Les Misérables: On Manliness & More

How the best film I’ve watched in years pulls hard at the archetype of manliness and far more.

Full disclosure: I have a quote from Victor Hugo (the original author of Les Misérables) tattooed on my body. That is to say, I expected this film to fall embarrassingly short of my expectations.

Billboards for Les Misérables are everywhere here in Hong Kong, and as I’m here for the holidays with my fiancée we decided to go check it out. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Gladiator (Russell Crowe) in a work created by Victor Hugo? Yes, I had to see it. I’d not read any reviews about it, in fact, when we saw it here it wasn’t even released yet back home in the States. I didn’t even know it was in the works or coming out. I had a fairly blank slate but for my own appreciation for Hugo.

The movie opens with an incredible scene (from photo above) of the criminals/slaves pulling a massive boat onto the shore. The camera pans over the entire ship in a fascinating shot that puts you there, and as these bearded and muscular dudes grunt and pull they break… into song. And when Russell Crowe speaks to these men he speaks to them in song. Whoa. Rhyming ABAB quatrains were flying everywhere and from men associated with such cinematic badassness that I at first felt uncomfortable and confused. First thought: My goodness if the entire movie is going to be like this I’m in for a long night. Second thought: My goodness they are going to make a mockery of Les Misérables….

Third thought didn’t come until the mid-way point of the film (a good sign) when it became clear that we were watching what ESPN calls an “Instant Classic.” The movie was ballsy in what it attempted (and achieved) and in this over-the-topness are perhaps too where its flaws shine brightest. But the same has been said for nearly 150 years by academic critics of Hugo’s original work. All the asides, all the wrought attention to detail and the overwhelming Romanticism stood out as flaws to those searching for them, but most now agree that these flaws are all within a novel of originality, depth and master craftsmanship.

Musicals I’ve watched in the past were not also good films. Good films I’ve watched in the past that attempted poetry often didn’t stagger or break the rhymes enough to maximize what the poetry could do. Musicals can often “lose the audience” in that it’s tough to follow along with what’s happening. They can often be so juiced with emotion that they become emotionally boring. What happens in Les Misérables is a well-timed flux of emotions. What I mean is this: When Fantine (Anne Hathaway) delivers a brilliant and raw scene of sadness and longing, for example, the next scene will be one of the humorous Thénardier (Sasha Cohen) swindling people. The movie stays in an emotion just long enough before breaking and going elsewhere. A major flaw in musicals (and perhaps in film and in much literature) is too little of this “breaking.” A single emotion, even if expertly composed, can drag. I didn’t feel that here and I’ve become ultra-sensitive to it over the years.

And then there’s the obvious: Two of Hollywoods most “manly” actors are singing back and forth to each other for over two hours.

Of course I’ve had some interactions with some of my own guy friends who will not see the movie or are otherwise indifferent to it because it’s “a musical” and that means a host of things like “boring” and “gay.” Social media shows most broadly in this regard. Here’s a sample of what I found on Twitter after we wiped our tears and got back to the hostel:

Damn. I couldn’t think of a blockbuster that pulled this hard at gender and sexual archetypes since Brokeback Mountain, and that was a movie about gay men. There are no gay characters in Les Miserables, so clearly it’s the musical genre and the nature of prolonged singing that are associated with femininity and gayness. But what is it about the nature of singing that creates the links to “unmanly” and “gay?”

Is song sustained considered”unmanly” because it is an obvious and spoken emotional expression? Is there something about the gentleness of song itself that grates against our concept of rough and tough masculinity? Are there simply not enough men open to the idea that those who want to go see the film by themselves have to try “not to look gay?” I don’t have any answers but I do have many questions and, honestly, I’m short on patience with guys who judge others or who are entirely closed to the idea (or, rather, totally enclosed within their own belief of manhood) of watching such a film based not on merit or quality or content but because it may pull on their guarded construct of men and manhood.

