This is not your mother’s Christian saint, despite small bows to church history. Yes, Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) here is also a captain of the Praetorian Guards, but unlike the saint’s hagiography, Diocletian does not personally order his death, and the handsome Christian youth is most definitely not a figure who converts others. His major action in this work is to attempt to dissuade the Roman emperor from killing his two current boy bedmates, the second of whom, Diocletian claims, tried to set his bed afire. His interference does not save the boy and gets Sebastiane, in the first of his endless acts of martyrdom, sent off to a desert garrison headed by the hunky ruddy-faced Severus (Barney James), who, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no battles to fight, simply wants the beautiful young man to share his bed now and then, a pleasure which time and again Sebastiane refuses.
Besides what else is there to do in this desert, heated-up outpost but to wander around naked or in cod pieces, eying the other eight soldiers with whom you’re daily sharing your lives? One of their group, the least beautiful of them, wants nothing more than to return to Rome and get himself a female whore. Another young boy seemingly resists all attempted assaults. But all the others, particularly Adrian (Ken Hicks) and Anthony (Janusz Romanov), spend most of their days, when not being forced by Severus to play out mock battles and enter into wrestling matches, to put it simply: kiss, make-out, and fuck. Indeed, Jarman’s and Humfress’ depictions of their tender love-making is the closest this film gets to the truly spiritual, as one of the pair is even allowed to get an on-camera erection. And almost all of these thin and muscled soldiers spend most of their days in naked splendor in the sun, a bit like a gathering of gay magazine models, entertaining both the voyeur Severus and the audience itself. I think anyone who likes the male body, man or woman, might enjoy just staring at the directors’ screen.
Finally, after a particularly frustrating night alone while drinking, Severus orders up the famed scene of arrows being flung through the air into Sebastiane’s body. It can hardly be a surprise that this scene of a naked beauty being put to death by other naked beauties attracted nearly every Renaissance painter. Only Christ and Sebastian might have been painted naked, or at least, semi-naked, a titillation for both Renaissance men and women. If in the saint’s story Sebastian survived all the slings and arrows, and he was ultimately killed with cudgels, Jarman and Humfress know a good image when they see one and end their Sebastiane’s life with an arrow through his neck, the whore-loving rascal organizing and overseeing a death which he has long been wishing for, particularly since it is now a war between the beauty and the beast.
One can well understand why this film was so controversial in its gay and unauthorized telling of a Christian believer who had attempted to stop Diocletian from his endless murder of the converted. How Jarman even cleared the British censors is beyond me. While the US was trying to recover from The Boys in the Band tame row-line dancing, Sebastiane presented its hero in a wild dance to the sun and body that Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis might have died for.