LGBT Movies: Penda’s Fen (1974)

A reverend’s son wrestles with his faith and his sexuality. He goes on an Alice and Wonderland style journey through his hometown of Pinvin questioning the living and the dead about the basis of their beliefs. David Rudkin’s screenplay is full of big ideas about religion, sexuality, history, education, the military and the British government. Alan Clarke’s naturalistic direction and Spencer Bank’s grounded lead performance keep it from spinning out of control. You may not have read all the books Rudkin has but you can follow Bank’s coming of age journey without them.

Want to learn more? Then read my spoiler filled recap.
Thanks to rev_skarekroe for recommending the film.

Act One: Stephen Awake

Act 1. Milkman
Got milk?

Scene One: A house in Pinvin
STEPHEN (a tormented teenager): GO AWAY MUMMY! I’m writing about God! The Dream of Gerontius, by Sir Edward Elgar, follows a man through death, hell and heaven. It speaks to my Protestant guilt. I can’t let anyone interrupt me!
SEXY MILKMAN: Knock Knock.
STEPHEN: I’LL GET IT! (Runs downstairs.)
MOTHER: Our prissy son is gay.

Scene Two: Town Hall Meeting
PLAYWRIGHT: You can’t trust the government man. They’re experimenting under Penda’s Fen.
(Innocent teenager walks onto the Fen. Gets burnt in an explosion.)
PLAYWRIGHT: Told you so. Now let’s never mention that subplot again.
STEPHEN: What’s a Fen?
PLAYWRIGHT: A type of wetland. It’s like a field… only wet.
STEPHEN: Why is it Penda’s Fen?
PLAYWRIGHT: They say King Penda, the last of the pagans, died there
STEPHEN: Mummy, I don’t like that man. I think he’s a homosexual. Not a good Protestant like me!
MOTHER: (rolls her eyes)

Scene Three: Military School
STEPHEN: I dreamed there was a demon on the church steeple. I used my mind to turn it into an angel, then back into a demon.
HEADMASTER: That’s pagan heresy. You should play more sports.
SEXY BULLY: You suck Stephen!

 Act Two: Stephen Asleep

Act 2 bed.
Watcha doin’ Stephen?

Scene Four: Sex Dream.
SEXY BULLY: Where are my clothes? Oh, touch me Stephen! Lower.
DEMON: Don’t mind me Stephen. I’m just watching you masturbate.
SEXY MILKMAN: Wake up Stephen. It’s time for your milk.
STEPHEN: Go away!

Scene Five: Conformity Dream.
STEPHEN: Riding my bike. La la la.
ANGEL: Hi Stephen.
STEPHEN: Hi Angel.
(Stephen crashes his bike and awakes in a garden full of smiling children.)
WELL DRESSED COUPLE: Hello children. It’s time to chop off your hands so you stay pure. Chop chop! It’s your turn Stephen!
SEXY MILKMAN: Stephen, wake up. Are you all right? (Lifts Stephen up.)
STEPHEN: I was dreaming of British conformity! You have very strong arms.
SEXY MILKMAN: I also have a girlfriend, stud. (Sexy Milkman exits the movie.)
STEPHEN: Aw, nuts!

Scene Six: Music Dream.
(Stephen gets caught in the rain. Takes shelter in an abandoned cabin.)
SIR EDWARD ELGAR: You like my music? One of my songs was a puzzle. Meant to be played on top of another tune. Angel and devil entwined. Shall I whisper it to you?
STEPHEN: You died in 1934. Am I going insane?
SIR EDWARD ELGAR: It’s just puberty.

Act Three: Stephen In Between

Act 3. Dad
Cool dad.

Scene Seven: 18th Birthday:
MOTHER: If you flunk school, you’ll get stuck working in a factory.
STEPHEN: And my life path seemed so clear at the beginning of the movie. Dad am I a pagan heretic?
REVEREND DAD: No. You’re just adopted.
STEPHEN: That tracks. Do you still trust the church?
REVEREND DAD: In my way. Pagan means “from the village.” Villages are small Stephen but people look out for each other. They protect each other from the machine of capitalism.
STEPHEN: Did pagans believe in Jesus?
REVEREND DAD: The pagans thought Jesus was one of many carriers of the light.
(Stephen plays Sir Edward Elgar’s song on the church organ. The floor of the church cracks open… or does it? Jesus speaks to Stephen from the church crucifix.)
JESUS: Stephen, you’re so cool!
STEPHEN: Thanks Jesus.

Scene Eight: Penda’s Fen
WELL DRESSED COUPLE: We’re your birth parents Stephen! Come with us and stay a pure English child forever.
STEPHEN: But I’m not pure. I’m an adopted, mixed race, self-doubting homosexual. I am fire and mud. And that’s okay.
WELL DRESSED COUPLE: Burn the heretic! (They light Stephen on fire.)
KING PENDA: Get away from him you creeps! (Rescues Stephen.) Stephen you got it right hunty. Let your freak flag fly and keep questioning authority. Just like I did before I got slaughtered by the Christians. Your questioning mind is the light you carry inside you. Gurl.
STEPHEN: So, Penda’s Fen was inside me all along?
KING PENDA: Penda’s Fen was the Fens you met along the way.


So… what was that all about?

Epilogue Blessing
A blessing from the King.

Penda’s Fen is a very simple story; it tells of a boy, Stephen, who in the last summer of his boyhood has a series of encounters in the landscape near his home which alter his view of the world.” ~ Writer David Rudkin

Stephen’s initial desire for conformity is shattered by the realization of his homosexuality. Once that can no longer be ignored, he begins to question everything around him. It’s refreshing to see teen homosexuality discussed in manner-of-fact terms. It’s also refreshing to see that sexuality is only one of many concerns in Stephen’s story. He’s lucky to have supportive mentor figures, real and imagined, to help him through his journey.

Director Arthur Clarke was celebrated for gritty realism. He brings that approach to the dreams here, making them all the more unsettling. The Guardian went so far as to call it a horror story. I’m not sure I agree. The film is obscure, airing on British television once, then vanishing for some time. Still every review I’ve found praises its ambition. You can read an in depth analysis from the British Film Institute here.

Other films about LGBT folk wrestling with their faith include: The Falls (2012); For the Bible Tells Me So (2007); The Gospel of Eureka (2018); Impossible Choice (2012); Latter Days (2003); Let My People Go! (2011); Prayers for Bobby (2009); Priest (1994); Rock Haven (2016); The Seminarian (2010); and The Wise Kids (2011). For more reviews of LGBT+ media click here.

Up next: I’ll report back on the films of Chicago’s Reeling Festival. Recurring themes this year include homophobia in the sports world, ambivalence about same sex marriage, ambivalence about same sex parenthood and discussions of sexual fluidity. I’ve tried to avoid tragedies but have still had to watch several brutal gay bashings and three untimely deaths. Some people will always need to be reminded that gay bashing is bad but I’d love to hear from someone about what other purposes these ugly scenes serve for non-straight audiences. Still, Thanatos is balanced by Eros. For every beating there have been twice as many scenes of love-making. For every funeral there’s been a wedding.