Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967): John Huston’s Version of McCullers’ Novel, Starring Brando and Elizabeth Taylor (Gay Cinema)

In making Reflections in a Golden Eye, based on the challenging novel by Carson McCullers, director John Huston treats the Gothic tale and its bizarre characters in a dramatic manner.

The film is well directed and shot, though at the time of its release, some critics complained about the adaptation, which they found to bee too vague, too strange, too symbolic.

Huston begins the film with a statement from McCullers’ novel: ”There is a fort in the South where a few years ago a murder was committed.” And he repeats that statement at the end of the film. The mysterious nature of this murder, which is depicted at the end, provides the locus of the story.

The tale is set in 1948 in an isolated U.S. Army post, in Georgia. Marlon Brando plays Major Weldon Penderton, who’s married to Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor). Their next-door neighbors and frequent visitors are Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison (Julie Harris).

Then there’s the Langdons’Filipino houseboy Anacleto (Zorro David), and a young, handsome soldier, Private Williams (Robert Forster).

Private Williams, who works in the stables and has special affinity with the horses, is ordered to report to the Penderton home, where the Major instructs him to clear away his backyard. We immediately sense that the Major’s authoritarian manner may be a façade, masking a deviant, insecure, possibly impotent man.

Penderton’s relationship with his lusty wife is nonsexual or asexual. As compensation, Leonora finds an outlet for her vital nature and sexuality in an open, adulterous affair with Langdon. Like Private Williams, she too loves horses and riding, showing passion for a white horse she calls Firebird. She likes to taunt her husband by telling him that the horse is a stallion and an animal with the soul of a gentleman.

Having lived on military posts, Leonora is independent and arrogant, overtly contemptuous of the lack of virility of her husband, who regards her as crass and vulgar.

The Pendertons and the Langdons socialize frequently. Alison, a frail and neurotic woman, is aware of her husband’s affair with Leonora. She still suffers from the traumatic death of a malformed baby some years ago. Recently, she has shockingly tried to mutilate her breasts, a function of her grief, sense of maternal failure, but also punishment for her husband’s infidelities. Alison’s only enjoys the friendship with her houseboy, Anacleto, an effete companion who shares her interest in music and art. In many ways, he is the opposite of the two brusque and detached husbands.

A sullen, lonely guy, the Private is intrigued by the fiery Leonora, who always have some kind remarks for him. Visiting the Penderton house at night, he shows his perverse voyeuristic nature by peering in the windows. He observes Leonora in the nude, but he also observes the Major in his study.

At first, the Private’s invasion of privacy seems one-sided, but it’s quickly established that the Major is a latent homosexual, who’s tormented by his marriage, yearning for his youth as a young soldier and the joys of male camaraderie.

Fetishism is also an element of the protagonists’ personalities. The Major hides objects in boxes in his desk–he gazes intensely at a photo of a Greek male sculpture. Later on, he holds a spoon stolen from a fellow officer.

Leonora and Langdon ride together, but when the Major joins them, he proves to be an inept horseman, providing his wife another reason to disdain him.
One day, the three spot Private Williams riding his horse in the nude. Leonora and Langdon just giggle, but Penderton continues to look in an intense way that expresses both disgust and fascination.

Late that night Private Williams sneaks into the room of Leonora, and spend the night by her bed, fondling her clothes and staring at her. At dawn, he returns to his barracks but he is spotted by Alison. When she reports the incident to Leonora, the latter dismisses the information as yet another sign of Alison’s troubled psyche.

On a crucial night, while Leonara is giving a party, Penderton takes her horse out for a ride as if to prove to himself that he is a real man, that he can master the animal. He fails, when Firebird bolts and Penderton falls from the horse after a long ride. Furious, he savagely flails the horse with a stick. Humiliated and hurt Penderton cries and laughs at his experience, expressing his feeling overtly perhaps for the first time. He assumes he is alone, but Private Williams appears on the scene naked, and quietly leads Firebird away. Arriving home with his clothes torn and his face cut and scratched, Penderton receives sympathy from his wife, until she learns he has injured her horse. She then takes a riding crop and in the presence of her guests whips it across her husband’s face.

