Zachary Scott and Bernie Hamilton star as deadly adversaries on an island hell in Luis Bunuel's THE YOUNG ONE, a rarely shown English-language gem about racism and pedophilia. For years it was one of Bunuel's most elusive films, because of which its critical reputation suffered, but after being rescued from oblivion in the early '90s and released on video...read more
Zachary Scott and Bernie Hamilton star as deadly adversaries on an island hell in Luis Bunuel's THE YOUNG ONE, a rarely shown English-language gem about racism and pedophilia. For years it was one of Bunuel's most elusive films, because of which its critical reputation suffered, but
after being rescued from oblivion in the early '90s and released on video in a sparkling new print, it can now take its rightful place next to the director's other masterworks.
Unjustly accused of raping a white woman, a black jazz musician named Traver (Bernie Hamilton) flees from a Southern lynch mob, but his boat runs out of gas at a tiny nearby island that's the private game preserve of a group of wealthy hunters. The island's sole inhabitants are the racist game
warden Miller (Zachary Scott), and Evalyn (Kate Meersman), a beautiful young girl in her early teens whose handyman grandfather has just died and who's subsequently seduced by Miller. When Traver arrives, he befriends Evalyn while Miller is in town for the day, and gives her some money for food
and one of Miller's shotguns. When Miller returns and learns about Traver, he hunts Traver down and shoots holes in his boat, but because Traver is armed, they call a stalemate. After Miller threatens Traver with some grenades he's kept as war souvenirs, Traver turns in his rifle and is forced to
work for Miller.
Soon after, Reverend Fleetwood (Claudio Brook) and a violent redneck boatman Jackson (Graham Denton) arrive to take Evalyn to a welfare home, and after learning that Traver is there, inform Miller about the rape charge. While trying to escape, Traver injures his leg in an animal trap, but is
rescued by Fleetwood, who becomes convinced of his innocence owing to the dubious character of the woman who accused him. Miller and Jackson then capture Traver and tie him up, but Evalyn cuts his ropes and Traver beats up Jackson. Meanwhile, Evalyn inadvertently informs Fleetwood about Miller
seducing her, and after Miller tells Fleetwood he wants to marry Evalyn, Fleetwood promises not to report him if he lets Traver go. Miller helps Traver repair his boat and allows him to leave, and Fleetwood and Jackson take Evalyn back to the mainland, leaving Miller alone on the island.
Filmed in Mexico with an American producer and an all-American cast (except for Claudio Brook as the Reverend), THE YOUNG ONE is Bunuel's only exclusively English-language film (his ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE was a Mexico-US coproduction made in both Spanish and English versions). Generally
considered to be a minor film in the director's oeuvre, it's one which he himself has called one of "my most personal" films, and it certainly contains several classic Bunuelian details, including sexual symbolism (Traver plays a clarinet which Evalyn calls a "licorice stick"); foot fetishism
(Evalyn putting boots on her grandfather's cadaver, close-ups of her feet in the shower and Miller squeezing her bare fleshy legs to determine how old she is); and an obsession with insects and the savagery of nature (Evalyn crushing a spider with her shoe, the documentary-like scenes of her
extracting honey from the beehives, a badger ripping apart hens and sucking out their blood as Miller seduces Evalyn).
Although the story deals explicitly with racism, this is not a Stanley Kramer-ish "thesis" film filled with heavy-handed messages and stereotypical depictions of devilish whites and saintly blacks. With his customary subtlety and impartiality, Bunuel gets to the roots of racism as the result of
fear, ignorance, and the desire for power (as in the crosscutting between Miller shooting and skinning a rabbit as Traver flees the lynch mob) while portraying all of his characters as neither all good nor or all bad (Traver himself is definitely no saint, and the idealistic, but hypocritical
Reverend flips his mattress after learning that Traver slept on it). The characters are allowed to defend themselves and explain their motivations: Miller is racist because of his education and upbringing, but doesn't even know why he hates "niggers," whereas the violent Jackson thinks of blacks
as animals and says he feels sorry for them "because God left something out of you--your souls."
The film is much more than just a study of prejudice, however, suggesting that the primordial nature of man is reflective of the cruelty of nature itself, with Gabriel Figueroa's superb high-contrast photography highlighting the primitive aspects of the island (the shimmering sea, the blazing sun,
the jagged rock formations, and the lushly fetid foliage). It's the portrait of the perverse sexual relationship between Miller and the child-like Evalyn, however, which makes the film one of Bunuel's most fascinating. Kay Meersman (who's a dead ringer for an earlier Liv Tyler) was a
nonprofessional actress who only appeared in one other film besides this, and was reportedly a nightmare for Bunuel to direct, but she exudes an animalistic sensuality and guileless innocence that seems completely natural. The scene where Miller seduces Evalyn, and shots of her playing on a swing
or traipsing around in the new dress and high heels he's bought her, possess a darkly comic and evil eroticism which indicates that Bunuel was the only filmmaker who could have done justice to Nabakov's Lolita. (Violence, profanity, sexual situations.)
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