Based on the largest collection of queer love letters from World War II, Andy Vallentine’s short film The Letter Men is a window into the untold true story of two gay men desperately in love but torn apart by war.
Starring Garrett Clayton as Gilbert Bradley and Matthew Postlethwaite as Gordon Bowsher, their romantic correspondence between the years of 1938 and 1941 remarkably survived. Many such letters would have been burnt or destroyed since being a homosexual during that time was incredibly difficult. Gay activity was a court-martial offence, jail sentences for so-called “gross indecency” were common, and much of society strongly disapproved of same-sex relationships.
These letters were uncovered in 2017 and provided Vallentine the material to create a fleeting but impactful love story. Using the letters’ actual text, The Letter Men spans the time from Bradley and Bowsher’s first meeting to their time on the battlefields and air raid shelters. The short film premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and is now vying for a 2023 Academy Award.
Instinct caught up with Vallentine to talk more about why he wanted to tell this story, the film’s significance, and what he hopes it accomplishes.
Can you begin by telling us how you came across Gilbert and Gordon’s love story and why you wanted to turn it into a short?
I saw a BBC article about the discovery of Gilbert and Gordon’s love letters a couple of years ago, and I was like, oh my gosh, I have to be the filmmaker to tell their story. I’m a history buff, I’ve always been interested in World War II, my grandfather was a glider pilot who fought in World War II, and he really opened up to me at the end of his life about his experience over there.
That got me hooked on World War II stuff, and as a queer person, obviously, I want to amplify and tell queer stories. So, a queer couple in love torn apart by war during World War II, I was like, I’ve got to be the one to tell this story, but it took a little bit of time. I managed to go over to England and meet with Mark, who is the curator at the Oswestry Town Museum, and kind of won the rights to tell their stories.
How did these letters initially resurface and come to public knowledge?
After Gilbert passed away, he had kept these letters his entire life, and they were kind of auctioned off via eBay. I guess this is a thing in Europe, where a military reseller came in and looked through his old stuff, and these are things that his family didn’t look at or keep. This military reseller bought it and then he put them on eBay.
A lot of the letters were postmarked in Oswestry, so Mark, the Oswestry Town Museum curator, he started buying them thinking they would make for a great museum exhibit. After he bought around 15 of them and read them, he was like, oh my gosh, this is a letter set between two men. It didn’t click until then, and that’s when he felt like he needed to purchase all the letters.
I read that there were many interested parties who hoped to share this story with a wider audience. What did you do to seal the deal?
Yes, a lot of Hollywood people were reaching out. A lot of bigger Hollywood people, who had made big movies and stuff. They wanted the letters, but Mark wasn’t willing to give them the letters. That was kind of the thing that he was holding onto. Not to mention, there were hundreds of letters, and they were all just in a box.
So, I took the initiative to go to England and sit with Mark and his family for four days, read all the letters, start transcribing them, and explain to him why I felt like I was the young filmmaker that was right to tell this story. There is also the hope of one day taking the short and building it into a big feature film or a miniseries.
That was my next question. You would like to turn the short into a bigger production project?
Absolutely. The short film, it’s a wonderful nine-minute film. We briefly glimpse into Gilbert and Gordon’s relationship that they had during that time, but there are hundreds of letters, so there’s so much more that we can expand on. Gordon was such an elegant writer, that he really went into significant detail about what it was like living during World War II and what it was like being queer during that time. It’s a fascinating look into that part of queer history, and because there’s an ample amount of letters, it lends itself to a bigger film or miniseries.
How has the short been received by audiences?
The short is doing wonderful. It premiered at Tribeca this past summer, which was a dream come true to premiere at such a prestigious film festival, and then it’s gone on to be accepted into about 20 other film festivals throughout the world, winning a number of awards. From “Best International Short,” to “Best Director,” to “Best Editing.” Hopefully we will be eligible for an Academy Award, so we’ll see what happens in the next few months.
What made Garrett Clayton and Matthew Postlethwaite perfect for the roles of Gilbert and Gordon?
Matthew is a gay actor and producer, and he reached out to me saying he was interested about the letters. He’s British, and he was interested in telling their stories. So, he and I had made this connection a few years ago, and I had followed his career, and we became friends. I thought he would be perfect to star in the short as Gordon. I wanted there to be some element of British culture in the film. He’s a fantastic actor, so I thought he was the perfect choice. Then Garrett, he’s another friend, and I felt like he was great for the role of Gilbert. They both spent 2-3 days with us making this really beautiful short.
What kind of effect do you hope The Letter Men is having on younger people?
The main theme I think I really wanted to push through with The Letter Men, I wanted to share the love that these two men had for each other in such a tumultuous time in human history. While it’s definitely gotten better in certain areas around the world, I’m very fortunate that I was able to marry my husband and we have a daughter that’s almost a year old, and we’re living our life out and proud, but there are a lot of people who are not that fortunate around the world still to this day. So, I wanted to show a queer couple in love during such a rough time and see how their love is through the letters.
Would you say there is an urgency nowadays to highlight and feature the history of same-sex couples?
Yes, there is absolutely an importance to highlight the history of same-sex couples. I think what’s so unique about these letters, it’s also a focus of the film, most queer people destroyed their love letters from that time. LGBTQ people have been around forever. It’s not like we weren’t there back then, but during that time, most queer people burned those letters because they were afraid of being discovered, going to jail, or worse.
So many horrible things happened to LGBTQ people during that time, and the fact that Gilbert kept all of Gordon’s letters was a testament to the love that they had for one another. So, when an opportunity like this presents itself, when we’re able to look into what these gay men were going through during that time, it’s important to speak to that and share as much as we possibly can.
Additionally, 90 percent of the cast and crew who worked on this project identify as LGBTQ. How beneficial was that?
I love working with queer people. That’s why a lot of the content that I make is geared towards the LGBTQ community. Obviously, a lot of the people that I associate with are in that community, so it’s only natural that I wanted to represent the film, not only on screen by casting two out gay men actors, but also behind the camera by having a plethora of the community involved.
From holding the camera, to cinematography, to production design, to editing, to producing, to writing, to hair and makeup, to the people moving the stands – it was important. When we went out and made this, that was something that I was looking for, and I specifically reached out to those crew members that I had worked with for a long time. I was hoping they would dedicate a little bit of time to make this short film that I had been going on about for years.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you would like to mention or plug?
Yes, absolutely. The Letter Men is my current project, and then The Mattachine Family is my feature film that I am very close to completely. It’s a beautiful, full-length feature film produced by Zach Braff, and it stars Nico Tortorella from Younger, Juan Pablo Di Pace from Fuller House, and the hilarious Emily Hampshire Schitt’s Creek. My husband wrote it, and it follows a couple and their journey to become parents.
It’s not autobiographical, but it’s close. It was born out of conversations that my husband and I had about what it meant to be gay now, what it means after marriage equality, and what it means to be gay and have a family and children. We were very fortunate to be able to film this movie, and then a month later, we welcomed our daughter Florence to the world. That film is almost done, and it’ll be making the festival rounds in 2023, and hopefully coming to theaters or streaming services in the summer.