Penderton’s fascination with Private Williams continues to haunt him. Lecturing to military students in a classroom his attention is deflated by the sight of Williams through a window. Days later, when giving another lecture, Penderton speaks glowering but haltingly about the value and the strength of leadership in an officer, and it becomes apparent that he is tragically lacking in the qualities he admires. His life now becomes tortuous on two levels — his craving for Williams and the strife in his home when Alison claims that the private is spending the nights with Leonora in her room and thereby deceiving both Penderton and Langdon. No one believes her and Langdon comes to the conclusion he must commit his sick wife to a sanitarium. Within a few days of her commitment Alison dies of a heart attack.

Leonora and Langdon find it difficult to continue their passion now that his wife, formerly a rationalizing subject for discussion between them, has gone. Penderton continues to stalk Williams; he follows him from a distance and on one occasion he picks up a candy wrapper Williams has dropped and adds it to his collection. Penderton seems to come to terms with his real nature; in a discussion with Langdon and Leonora he speaks in favor of the fey, disappeared Anacleto, whom Langdon claims would have been better off in the army and toughened up. Asks Penderton: ?Is it better, because it is morally honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping around the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it??

It is revealed that the Major has been put off women by his father. Williams is sexually frustrated but the object of his desire is Leonora, not the Major. Late one night, during a rain storm, he heads to the Pendertons’ house. Spotting him from his window, the Major turns off the light and waits for the visit. Williams invades Leonora’s bedroom, and holds her lingerie while she is asleep. The Major enters the room with a pistol fires several shots, which kill Williams. Leonora wakes, screaming with confusion and terror.

The movie is faithful to McCuller’s book in spirit and tone, emphasizing the isolated confinement of the characters.  Offering commentary on repressed sexuality, both homosexual and heterosexual, it challenges the hypocrisy and presumed normalcy of dominant culture, particularly as reflected in military life.

Huston cast two newcomers for Private Williams and the effeminate Anacleto with Robert Forster and New York hairdresser Zorro David, respectively.

Taylor is compelling as the luscious, shrill and insensitive wife. Initially, Taylor chose Montgomery Clift (her former co-star in Raintree Country) to play as the Major, but Clift’s died at the young age of 45, just weeks before principal photography was to begin.

In a challenging role, Brando gives a complex and subtle performance. His Major Penderton is a repressed lonely man who slowly realizes his homosexual nature and other weaknesses vis-a-vis the personality expected of a man of his rank and position. Combining prissiness and martial authority, Penderton lives a tormented existence.

He is observed building up his body with weight lifting and then watching himself in the mirror. Also in front of the mirror, he stands and salutes himself, and when he thinks of the young soldier, he applies to himself his wife’s facial cream.

With his Southern accent, peculiar walk, intense eyes and expressive face, Brando offers a convincing portrait of a cold, isolated, thwarted man, who is helpless and repressed.

Most of the film was shot in Italy, at the Dino De Laurentiis Studio, with few weeks of locations on Long Island, New York, in order to increase the authenticity army base life.

The film, which could not have been made earlier due to the strictures of the Production Code, was, nonetheless, a commercial flop, despite the popularity of Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando at the time.

Cast:

Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor)
Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando)
Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith)
Alison Langdon (Julie Harris)
Anacleto (Zorro David)
Stables Sergeant (Gordon Mitchell)
Capt. Weincheck (Irvin Dugan)
Susie (Fay Sparsk)
Private Williams (Robert Forster)

Credits

Released by Warner
Produced by Ray Stark.
Directed by John Huston.
Screenplay: Chapman Mortimer and Gladys Hill, based on the novel by Carson McCullers.
Camera: Aldo Tonti.
Art direction by Bruno Avesani.
Edited by Russell Lloyd.
Score by Toshiro Mayuzumi.

Running time: 109 minutes.