon learn that 8 cadets who did not qualify for a field exercise of some kind will be left behind at the school to continue their daily activities. That night, the boys sneak out to have a low-key party complete with beer and playing cards. While there, Sam Singleton (Seth Numrich, filling the role of Romeo) divulges to his friend and roommate Gus Sanchez (Sean Hudock, filling the role of Benvolio and Capulet’s wife) that he has been eyeing Glenn Mangan (Matt Doyle, filling the role of Juliet) all night and goes over to him. The two hit it off, and enact the “holy palmer’s kiss” scene, but are interrupted by Glenn’s friend and roommate Omar Madsen (Chris Bresky, filling the role of the nurse). They meet up in the halls later as Sam avoids his (drunk) friend Josh Neff (Hale Appleman, filling the role of Mercutio and Capulet) and enact the “balcony” scene, promising to meet the next day. Sam enlists the help of Adam Hersh (Adam Barrie, filling the role of Friar Lawrence) in getting the two into a locked classroom where they can have some privacy.
While Glenn and Sam are off on their own, Carlos Moreno (Bobby Moreno, filling the role of Tybalt and Capulet) takes exception to their relationship and a fight ensues between him and Josh while Gus tries to prevent it. Sam comes in and breaks up the fight but not before Josh is injured. Angry that his friend was hurt on his behalf, he beats up Carlos until he is stopped by Gus. Knowing that trouble will come from the encounter, Gus tells Sam to run. The cadet left in charge of the group, Ken Lee (Charlie Barnett, filling the role of Prince Escalus), deals with the situation by calling his superior and reporting the incident. Sam is officially expelled as a result, against Ken’s wishes, and all that needs happen now is for him to be found. After spending the night together, Sam leaves Glenn to strike out on his own. Glenn enlists Adam’s help and he gives him a substance that will make him “like to death”. Glenn takes it in one of the empty lecture halls, and Gus runs to find Sam; his yells interrupting Josh and Carlos who are extending olive branches in the locker-room. Sam finds Glenn, unconscious and apparently dead, and drinks from the same flask that Glenn got from Adam in an effort to join him. Sam lays down beside Glenn and passes out. Glenn wakes up and is confronted with Adam, who tells him to come away as the search party looking for Sam is approaching. Glenn refuses to leave Sam’s apparently dead body, and Adam flees. Enacting the “tomb” scene, Glenn kisses Sam and Sam wakes up, reuniting the two just as the search party bursts through the doors.
Ok so I will discuss where I thought the film had its weak and strong points next but what I want to put here is a discussion of the major plot changes to the end made by Brown, so skip ahead if you don’t want spoilers. Anyways, the big change: no one dies. That’s right folks, Mercutio, Tybalt, Romeo, and Juliet all live. Technically Paris too because he’s not even a player but you know. What I love, love, love about this is that it plays off of the audience’s expectations of both the play and the gay storyline. The play ends with the death of “two star-crossed lovers” whose fate did not allow to be together. That’s the way that it was written, it’s the way it has always been performed, and it’s the way it most likely always will be. Knowing that this story features a gay romance in a military setting adds to the audience expectation that it will not end well for the two boys. But what Brown has done is changed the ending. He took one of the most classic tragic endings, arguably Shakespeare’s most well-known tragic work, and reworked it so that everyone lives. What this does is sends the audience a message: “This story has a set ending, one that you were all expecting, but times are changing. This story doesn’t have to be tragic. It doesn’t have to end this way.” This is mostly accomplished by Sam and Glenn’s reunion, but also with Josh and Carlos’ reconciliation. Those were the two characters who held the most animosity, yet Josh extends a helping hand to Carlos in an effort to bridge the rift between them. Again, Brown is talking to the audience with the change: “People can develop, it doesn’t have to end in violence.” I just thought that was really cool, so I had to rant about it. The rest of the post should be spoiler free.
Like Hunter, I am a pretty big Shakespeare fan. Admittedly, Romeo and Juliet is not my favorite, but it’s still Shakespeare. That’s really what drew me to this film, honestly the title was a bit of a turn-off (apparently alternate titles that were considered were “McKinley” and “The Shakespeare Project”, both of which I think are better but whatever). Anyways, Brown made the choice to keep all the original dialogue the same when using it, meaning that the pronouns are still feminine for the traditionally female characters. Brown stated that he considered changing them, but that that would lead to a domino effect that would destroy the rhythm and poetry in Shakespeare’s original words. I agree with this choice, I think that attempting to change the words to fit with the “correct” gender would have taken too much effort and would have proved a distraction from the story he was trying to tell. What was amazing to me is what the actors managed to convey through body language when using the original dialogue that took the words and gave them new meaning.
For example, the night following the party Josh and Gus talk to Sam in the gym about what had happened (the whole “holy palmer’s kiss” thing happened in full view of everyone else there) and Josh says “Why, is this not better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable; now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art,…” it is clear that he is talking about Sam now being out to his friends rather than pretending to have a crush on a girl that doesn’t exist. And during the party when Sam turns to Gus and says “What lady is that, which doth enrich the hand of yonder knight?” it is obvious from Gus’ reaction that he did not know that Sam played for the opposite team; and as Sam goes on to praise Glenn’s beauty and declare his intentions to woo him Gus’ face goes from confusion, to realization, to a frantic kind of “here? really?!”. Finally, when Sam is attempting to enlist Adam’s help in getting together with Glenn, he pauses before dropping “on the fair daughter of rich Capulet” realizing that this will out him to Adam. And Adam’s subsequent “Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!” takes on a new meaning in this context.
As much as I liked how the original dialogue was adapted to the new story, the film is not without it’s problems. Brown attempted to have the boy’s story be it’s own animal, whose events happened to parallel that of Romeo and Juliet which they are reading in their English class. But there is so little dialogue that is not taken from Shakespeare it is difficult to get a feeling for what is actually happening. For example I think Carlos was fighting with Josh because he was homophobic and Josh was defending his friend, but I’m not sure. And considering there was a scene previous to that one where Josh, Gus, and Adam break into Glenn’s room and duct tape/saran wrap him to a chair outside for the rest of the night, this is even more confusing. Was this also a homophobic act? Or just messing around? I can’t tell because neither Josh nor Gus seem to have a problem with Sam being gay otherwise, but the act is very specifically targeted at Glenn who is also gay.
I think the film could have benefited from more original dialogue that established the intended storyline and characters a little better, because the audience is left to do a lot of interpreting. It falls into a trap that a lot of remakes and adaptations do, which is to rely too much on the original material, but attempt to establish itself in its own right at the same time ending in confusion for all. I would still recommend it because I think its implications and use of the Shakespearian storyline are fascinating and very well done, despite its shortcomings.
“O trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again.”
— Guest post by Wolff —