Director: Luis Buñuel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I first offered to write a piece on my favorite director for Flickhead’s Luis Buñuel Blogathon, I wanted to write about Buñuel’s use of prosthetic limbs. I’ve always found his eroticized artificial body parts (see Tristana and Ensayo de un crimen especially) a fascinating and funny aspect of his oeuvre.
Then I read Jonathan’s Rosenbaum’s “Southern Movies, Actual and Fanciful: A Personal Journey” in which he says “…other good examples of those who took the trouble to get things right would be…rather surprisingly, Luis Buñuel, whose underrated and neglected 1960 Mexican feature, The Young One, set on an island off the coast of Georgia, is uncommonly smart and accurate in its depiction of Southern Baptists.” I’ve had The Young One among my collection of unwatched DVDs for a year or so now, and my interest was mildly piqued because the hubby spent many years in Georgia and we had recently visited some of the islands off the Georgia coast. What clinched it was setting out to watch The Grudge 2 last night and being roped instead by the absolutely fascinating and first-rate “Hillbilly: The Real Story” on the History Channel (airs again Thursday, September 27—don’t miss it). Something out there was telling me I had a new blogathon assignment!
This drama of a rough game warden, an orphan girl, and a black musician from the north is based on the story “Travellin’ Man” by Peter Matthiessen, an author I know mainly for his nature writing. Putting Luis Buñuel and Peter Matthiessen together in my head was bizarre enough; add to that a Mexican production filmed in English with mainly American actors and a screenplay co-written by Buñuel and blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler (as H.B. Addis), and you have one extremely unique entry in the Buñuel canon. If not for Rosenbaum’s reassuring words, I might have feared for the outcome.
Ever faithful, however, to the ingenuity of my hero, I started this journey to the backwater island on which the action takes place with hope—much like Traver (Bernie Hamilton), the northerner on whom the film opens. We watch him row his boat to shore and tug it out of view behind some bushes. Suddenly a yell: “Rape!” Voices jumbled, footfalls on pavement, a well-dressed colored man fleeing—it’s Traver. He is startled from his reverie by shots—very real and very nearby. Miller (Zachary Scott), the game warden, has bagged a rabbit. He goes over to the quivering creature, bangs it on the head below the horizon of the frame, and carries it back to his homestead.
A main cabin and outbuilding sit on the site. Miller moves into the cabin and is furious that the breakfast dishes are unwashed and the place unkempt. He swears at that damn girl Evvy (Key Meersman) and goes off to find her lazy ass. Evvy— Evalyn—is sitting at the feet of Pee Wee, her grandfather and Miller’s caretaker, who lies dead on his bed in the outbuilding. Temporarily subdued, Miller sends Evvy off quietly to fix his supper. Lifting a glass off the table, he passes his verdict on the cause of death—an excess of drink. He tells Evvy he intends to send her away to the mainland to be looked after by the church people, aka, an orphanage.
Once in the cabin, Miller resumes his usually harsh treatment of Evvy, berating how Pee Wee let her run around like an animal, not even brushing her hair. He sends her off to fix herself up. When she returns, he suddenly realizes how attractive she has become. Buñuel fans are by now familiar with that look of semi-incestuous lust in his eyes. “You’re not a child anymore,” says Miller. “How old are you?” Evvy, dumb as a stump, isn’t sure. “You can tell the age of a horse by looking at his teeth,” Miller offers, “but it’s flesh and weight that count on people.” He tells Evvy to give him her leg to feel. “It’s got some heft to it,” he says, satisfied for the moment but itching for more. When he touches her neck, she recoils, runs off, and locks herself in with her dead grandfather.
Jackson (Crahan Denton), a ferry operator from the mainland who is working with Miller to bring a clubhouse to the island for rich hunters, comes by and says the deal is finally on. Miller tells Jackson he has to help bury Pee Wee. At the grave, Evvy hands Miller a bible, but he shies from reading from it; he may be irreligious, but I suspect he can’t read. He says they will fetch a preacher from the mainland to do a proper burial. Evvy plants Pee Wee’s whiskey bottle on top of the grave, but Miller snatches it up. “That’s a waste of bad whiskey,” he barks. Miller, fixing to go to the mainland with Jackson, changes his mind about taking Evvy with him to the church people. Angered, Evvy smashes the bottle against a tree.
After Miller and Jackson leave, Evvy goes out to Miller’s beehives to harvest some honey. As she returns home, Traver accosts her. He’s hungry and tries to steal some of the honey. “That’s Miller’s!” she protests. He’s surprised that she’s not afraid of him. She says he reminds her of an old colored man she used play with when she was younger. He comes back to the cabin to get something to eat. She doesn’t understand a lot of what he says—he’s a jazz musician schooled in jive talk—but he teaches her some phrases and befriends her to a small extent. She is fascinated at night when she hears a sweet and strange music coming from outside. Traver is playing his clarinet—never calls it a licorice stick ’cause that’s a term squares use.
