Scotland, as seen in the late Bill Douglas’s formidable cycle of shorts, My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), and My Way Home (1978), is Beckett-bleak, hard, and colorless. This is “old Europe” indeed, unvarnished and looking its age, a world of battered furniture, cruel families, and cold facts. The filmmaker shot the trilogy, screening as part of Anthology Film Archives’s Douglas retrospective, in his hometown of Newcraighall, and found local villagers for the roles; for the main character of Jamie, who suffers through a life of biting poverty based closely on Douglas’s own, he cast Stephen Archibald, a preteen delinquent who had asked him for a cigarette at a bus stop. Over the course of the three films, as Jamie emerges from a resilient adolescence into a more uncertain, fragile manhood, we watch Archibald grow too. It’s a tight-lipped performance quavering on the brink of documentary.
Douglas’s withholding style can be likened to Robert Bresson’s or Charles Burnett’s, particularly the sparse use of sound that accentuates his lingering camerawork, drawing out the rough edges of reality. When dialogue does occur, the lonely words bear iron weight. In one scene, Jamie lies in bed in the dark, muttering into his pillow, “I want to die. I want to die. I want to die.” It’s a desperate mantra, a prayer spoken to no one, where the typically hardy lad reveals the spiritual sinkhole within.
In My Way Home, after Jamie joins the Royal Air Force, the cramped insularity of Newcraighall gives way to the expansive sands of Egypt. Like a cage-raised animal set awkwardly free, Jamie remains compulsively introspective, but Robert, an English airman at the same base, attempts to draw him out as the two become fast friends—the first such relationship in Jamie’s life. The magnetic charge between the two plays out as something very much like love—vulnerable, faltering, necessary—a depiction of male intimacy rarely seen on-screen.
In Douglas’s own life, as the documentary Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image reveals, Robert’s real-world analog, Peter Jewell, remained a lifelong companion after their service together, forging the director’s longest and deepest human relationship. The pair shared a collection of antique movie memorabilia and, eventually, a home together. In interviews, Jewell clarifies that the queer pair weren’t actually gay—their life together, he says, was “everything but sexual.” The same could be said of many marriages, so that point might be moot.
Comrades (1987), Douglas’s only completed feature film, likewise deals with the complexities of bonds between men, but of a rather different stripe: It’s a mid-19th-century Empire-spanner (his “poor man’s epic”) about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a band of British laborers who formed a pre-union “friendly society” in the face of economic exploitation, then faced arduous exile in Australia. The rough immediacy of the trilogy is lost in Comrade‘s lush color landscapes and strange period details, yet the odd blend of proto-Marxism and Merchant Ivory remains a compelling utopian vision.