Short Film - The Letter Men

Screening at Tribeca Film Festival next week, Jimmy Hunter watched the short film The Letter Men...

“Based on the largest collection of queer love letters from WWII, The Letter Men is a window into the untold true story of two gay men desperately in love but torn apart by war.”

They should make a full screen play of this. Just before I say anything more, please pass that message on.

This subject has fascinated me for a very long time – there’s a social media hashtag called #WeWereAlwaysHere and attached to this are pictures of LGBT couples from decades, and centuries, ago. It’s both heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure. As a young gay man in my late teens, I knew men who were around the age I am now (almost 60) who would’ve been born in the 1920s and 1930s and I was always fascinated by their histories and experiences. They made light of the danger of being gay at that time and turned those stories into very camp, long and in most cases, very funny anecdotes. But underneath the laughter lay hardship and bitter persecution of a sort that, despite the toxic environment we have right now, has largely and rightly been consigned to the past.

There was an episode of Ghosts in season 2 entitled Redding Weddy where “the captain’s past comes back to haunt him” – those eight words do not do the story justice. The captain’s second in command, and the man he’s clearly in love with, leaves for another post and doesn’t return. The way this is handled is very sensitive, but unlike the history of the other ghosts, it’s never spoken about.

The Letter Men addresses this subject directly, with respect and grace, and allows the story of the two men to be told objectively and with honesty. It’s beautifully filmed and throughout its 8 minutes I felt the passion of director Andy Vallentine to tell the story of Gilbert and Gordon in a way that puts it on par with its heteronormative counterparts. The whole project was as a result of Vallentine seeing this BBC article and, as Vallentine said in an interview, “The Letter Men is an epic WWII romantic drama based on actual people and actual events with two leading characters that happen to be men. Even without that final detail, this would make a compelling film”. 

A warm sunny, carefree day at a party on a houseboat is where we first encounter Gilbert Bradley and Gordon Bowsher. Although they didn’t know each other, I wonder if they knew OF each other, as Gordon was in a romantic relationship with Gilbert’s nephew at the time. The film doesn’t have time to answer this question or any others (hence the request for a full feature length screenplay) and we see the relationship progress quickly. Vallentine almost lovingly leads us through the early stages of the relationship and though it’s a short, we’re left in no doubt that the pair have fallen in love with each other.

The instinctive and almost immediate hiding of the affair when they return to their daily lives and subsequent enlistment in the armed services is in stark contrast to the dreamy houseboat sequences. This instinct was essential at a time when not only was it illegal to be gay, in the armed services men could be shot for having sex with other men. At this point, however, we must bear in mind that this is not a story of two working class men – that would have been a very different story. Gay men who came from wealth and privilege in many cases had a built-in smokescreen, an immunity, if you will, from detection by the outside world. It therefore allowed them to conduct their affairs more privately.

What this film also does, in a rather wonderful way, is give us real and positive LGBT representation. Vallentine co-wrote the film with his husband Danny Kish (credited as Danny Vallentine on IMDb) and both leading actors are out gay men: Gilbert Bradley is played by Garrett Clayton and Gordon Bowsher by Matthew Postlethwaite (nephew of the late and much-lamented Pete Postlethwaite). Don’t overlook this fact or underestimate its value, especially right now when LGBT hate crime is rising fast.

If Vallentine’s wish was for the audience to connect with Gilbert and Gordon, to feel their love and their pain, his wish is granted simply by the exquisite way in which the film was shot and directed. Even in its 8 minutes and 41 seconds, we are treated to a swift yet powerful whirlwind love affair and before long, the love letters are being read out: narrated by Gordon, we see a tear roll down Gilbert’s smoky, dirty cheek as he reads from one of the letters.

Gordon says: “​​wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our letters could be published in the future in a more enlightened time. Then all the world could see how in love we are.” Well, thanks to this delightful short film, Gordon’s wish has come true: and we remember Gordon and Gilbert, and all the others, with love and respect.

Follow Jimmy on Twitter @JimJamGin

THE LETTER MEN will screen at Tribeca on Friday, June 10th at 9:15 pm and Wednesday, June 15th at 9 pm. Find out more at

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