LGBT Movies: Borstal Boy (2000)

During Brendan Behan’s short life, he joined the Irish Republican Army, served multiple prison sentences and became a celebrated writer. Then he drank himself to death at 41. His 1958 novel Borstal Boy recounts the years he spent in borstal youth prison. The 2000 film Borstal Boy transforms this tale into a cuddly bisexual romance. It’s pleasant enough on its own. But the more one learns about Behan, the sillier the story becomes. It suggests a kiss is all it took to quench Behan’s political outrage.

Learn more in this spoiler filled recap.

Act One: Arrest

Scene One. English Courthouse. 1939
JUDGE: You stand accused of smuggling explosives for the IRA. Will you name your contact?
BRENDAN (Age 16): No. Up with the Republic!
JUDGE: Four years in borstal.

Scene Two: Borstal
WARDEN (Michael York): Welcome to borstal lads. Don’t try to escape. There are land mines outside.  
BULLY: I’m evil and I’m in charge here.
SAILOR: I’m gay and adorable.
WARDEN’s DAUGHTER: I’m feisty and naive.
BRENDAN: I need to get out of here.

Scene Three: Dorms
SAILOR: I love your accent.
BRENDAN: Stay away from me.
SAILOR: We all need friends. What’s that you’re reading?
BRENDAN: Oscar Wilde. But I’m not queer.
SAILOR: I could tell by your hair.
BRENDAN: What’s wrong with my hair? (They laugh.)

Act Two: Loyalties

Scene Four: Escape attempt
BRENDAN: I stole civilian clothes. Let’s go.
(Brendan and some other boys climb the wall and run down the beach. One steps on a land mine.)
WARDEN: Didn’t someone specifically mention that there were land mines? Oh wait, that was me.

Scene Five: Dorms
BULLY: You tried to escape and you didn’t bring me!? (Chokes Brendan with a belt.)
SAILOR: Get off of him. (Rescues Brendan.)
BRENDAN: You saved me. Have my gran’s necklace. As a token of our platonic friendship.

Scene Six: Theater
SAILOR (As Gwendolyn): Then we are to be married. (Kisses Brendan)
BRENDAN (As Jack): I’ve now realized the importance of being earnest.
(The audience applauds.)
WARDEN’s DAUGHTER: You were wonderful Brendan. I really like you and…
BRENDAN: Hold that thought. I need to talk to Sailor.
(Brendan and Sailor find a quiet corner and make out.)

Act Three: Goodbyes

Scene Seven: Dorms
BULLY: Guess what I found under Sailor’s bed? He’s been stealing trinkets from each of us!
(Bully and his crew attack Sailor and the Warden’s Daughter. Brendan beats Bully unconscious.)
WARDEN: Brendan you’ll go to solitary for this.
WARDEN’s DAUGHTER: Let him go daddy. He saved me.

Scene Eight: Bury Your Gays
SAILOR: Speaking of ships, the Navy wants me back. (Leaves.)
BRENDAN: I’m sure I’ll understand my feelings for him by the time he returns.  
NEWS REPORT: The Germans immediately sunk Sailor’s ship.
(Brendan has a bisexual nervous breakdown.)
WARDEN’s DAUGHTER: I’m sorry. Daddy’s going to give you an early release for good behavior.
BRENDAN: You and Sailor taught me I could love the English. Bisexually. Just like Oscar Wilde.
(Brendan sails back to Ireland as triumphant music plays.)


A Touch of the Blarney

After being discharged as a presumably pacified bisexual, he returns to Ireland and the movie ends quickly, before having to deal with the facts that he once again took up arms for the IRA, shot a cop, [and] was sent back to prison.

Roger Ebert

Shawn Hatosy and Danny Dyer have an easy chemistry as Behan and his sailor. Eva Birthistle is compassionate in the underwritten role of the warden’s daughter. Michael York’s warden doesn’t make an impression despite being the biggest name in the cast.  

The 1988 documentary A Hungry Feeling examines Behan’s rise and fall. In his early television appearances, we see the brash storyteller who could enchant an audience. In his later ones we see the drunkard who could barely finish a sentence. His friends blame the pressures of fame and the need for attention. They don’t discuss how spending his formative years in prison affected his mental state.

Behan would include queer characters in his plays; 1954’s The Quare Fellow and 1958’s The Hostage. Charlie Milwall, the sailor, appears in his novel. But Behan’s sexuality was only revealed by his family after his death. Director and screenwriter Peter Sheridan admitted that he “took huge liberties” in order to contrast Behan’s politics with his sexual awakening. “Some people thought it was a travesty and others really brave and refreshing.” I’m all for drawing attention to the lives of queer artists. But you can explore Behan’s sexuality without sanitizing his personality. You don’t have to be a saint to be queer.

You can find more of my reviews on The Avocado and Letterboxd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.