Back in 2012 the British Film Institute released what is undoubtedly one of the most explicit DVDs ever given an 18 certificate in the UK – The Erotic Films Of Peter De Rome. It was a collection of what are essentially hardcore gay porn short films, which isn’t the sort of thing you’d normally think the BFI would be involved with. They were a bit special though, as they were the work of Peter de Rome, who made them in the 1960s and 70s, at a time before there was such a thing as a gay porn industry. They are extremely rare looks at how gay life – and more particularly gay sex – was back then, as well as being influential in the direction gay erotica took.
The documentary Peter de Rome takes a look at the man’s life, putting his films in the context both of what the filmmaker was trying to do, and the world in which he created them. The film features plenty of interviews with de Rome – in fact he essentially acts as a tour guide to his own life. After serving in the Air Force during the Second World War, de Rome was Involved on the side of the film industry and led a transatlantic existence for most of his life, spending part of his time in the UK and the rest in New York.
When he first started making hardcore shorts, he did it for his own amusement and that of his friends, as he never expected them to be seen more widely. He was helped by the fact that he was not a man who was sexually shy, and he appears to have had an unerring ability to pick up young men who didn’t mind posing for the camera. The documentary takes you through the creation of many of his films, from the early, simpler ones that de Rome himself often featured in, through his more complex and somewhat arty bits of erotica.
If you’ve seen The Erotic Films Of Peter de Rome, it’s pretty fascinating as he talks about how what he was doing could have gotten him locked up in England at the time, and how he went about making his movies. It also goes beyond his shorts, to where he was briefly making full-length erotic movies, before giving up filmmaking completely with the advent of AIDS.
His films stand out thanks to the fact they mix hardcore eroticism with a genuine sense of fun, romance, intrigue and sometimes mystery – they are proper films as well as porn – which even now help them to be both interesting and extremely sexy. Various contributors also talk about how influential this was, such as Wakefield Poole, who many credit as being the godfather of gay porn thanks to the likes of Boys in the Sand, who says that seeing de Rome’s movies helped show him the sort of erotic films he wanted to make.
Alongside the rather fascinating looks at de Rome’s films and his place in the world of homoeroticism, is the fact he had a rather unerring ability to be around when key events were happening, from being in New York during Stonewall to contributing to the Wolfenden Report. He was also asked to make a film by Andy Warhol (although that never happened), and almost inadvertently ended up knowing all sorts of famous people, both thanks to his films and the world he lived in. The man himself is charmingly self-effacing about what he did, but there’s no doubt that this look at his life helps illuminate both his work and the changes in gay culture he lived through.
Many will also be pleased to hear that this is not a shy film, so that when the movie is talking about erections, gay sex and cum shots, that’s exactly what it shows you, ensuring that as well as being extremely interesting, it can be rather titillating in its own right. In doing so it helps show both what gay people have lost and what they’ve gained over the last few decades.
Sadly since this documentary was made, de Rome has died. It is fantastic though that he lived long enough not just for his work to be properly rediscovered but also see his archive get preserved by the BFI and to know that many genuinely appreciate the impact he had. It’s also nice though that even at the end of his life, he still viewed himself as a gentleman amateur who’d lived a full but unspectacular life. I’m sure many people would disagree with him, as his life was pretty extraordinary, and this documentary is a great testament to that.
If you own The Erotic Films Of Peter de Rome, this is a great companion, as well as standing out on its own as a fascinating look into gay life and erotica from before Stonewall through to the modern day.
Overall Verdict: De Rome is a wonderful character and a charming guide both to his own life and the world he lived in, which helps illuminate a slice of gay history through his exceedingly sexy films.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac