Two boys at a private school face the transition to manhood. A HBC reader reports that this was another school film that he liked for the music, the setting, and time period details. The film show cases preppy fashions. This film was Parker Stevenson's film debut. He was about 19 at the time, playing a 16/17 years old. "Separate Peace" took a drubbing from the critics (an understatement). Poor acting and ineffective plot were the charges. I didn't think the lead actors were that bad, though the minor characters were clearly newcomers. The novel, written by John Knowles, was called a "modern classic' when I was in high school, though the storyline and resolution are blurred and a letdown.
The novel, written by John Knowles, was called a "modern classic' when I was in high school, though the storyline and resolution are blurred and a letdown.
The movie was filmed at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, but the school in the film is called The Devon School. The setting and attention to detail still make "A Separate Peace" an enjoyable film to see; the New England countryside is beautiful at any time of year.
This film was Parker Stevenson's film debut. He was about 19 at the time, playing a 16/17 years old. "Separate Peace" took a drubbing from the critics (an understatement). Poor acting and ineffective plot were the charges. I didn't think the lead actors were that bad, though the minor characters were clearly newcomers. John Heyl was also in the film. With the exception of Parker Stevenson none of the young actors was ever again seen in a film.
Two boys at a private school face the transition to manhood. The film focuses on an
intense friendship between two prep school boys aged 17 at an elite New England boarding school during World War II. The two boys are the intellectually serious Gene, who is a sensitive straight-A student, and Finny, his more athletically inclined and extrovert best pal. Although the relationship between the two boys is suggestive, sexual tension is kept tightly bottled up and suppressed. After all, the action is set in the early 1940s when the subject of gay identity was still almost impossible to address with candor and honesty. In any case, the two boys are about to be drafted for World War II as soon as they turn 18 at the conclusion of their senior year
and are in no position to confront such impulses even if they admit them to themselves. The central event of the story is an accident that occurs at the school when Gene and Finny climb a high tree overlooking the river where the boys go to dive into the water. Taking the high dive out of the tree becomes a rite of passage of sorts, a way the boys have of proving to themselves that they have achieved the status of grown up male adults. As a
result of the rivalry between the two friends, Gene shakes the limb on which both of them are standing, Finny loses his balance and falls to the ground, sustaining a nasty broken leg from which he never fully recovers. Gene has to deal with the guilt of having seriously injured his closest friend. After various misunderstandings, frustrations, and anger, Finny is finally able to forgive Gene who has confessed to him that Finny's "accident" was not entirely accidental. After a an additional fall down the stairs, the crippled Finny has a second operation on his injured leg and dies tragically and unexpectedly under the
anaesthetic. Gene returns to the campus some years later and relives the action of the film as a flashback.
"A Separate Peace" no doubt proved to be a difficult book to turn into a film. One of the most important conflicts of the novel was that Gene struggled inwardly to comprehend just what he'd done that day as he and Finney climbed the tree together. Gene told
himself that he had "jounced" the branch, causing Finney's fall. Was it a conscious choice or just an accident? If he chose to do it, then why, what was his motive? Jealousy? Or, as has been mentioned, was it a taboo emotion? He'd developed an affection for his
best friend, perhaps? As I recall, nowhere in the novel does Gene acknowledge this to himself. Actually, Finney came closer to defining their relationship. After the party, the boys violate school policy by leaving the campus and going to the beach, having a
pleasant afternoon. They sleep on the beach that night, and Finney thanks Gene for coming along with him, "because that's what best friends do, and that's what you are, my best friend." Gene doesn't answer as the scene dissolves. Does Gene set out to destroy the
friend who's causing this ambivalence? If so, is that because he can't admit his true feelings to himself, or because Finney's disclosure is a potential threat to Gene's self image and his precarious standing among his peers? Finney is popular and athletic, and from a wealthy Boston family. He seems to be able to get away with anything. Gene pulls better grades than Finney, but it's a constant struggle for this middle class boy
who isn't so well liked as Finney by his peers. One word, one rumor ... and Gene's life at the school will become a living hell.
When Gene goes to Boston to visit Finney, laid up with a broken leg, he confesses that he caused the accident. Finney, a joker who sails through life apparently untroubled by self-doubts and conflicts, at first laughs this admission off as just a joke. As
Gene insists that "No, it isn't. I meant to do it.", Finney's smile slowly vanishes; he sees his friend in a new light. Anger replaces the levity, and Finney tells Gene to get the hell out. It's as though Finney can't imagine that someone, least of all a best friend
could do such a thing.
The clothing of this movie is very accurate prep school "Ivy League" costuming of the period. The boys wear typical chino slacks, Oxford cloth button-down shirts, and sports jackets or blazers. On playing fields we see them in athletic gear as they play La Crosse or get ready to skul on the river. Finny, who is a bit of a rebel teenager, pushes the dress code a little further than most of his peers by wearing a pink button-down shirt (pink was at this time a daring and unconventional color for correctly dressed upper-class boys) and by wearing the school signature striped tie tied around his waist in lieu of a belt. One of the adults at a social gathering comments on this outrageous dress as in "bad taste", but Finny is trying to express his individuality and the incident gets passed off as a joke. Later, after the accident, Gene expresses his deep feelings for Finny by wearing his friend's pink shirt and the shool-tie as a belt--in one sense an act of love. In the
first shot shown here we see Finny (with Gene) wearing the pink shirt and school tie around the waist. The second exposure shows Gene imitatively wearing his friend's pink shirt and tying the school tie around his own waist as a belt. The shared pink shirt and belt become symbolic of the special relationship between the two boys.
The scene with Gene and Finney walking side by side takes place after they leave a garden party given by the headmaster and his wife. At the party the headmaster
was speaking with some instructors when he noticed that Finney was not only in that pink shirt, but a school tie was holding up his pants. "What is the meaning of this? Using the school tie ... as a belt!" he spluttered. Everyone grew very quiet, but you could
hear a student whisper about Finney, "Now his --- is really going to be in a sling!" Finney slowly replied that he couldn't find his belt and wanted to spare the headmaster's wife the embarrassment of seeing his pants fall down to his ankles! Slowly, the headmaster
begins to crack up at this image, laughing aloud. The tension eased, everyone at the party shares the laugh.
Just why Gene jounced the branch and indirectly caused Finney's death is never satisfactorily resloved in either the novel or the film. The film and novel lose points because they keep the watcher and reader at an emotional distance from the central characters. With so many unanswered questions about their actions and true feelings, it's difficult to engage with the players beyond a superficial level.
A HBC reader reports that this was another school film that he liked for the music, the setting, and time period details. The film show cases preppy fashions.
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