Film aficionados and critics alike are familiar with the speculation pertaining to homosexual readings of films. Particularly those films of old Hollywood, before homosexuality was acceptable outside of the closet in the cinema. Kenneth Anger, Harvey Firestein and Mark Rappaport have all drawn definite conclusions based upon their analysis of certain films as well as filmic archetypes. Strangely, one film that begs such an interpretation has gone largely ignored.
The film of which I speak is Roy Rowland’s Many Rivers To Cross (1955). Today, Rowland is best known for directing The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953), a staggeringly unique children’s film scripted by Dr. Seuss and rediscovered by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the nineties. However, Roy Rowland, in the fifties, was a director for hire whose style leaned toward expressionistic shadows and plastic looking sets. With all of that in mind, Rowland seems an odd choice to direct an out-door adventure comedy starring Robert Taylor, particularly since Many Rivers To Cross was clearly made to cash in on Taylor’s new found persona as an action star after the success of two Richard Thorpe films, Knights Of The Round Table (1953) and Ivanhoe (1952).
Yet, it is neither Robert Taylor nor Roy Rowland who are responsible for the homoerotic overtones in Many Rivers To Cross. The responsible parties appear to be, as is so often the case according to Mark Rappaport’s Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), the film’s screenwriters Harry Brown and Guy Trosper. What is out of the ordinary is how blatant and bawdy the film is in terms of its dialogue. But what remains the real crux of a homoerotic interpretation lies in the name of Robert Taylor’s character, Bushrod Gentry.
From the outset of the film, Bushrod makes it clear that he is not the marrying kind. He often goes off on monologues about the Romantic conflict about man pitted alone against nature, adding that a wife, and all of the responsibility that comes with having a wife, would hamper such a way of life. In the context of the film, Bushrod has a reputation for winning ladies hearts and then abandoning them. Details of Bushrod’s relationships are fleshed out later in the film, where it becomes apparent that the attraction these ladies have for Bushrod is entirely one sided.
The one-sided romance is of course part of the comedy. Mary Stuart Cherne (Eleanor Parker) is relentless in her pursuit of Bushrod. She goes so far as to marry him at gunpoint. This would be acceptable under typical heterosexual comedic circumstances, but Bushrod’s aggressive disinterest in Mary is puzzling in its extremism, making Katharine Hepburn’s pursuit of Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938) look mild. But what is most compelling about their relationship is that Mary presents rather masculine, both in dress and in behavior. Bushrod, by the time the film concludes, has chosen to stay with Mary, and its impossible to ignore the notion that part of what motivates Bushrod are indeed Mary’s masculine tendencies.
Immediately after the wedding, Bushrod runs away, only to be pursued by Mary. Lucky for Bushrod, a gaggle of Indian hunting men rescue him, and Bushrod is introduced to Fremont (Jeff Richards). Fremont and Bushrod are both infamous mountain men, and connect over a beer, lamenting the hardship of marriage. No sooner do they agree to go off into the mountains together and shirk their marital responsibilities than they get into a bar fight. Once the fight is won, they head off to Fremont’s house, only to find Fremont’s son is sick. Luckily, Bushrod is able to revive the boy. But, being moved by Fremont’s domesticity, Bushrod sets out to rejoin Mary, arriving in time to save her from Indians.
The conclusion of Many Rivers To Cross is as unmotivated as it is tacked on. It’s clear, and it has been adamantly reinforced that Bushrod would rather be with men, and if not with men, alone. Consider the flirtatious greeting Fremont gives Bushrod when they first cross paths, “You’re smaller than I reckoned”. To which Bushrod replies with a grin, “I’m bigger than I look”, the two men then embrace and order a round of beers. It is the persistent dialogue and body language in Bushrod’s scenes with the same sex in addition to his aversion to women that give credit to the allegations of blatant homoeroticism.