Final word: Go watch it. Even if it were terrible Les Miserables would be worth watching for the cultural/sexual/gender study alone. I’m no movie critic, but as a poet and fan of Hugo I’m still recovering from not being disappointed. I’m still humming the songs throughout the day. I’m still thinking about its parallels to today’s class struggles and politics. In this age of dumbed-down blockbusters, it was refreshing to see a novel of this magnitude be turned into a movie of, by modern-day blockbuster standards, equal magnitude. It took risks and succeeded because of them. I’ll need to watch the film many more times, but it has potential to make my favorite movies list alongside Forrest Gump and Shawshank Redemption.


–AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Laurie Sparham: Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, center, in a scene from “Les Miserables.”

About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, probably won’t, as I don’t go to many. So I can’t say for sure about the boat-pullers. But the idea of a group of men working at something breaking into song is not a new idea.
    As a general rule, the songs will probably sound as if the lyrics were composed by a drunken gynecologist, but there may be exceptions.

    “If I die on the Russian front,
    Bury me with a Russian….”
    Never mind.

    Possibly the movie’s boat-puller song is deeper than that. More profound.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think there are some pieces from other perennials which show emotion in men. Showboat, West Side Story, come to mind.
    Saw a Big Time touring company do it in Detroit some years ago. The little kid looked like a chubby Annie from the Ethel Merman school of belting it out. Our little town had a choral group which did the songs, connected by a reading. Did better than the Fox Theater experience. Our little kid was, with some difficulty, extracted from soccer practice and, given the bone structure, looked more like a waif who could actually sing.
    She did a fabulous Guenevere some years later.

  3. Thank you Cameron for your review.
    I’m not that much into musicals, but this one looks like it’s worth it.

    Regarding the twitters pictured above, I can only say this: poor fellas. :roll:
    If you’re afraid (because it’s all about being afraid) of a movie (!), then you’re not as “manly” as you’d like to think.
    Go play with your Big Jim or G.I. Joe! :mrgreen:

  4. I saw the stage show three times (L.A. productions) and as a fan of musicals that has gone to many, there are very few I paid to see twice (since theater is so expensive). It still ranks as one of my favorites. I was worried the movie version wouldn’t do it justice, but after hearing some good reviews, I went yesterday with high expectations, and it exceeded them.

    Given the context of this review, it’s sort of funny that the person I went to see the movie with was my dad (who’s 73). My wife had no interest (but isn’t into theater movies in general), so when my dad was visiting for a couple days and said he hadn’t seen it yet but wanted to, I immediately suggested we go see it. Before and after the movie, we talked about interviews we’d seen with the actors talking about how the singing was shot live, not lip-synched like most movie musicals, and that gave it a rawness and authenticity usually lacking in the genre. My dad had already purchased the movie soundtrack. During the movie, I heard my dad sniffling a few times (not an stifling, ashamed kind of way), and though I didn’t cry myself, I felt moved by the story and performances many times. So, I find it sad that there are so many men who feel Les Mis or the musical genre in general are to be avoided as “unmanly”, but I feel lucky to have a dad that raised a son with whom he could enjoy stuff like this without shame.

    As for the movie, I said to my dad that before it, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the stage version, but after, it’s almost hard to imagine how that story ever got told well on something as small as a stage. I loved the stage version, but at least on first viewing, I felt like the movie was better. That may have been the novelty speaking, or the fact that the movie refreshed my memory of so many parts that were excised from the oft-heard Broadway soundtrack version, but I do think the close-ups and rawness brought a level of acting and intimacy that just can’t be picked up sitting far from a stage. From a pure musical standpoint, I don’t think the movie voices were as pitch-perfect or pleasing as the Broadway soundtrack – I’m not sure the movie soundtrack would be all that pleasing, even – but combined with everything else that makes the movie, they seemed to be exactly what they needed to be. I thought Russel Crowe was the weakest link vocally, but not so much that it was distracting – I still accepted him as Javert, not as Russel Crowe singing Javert songs.

