Infused with an almost classical reverence for romanticism, the unfolding emotions and narratives at the heart of John Huston’s work always seemed tied intimately to their settings. The environment, more than just the locale of unfolding dramatics, seems to leech itself onto the hearts and souls of the characters. The bleached white desert of The Misfits (1961) spells out the drying well of a thousand broken hearts, whereas the wet heat of The Night of the Iguana (1964) signals and inspires unchecked temptation for one Catholic priest. In Reflections in a Golden Eye, based on the 1941 novel by Carson McCullers, fates intertwine on an isolated army base surrounded by forest in a mythological version of the American deep south.
The film’s central relationship between Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) and Major Weldon (Marlon Brando) serves to epitomise the rebounding pressures at hand. While, ostensibly, the commander-in-chief at this particular base, Weldon is not only emasculated by his sensual and in-control wife, he is crippled by the power she holds over him. As he struggles with repressed homosexual impulses, he repeatedly tries to lash out at Leonora who never cedes control as he loses himself further to unfulfilled temptation.
Cast in golden hues, much of the film is seen through the gaze of the mostly silent observer – an army private, Private L.G. Williams, played by Robert Forster. A kind of horse whisperer who finds himself the central object of Welden’s desire, he represents the proud, beautiful but otherworldly figure of temptation. The golden eye, invoked by way of the drawing of a peacock, is a means of suggesting that this world is the mirror image of reality rather than a representation of truth. Imagination overtakes the film’s insinuations and half-truths as dark images – such as the fact one character is said to have cut off her nipples with garden shears – contribute to the film’s atmosphere of uncertainty. As if evoking the mythical stories of the bronze age (Weldon even has a collection of male nude statues he keeps in a hidden folder), the film was desaturated in the post-production process until it retained only a golden rose hue, an absolutely singular look in the wider scope of mainstream cinema. Interpreted by studios as confusing for audiences, during its failed 1967 release it was released in full-colour, robbing it of its more distant mythological quality.
In McCullers’ novel the action takes place in Georgia, but within the film the location remains a peripheral vision of the greater American South. Life beyond the walls of the army base may not even exist, except in the phantasmagorical forest which may as well extend indefinitely. Among our main players, most of the men and women have lived out their adult lives without ever crossing beyond the limits of the figurative walls. The characters who thrive have bent this ethical microcosm to their will, those who suffer feel suppressed by the institutional pressures of man, God, and country.
The forest consistently comes to represent the environment of fluidity and sensuality. It is where, as an audience, we are first privy to Leonora’s affair with Lt. Col. Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and where the stoic Robert Forster rides bareback and naked on a stallion, cast in golden light and browned shadows. The forest also becomes the only place the Major tries to stand up to his wife through her surrogate – a wild and powerful white stallion. He beats the animal near to death, only to be humiliated by Leonora when he returns. Once she becomes aware of his indiscretion before a crowded party, she proceeds to beat him into submission with a whip.
Rather than invoke the masochistic fantasy of Venus in Furs, this sequence reveals a deeper self-hatred on the part of Major Weldon. He does not seem to get excited by the ritualised humiliation at the hand of his wife, though he courts her scorn so consistently that it cannot be a coincidence. Rather, Weldon’s provocations to be emasculated seem to be a reflection of the shame of his homosexual desires. Skirting some vague and mostly unqualified gender norms, Leonora represents simultaneously the ideal man and woman. Within this mythical kingdom where she does not have to conform to the rules of normal society, she becomes a perfect figure of duality. She inspires repulsion and attraction in Weldon as he seems to aspire towards heterosexual norms, while also wanting nothing more than to give into his homosexual impulses.
Though the film dares not call it by its name, there is one character within the film who is presented as being an out homosexual, the neighbour’s housekeeper. Within the scope of the film, Anacleto – played by Filipino actor Zorro David – is the loyal confidante and carer for the sickly Alison (Julie Harris). The men within the film tease and bully him, mocking his feminine affections and ‘strangeness’. Yet, within the greater scope of the film, he is not presented with scorn but rather an affectation and even respectability. He has a love for life, for people and for freedom – and in many ways becomes a potential hero within an otherwise corrupted and sickly world.
The dreamy queerness of Reflections in a Golden Eye almost seems out of step, out of time. As unfathomable that the film would be made during the last push of the studio era, it would be just as out of place in 2017. In an ambiguous otherworldly Deep South – where desire that was long repressed rises to the surfaces – the film thrives as a fever dream of unchecked temptation within an oppressive atmosphere. Sensual and horrific, Reflections in a Golden Eye stands as a pillar in the cinematic canon of the Southern Gothic genre.