A lieutenant falls in love with an officer on the eve of the American Civil War. The realization of his homosexuality drives him to despair. South aired on November 24, 1959 as part of ITV’s Play of the Week series. The innuendo laden script reads a bit camp today. The British actors struggle with American dialects and florid monologues. But writer Julien Green, director Mario Prizek and star Peter Wyngarde understood the Lieutenant. They were gay themselves and homosexual acts were still illegal in the UK. They made sure every tortured glance was played with honesty.
Learn more in this spoiler filled recap. Trigger warning for racism and self-harm.
Act One: A Warning
Scene One: A Plantation House in the American South. Circa 1860.
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: If you hate the South why don’t you leave?
NORTHERN NIECE: How dare you speak to me that way? I don’t know why my Uncle puts up with you.
UNCLE: I love him… like a second son.
Scene Two: Kitchen
MAGICAL BLIND BLACK MAN: Trouble is coming to this house.
SLAVE: You mean the Civil War?
MAGICAL BLIND BLACK MAN: That too.
Scene Three: Living Room
LITTLE JIMMY: Papa I’ve done something racist.
UNCLE: But I specifically told people we weren’t racist! Lieutenant, take this cane and spank my son.
NORTHERN NIECE: No Uncle! The Lieutenant would take unnatural pleasure in such a task!
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: Why, my dear girl, I’ve absolutely no idea what on earth you could possibly mean.
OFFICER TWINK (Blonde and dreamy): Am I interrupting something?
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: I didn’t realize we had a guest. (Lustful gay staring.)
Act Two: Unrequited Love
Scene Four: Dinner Party
NORTHERN NIECE: I love you. And I hate myself for it.
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: I KNOW ALL ABOUT SELF-LOATHING!
COMIC RELIEF DAUGHTER: I’m going to marry Officer Twink.
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: YOU KEEP AWAY FROM HIM YOU LITTLE HUSSY!
Scene Five: Living Room
UNCLE: What’s wrong?
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: I’m in love with… Comic Relief Daughter. That’s why I hate Officer Twink!
UNCLE: We both know that’s a lie. Stay here with me.
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: I’ll be gone before the dawn.
UNCLE: (Heartbroken gay silence.)
Act Three: Familiar Tropes
Scene Six: Late That Night
OFFICER TWINK: Why so sad? Is it because of the Civil War?
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: I love someone who can’t love me back.
OFFICER TWINK: Comic Relief Daughter? I love her too.
LIEUTENANT CLOSET: THEN FIGHT FOR HER! WE MUST DUEL TO THE DEATH!
Scene Seven: Forest
(The men duel. Officer Twink penetrates Lieutenant Closet with his sword. Lieutenant Closet makes an orgasm face and dies.)
UNCLE: The man I loved is dead.
NORTHERN NIECE: That sword didn’t kill him. He died of gay sadness.
MAGICAL BLIND BLACK MAN: I told you trouble was coming to this house.
Breaking New Ground
I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my living room. This is not prudishness. There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up.The Daily Sketch. November 25, 1959.
Julien Green’s play premiered in 1953. A London production was cancelled by the Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household in 1955. Kenton Coe adapted the work into an opera. It was produced by the Opera de Marseille in 1965 and the Paris Opera in 1972. Afterwards South vanished into obscurity for decades. The British Film Institute restored the film in 2013 and crowned it the first British film to openly discuss homosexuality. In 1961 the baton would be passed to Victim, a film where the gay protagonist is allowed to stand up for himself.
South has a lot it’s mind. The women bristle against their social roles. The black characters debate whether to fight in the war or flee to safety. But these topics take a back seat to the leading man’s gloom. It joins a long list of films that would rather bury their gays then imagine a better world for them.