    As I said to my dad, I think of the stage version now as a story where the songs and quality of singing are the main thing, and acting is secondary, but in the movie, the acting and story were primary, with the music being the way of telling it. Neither quality was unimportant to the medium where it was performed, but there were pieces of story and emotions that connected in the movie in ways that never really registered or seemed connected despite having read the book and listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times over the years.

    So, if you’re not afraid of musicals, I’d definitely recommend this one, and if you’re afraid of musicals, I’d still recommend it. If you need a cover story, you can tell your buddies you just wanted to hear Borat sing.

    For any Les Mis fans who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a little bonus trivia in case you didn’t already know: the Bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on stage, and is probably the voice you know as Valjean if you have the Broadway soundtrack.

  5. I saw Les Miserables on Broadway at least a dozen times and I think the movie is even better than the play. Oh I’ve heard better Javiers than Russell Crowe- but unless one has a seat in the front row, you never gets the chance to see the actors’ faces the way you do in this beautiful film. The scenery is fantastic. Don’t be afraid of being labelled anything- go see a great movie!

  6. The biggest problem with musicals is the singing for talking. The singing itself is not a problem – many good films display song as a center piece and do it quite well i.e. The Doors movie

    When you inject singing for talking, then it becomes unbearable and Miserables.

    It’s not that its unmanly – it’s inhuman!

  7. Cameron, thanks for the excellent review. I plan to go see the movie today. I took my son to the Broadway musical when he was 21. Neither of us are gay and we loved the music, the passion, the emotional duel between two men of power. I book was also powerful and passionate. Its time we guys confronted our fear of being gay–you either are or you’re not. If you are, embrace it. If you’re not feel good that you’re who you are and they are who they are. Let’s learn to embrace each other, without being so afraid. Too many men die because they’re afraid to be who they are and have friends who they can talk to, listen to, hug, and yes…even sign to. I’ll comment more when I’ve seen the movie.

    • Saw the movie last night with my wife and we both were moved to tears though much of the movie. I’ve worked in prisons and felt the humiliation and abuse that goes on there. I could taste Hugh Jackman’s rage and desperation. Anne Hathaway was brilliant as the the gutsy Fontine. I could smell her fear and the degradation with the rape that goes on with women who are poor and will do anything to support their children. Then, as now, we feel the power of the 99% who have the money and the 1% who just want enough. We see the ongoing conflict between those who build their lives on empathy and those who are so disconnected from their humanity that they cling to the rules, even if they make no sense. We still see young men playing with guns and fighting for honor, while older men would rather run than fight and save lives rather than take them. And we still see men killing themselves when they feel disrespected and dishonored. And of course, we still have the pain of loves lost and the temporary joy of falling madly in love with a sexy stranger. So, if you’re human, and interested in being immersed in the human condition, go see Les Mis.

  8. Is song sustained considered ”unmanly” because it is an obvious and spoken emotional expression?
    That plus a a lack of physical expression. You said above that this movie stars two men that are common referred to as “Wolverine” and “Gladiator”. I’m the one person on the planet that still hasn’t seen Gladiator but I know that a big part of Crowe’s street cred is that he is regarded as a tough manly man and Wolverine is pretty much the personifictaion of “violence is the answer” (despite the occasional emotional displayes).

    Is there something about the gentleness of song itself that grates against our concept of rough and tough masculinity?
    Yes. Yes there is.

    Are there simply not enough men open to the idea that those who want to go see the film by themselves have to try “not to look gay?”
    No there aren’t. A lot of men are still embracing the very active message that such a film is wrong. So they’ll use the excuses of it being gay to avoid seeing it or that “the girlfriend/wife” dragged him to see it.

    Personally I just don’t get much out of musicals (except for Johnny Depp’s Crybaby for some reason) so I don’t watch them. But since this movie is being held in such high regard I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing it some day.


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