John Boswell in the poster artwork for Not a Tame Lion (Photo: Treading Yesterday Productions)

By Matt Brunson

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Craig Bettendorf
STARS Patricia Boswell, Wray Boswell

It’s no secret that the architects of the Religious Right — vile individuals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — have always employed fearmongering and sheepherding as means to lobotomize and control the cowed members of their flock. Love and understanding have never had a place in this perverted brand of Christianity, which even today prefers to divide and conquer rather than accept and embrace.

It’s no wonder, then, that these hypocritical media whores had no use for John Boswell, a Yale professor who was also the author of four exhaustively researched books and a linguist with a grasp of over a dozen languages. Boswell was a gay Christian, and one who believed that the relationship between an individual and God should be — gasp! — personal.

Boswell is no longer with us — he died of AIDS in 1994, at the age of 47 — but the documentary Not a Tame Lion seeks to not only honor his life and legacy but also show why he’s an important figure in LGBTQ history.

Using a mix of sturdy narration (provided by producer Kai Morgan), ample talking heads, vintage footage (look for a young Anthony Fauci), and cheesy (and mercifully few) dramatizations, this is a film of several interconnected parts, taking turns focusing on Boswell’s career, his personal life, the homophobia that ran particularly rampant during the 1980s and early ‘90s, and the AIDS crisis that, contrary to popular belief, is still with us today.


Not a Tame Lion — incidentally, a line borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a favorite of Boswell’s — is at its best when it focuses on Boswell’s work. The extremely popular professor — he was honored as the best teacher at Yale, although someone amusingly notes that he was most proud of being named the sexiest teacher — spent much time explaining that homophobia in Christianity is a modern trend (modern in this context meaning the past several centuries), as in earlier times marriages between members of the same sex were just as common, and just as acceptable, as marriages between men and women. Boswell’s research capabilities were awe-inspiring — it’s suggested that he was a combination of the Tom Hanks character from The Da Vinci Code due to his globetrotting exploits and the Liam Neeson character in Taken thanks to his particular set of skills — and his findings ended up in his books Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1994). Naturally, this put the intrepid scholar in the sociopolitical crosshairs, with some on the left accusing him of being a church apologist and those on the right — well, loop back to that first paragraph.

At 119 minutes, Not a Tame Lion isn’t exactly overlong, although it occasionally feels that way. That’s because the material isn’t always arranged in the most beneficial manner — there’s a place where the picture logically seems to be winding down but instead continues for another half-hour, and there’s the sense that some judicious juggling or trimming might have allowed the film to land with even greater force.

Nevertheless, this is an engaging, enlightening, and informative documentary, and one that flies in the face of the ferocious intolerance currently crippling this nation’s soul.

(Not a Tame Lion is presently playing on the festival circuit and will tentatively be more readily available later in 2022.)

P.S. Although a controversial Doonesbury cartoon regarding Boswell is mentioned in the film, it’s never actually shown. Here, then, is that Garry Trudeau strip, courtesy of Treading Yesterday Productions and Universal Press Syndicate.

Doonesbury on Boswell

1 Comment »

  1. Even gay historians such as Alan Bray pointed out that John Boswell’s ideas on the history of the Church were erroneous on virtually all counts. For example, Boswell claimed that the common practice of swearing an “oath of brotherhood” was a “gay marriage” approved by the medieval Church, which is patent nonsense: it was a standard way of reconciling enemies, as any historian of the period knows perfectly well since there are so many examples of this type of thing. One famous example occurred in 1407 when two hostile dukes, John-the-Fearless of Burgundy and Louis of Orleans, were forced to swear the oath of brotherhood in an attempt to prevent civil war. They weren’t gay lovers, they were bitter enemies; and shortly after taking the oath their attempted reconciliation came to an abrupt end when Louis of Orleans either seduced or tried to rape Margaret von Bayern, the wife of John-the-Fearless, which led the latter to assassinate Louis and thereby set off a civil war within France which later made it easier for Henry V of England to invade France in 1415 and win the famous battle of Agincourt while the French were divided. All of this is well established, but Boswell turned history completely upside down. He should not be celebrated for distorting history beyond recognition.

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