Traver, a nickname he got because people said he was a lot like his always-travelling—make that absent—father, goes through Miller’s cabin, taking food and gasoline. His outboard motor has run out of gas, and he shows Evvy the blisters on his hands from rowing. He also grabs an old rifle and some shells. Evvy protests that he is stealing. He gives her $20 to pay for what he’s taken. He plans to be out on the water again within the hour.
Ah, the best-laid plans. Traver throws the rifle into the boat, and it discharges and blows a hole in the bottom. Back he goes to the cabin to get supplies to mend the boat. While he is out making repairs, Miller returns to the island. When he learns that a nigger has made off with some of his property, he runs after him to kill him. Traver chases through the woods and brush and finds a skiff Miller uses on the estuaries of the island. Miller spies him and shoots; Travers hits the water.
Miller returns to the cabin. He has a surprise for Evvy—a fine dress and high heels that he helps her into. He notices a $20 bill pinned to the hem of her old dress and asks her where she got it. She tells him the truth—from Traver. He is enraged to think that Evvy prostituted herself. Evvy runs out, with Miller fixing to follow her. Just then, Traver—having played possom on the water—bursts in. He confirms Evvy’s story about the money. The men are very wary of each other, with Miller’s reflexive racism pitted against Traver’s northern black pride. Miller agrees to let Traver stay in the outbuilding, but moves Evvy’s bed inside the cabin. “You won’t think I’m a racist because I don’t want Evvy to sleep in the same building as you,” Miller says. In fact, Miller takes advantage of the situation to seduce Evvy. “Don’t be afraid, Evvy,” he says as he forces a kiss on her.
The next day, the men learn a bit more about each other, including that they were both in Italy during the war. Miller tries to belittle Traver for being in supply whereas Miller was in the infantry, but Traver makes him concede how dangerous the supply troops’ job was. “We was out of food and supplies and trapped on a hill,” recalls Miller, “and this little guy comes up the hill all shot through carrying 100 pounds of supplies. He died in my arms.” Yet, he continues to call Traver “nigger” until Traver shoots a can at Miller’s feet. “I don’t let anyone call me that, not even when I was in the service.” Miller modifies his behavior and offers Traver Pee Wee’s job.
Of course, Traver has to keep moving, especially after Miller learns from Jackson, who has returned to the island with the Rev. Fleetwood (Claudio Brook) to conduct Pee Wee’s service, that he’s wanted for raping a white woman. The two men search for Traver—they find him when Evvy naively volunteers that Traver is in the cabin, injured after catching his ankle in an animal trap. Jackson is brutal with Traver, but the preacher believes in his innocence. It is up to Miller to decide Traver’s fate.
For a director so well known for being a surrealist, Buñuel shows with The Young One how deftly he could construct well-observed, realistic films. The actions of the characters are rich, particular, and accurate, and quite reminded me of De Sica’s characteristic style and mise en scene. For example, watching Evvy harvest honey was as real as it gets, every detail completely accurate and adding to the texture of the film. Although the film was shot in Mexico, Buñuel found a location that completely mimicked an outer banks island.
Similarly, the racial tensions in the film are painfully raw and show the insecurities of the white men in high contrast to the pride and tactics Traver uses to help even the score. Whenever Miller calls him “nigger,” Traver is quick to respond with “white trash.” The hurt and anger from Miller tell us everything we need to know about the chinks in his armor that Traver and, later, Rev. Fleetwood use to appeal to his better nature.
Fleetwood is a rare clergyman in Buñuel’s universe. Neither scorned nor mocked by Buñuel or his film’s characters, he has a strong moral compass mixed with pragmatism, and a fearlessness that could never be mistaken for the fecklessness of other Buñuel holy men and women, such as Nazarin and Viridiana. The religiousness of the South is born from fierce independence, not the blind sheep mentality Buñuel tends to ascribe to the faithful in many of his other films. While the hubby disagrees with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assessment of this film as a depiction of Southern Baptists, he recognizes Fleetwood’s emphasis on community as a Southern Baptist characteristic.
Even with these many “uncharacteristic” aspects, The Young One displays some of the director’s signature touches—flayed carcasses (a skinned rabbit), insects, leg shots, incest, and the deflowering of youth. Interestingly, however, whereas the seduced girls in Tristana, Viridiana, and Belle de Jour (all films that came later than this one) reveal a kind of corruption that comes from sexual knowledge, Evvy seems to maintain her innocence. Perhaps this will change once her relationship with Miller is legitimized and mainlanders come to the island to hunt from the clubhouse. But I rather think that her relative ignorance of life will continue in the semi-isolation of the island and a culture more unburdened by sexual guilt.
I’ve written quite a bit about this film’s plot, but believe me, I haven’t even scratched the surface. At 95 minutes, it packs a richness films twice its length often don’t achieve. The Young One was a brilliant revelation to me about a director I really thought I knew. I hope all Blogathon readers and participants will seek out this gem, now available on DVD.