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For anyone interested in the meaning of the term "Southern Gothic," look no further than Carson McCullers' novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, which was first published in 1941 and inspired by a notorious incident that took place in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Set on an army base in the Deep South, the story centers around Captain Penderton, a sexually repressed army officer whose homosexual desires are unwittingly unleashed by a handsome private with some dark secrets of his own. The captain's wife, Leonora, is meanwhile having a not-so-secret affair with her neighbor, Lt. Colonel Langdon, whose neurotic wife has recently mutilated her breasts with garden shears. Joining this odd quintet is Anacleto, an effeminate Filipino houseboy with an almost pathological devotion to Mrs. Langdon. The result is a haunting tale of voyeurism and thwarted desires which opens with this intriguing header taken directly from McCuller's novel, "There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed." Thus begins one of the most unusual films in the combined careers of Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and director John Huston.
By Hollywood standards, McCullers' novel would seem an unlikely candidate for a film adaptation but John Huston decided to make Reflections in a Golden Eye his twenty-eighth feature film (if you count his documentaries and a segment of Casino Royale, 1967). After all, he was no stranger to transforming great literary works into movies; he made The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane's Civil War tale, in 1951 and filmed Herman Melville's Moby Dick in 1956. For Reflections in a Golden Eye, he was hoping he could convince McCullers to work on the screenplay but she was too ill to participate so the task fell to Scottish novelist Chapman Mortimer and screenwriter Gladys Hill.
From the beginning of the project, Huston wanted Elizabeth Taylor for the role of Leonora, an irrepressible sexual being who has a passion for horses. Taylor, who had unexpectedly become the critics' darling after her acclaimed performances in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967), wanted to continue taking on equally challenging roles but her decision to star in Reflections in a Golden Eye hinged on selecting her co-star and she wanted her close friend, Montgomery Clift, for the part of Colonel Penderton. Despite the actor's troubled relationship with Huston on a previous film, Freud (1962), the director agreed to cast Clift despite his extremely poor health. Unfortunately, Clift died prior to filming so Huston recommended hiring Patrick O'Neal who'd previously starred in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana. Taylor, however, rejected Huston's suggestion along with his alternate choices of Richard Burton and Lee Marvin; she wanted Marlon Brando.
According to John Huston in his autobiography, An Open Book, "Marlon Brando came to see me in Ireland. He wasn't sure about the part. He had read the book, but doubted his suitability. As we were talking about it, the final screenplay was being typed, so I suggested that he wait and read it. Marlon did so, then took a long walk in a thunderstorm. When he came back, he said simply, "I want to do it." During our conversation I asked Brando if he could ride a horse, and by way of an answer he assured me that he had been raised on a horse ranch. Later, during the filming of the movie, I noticed that he exhibited such a fear of horses that presently Elizabeth Taylor, who is a good horsewoman, began to be afraid also. I wondered then, as now, if Marlon got this fear because he had so immersed himself in his role. The character he played had a fear of horses. It could well be. I remember he once said of acting, "If you care about it, it's no good." Meaning you've got to get into a role to the point that you're no longer acting."
Brando was more flippant when a reporter inquired about his decision to star in the film: "The appeal to me of a neurotic role like Major Penderton? $750,000 plus 7 1/2 per cent of the gross receipts if we break even. That's the main reason." Then he paused and added, "Then the attraction of a book by Carson McCullers." Yet, despite Brando's nonchalant remarks, Reflections in a Golden Eye features one of his most underrated performances. As the tormented and sexually confused Penderton, the actor creates a complex character, one whose burly physique and stiff military manner are merely a masculine facade, hiding his true nature. He achieves scenes of great power here, particularly in the sequence where he is thrown from Leonora's horse. Hysterical, he begins to beat the animal wildly, his emotional state veering between laughing and crying. Later in the film, Leonora, in revenge, will savagely beat Penderton with her riding crop in full view of their party guests, bringing the officer's humiliation full circle.
Some parts of Reflections in a Golden Eye were filmed in New York City and on Long Island at the site of an abandoned Army camp. But the bulk of the movie was filmed outside Rome, Italy. For Huston, the film gave him the opportunity to work in some of his favorite interests: horseback riding, hunting, the military and boxing (the fight in the barracks was not in the novel). He would also claim that Reflections in a Golden Eye was "one of the first American films to broach the subject of homosexuality."
"To emphasize the film's psychological oppressiveness and find a visual equivalent for the novel's brooding, interior spirit, Huston," according to Tony Thomas in The Films of John Huston, "evolved a costly and complicated process of desaturating the film's color until only a gold and slightly pinkish image emerged. [Cinematographer Oswald] Morris called the effect on the film's mood "quite extraordinary." Warner Brothers didn't agree, however, and released the film in full Technicolor, which made the film pictorially striking and quite beautiful to look at, but decidedly worked against the emotional impact Huston wanted Reflections to have."
An additional disappointment was the critical reaction to the film. The Time magazine review stated "Director John Huston spills the novel's poetry on the way to the screen, leaving only its gothic husk and a gallery of grotesques," and this assessment was typical of many film critics. Warner Brothers' ad campaign didn't help matters either with press books that gleefully announced, "It's dirty! A combination of lust, impotency, vulgarity, nudity, neurosis, brutality, voyeurism, hatred and insanity that culminates in murder." No wonder the Legion of Decency gave it a Condemned rating. Yet, Huston championed the film to his death, saying "I like Reflections in a Golden Eye. I think it is one of my best pictures....scene by scene - in my humble estimation - it is pretty hard to fault." And you may well agree. It's undeniably fascinating and not the last time he would attempt a Southern Gothic. In 1979, he directed Wise Blood, an inspired adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's tragicomedy which was much more critically lauded than Reflections in a Golden Eye.
Producer: Raymond Stark
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Gladys Hill, Chapman Mortimer, based on the novel by Carson McCullers
Production Design: Stephen B. Grimes
Cinematography: Aldo Tonti
Costume Design: Dorothy Jeakins
Film Editing: Russell Lloyd
Original Music: Toshiro Mayuzumi
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Leonora Penderton), Marlon Brando (Maj. Weldon Penderton), Brian Keith (Lt. Col. Morris Langdon), Julie Harris (Alison Langdon), Robert Forster (Private Williams), Zorro David (Anacleto), Gordon Mitchell (Stables Sergeant), Irvin Dugan (Capt. Murray Weincheck).
by Jeff Stafford