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No Blacks or Whites: The Making of Luis
Bunuel's 'The Young One.'
Produced and cowritten by exiles from McCarthyism, adapted from a story by Peter Matthiessen, and directed by Luis Bunuel, The Young One was released in 1960 and died the death of a work whose time had not yet come. Today, this Mexican-produced, English language feature--available from distributors after being nearly invisible for decades--looks fresher than many of its contemporaries.
Usually viewed as a minor title in Bunuel's filmography, The Young One can be seen as an offshoot of momentous social currents: the civil rights battles of the late 1950's, and the struggle of some American leftists to keep their lamps burning during the witch hunts. Along with a reappraisal of the film itself, the story of how The Young One came to be made deserves to be told in more detail.
The Young One began life as a short fiction piece by Peter Matthiessen--not yet the widely known author of environmentalist nonfiction like The Snow Leopard, but a young writer ambitious to "try a variety of tones and voices" in a batch of short stories in the 1950s.(1)
"Travelin Man" recounts the last four days and nights in the life of Traver, a fugitive from a manhunt who hides on an island off the Carolina coast, then discovers he will have to murder the only other man on the island before the man kills Traver first. Traver is black, his antagonist is white.
At the end Traver, lingering over the body of his antagonist, seems to have won. In his anxiety, however, Traver neglects to disarm the man he thinks he has slain, flees in panic, and is shot dead by the white man, who was playing possum. With two bullets in his body, Traver sinks beneath the waters of the island he hoped would be his refuge from white justice.
Like a number of Matthiessen's early stories, "Travelin Man" is both an elegant piece of writing and a brutal parable of the South's race relations as they stood in the 1950s. When "Travelin Man" was published in Harper's in 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was only weeks old. The city of Montgomery, Alabama, had just integrated its buses as an outcome of the year-long boycott sparked by Rosa Parks's civil disobedience. Within the year, paratroopers and national guardsmen would be dispatched to Little Rock, Arkansas, to buffer the enrollment of nine African-Americans against threats of mob violence at Central High School.
That year, too, as the status and image of African-Americans began to change irrevocably, Hollywood showed interest in black characters, and there were struggles over what stories to do and what types of characters to put in them. In particular, Samuel Goldwyn's plan to make a film of Porgy and Bess was widely criticized; the Gershwin-Hayward 'folk opera' looked racist and retrograde to black actors filled with the spirit of the civil rights struggles.
On another front in 1957, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences propped up Hollywood's anti-Communist blacklist with a ban on awarding Oscars to any Communist Party member or 'Fifth Amendment writer.'
Finally that year, "Travelin Man" gained a bit of visibility by winning an O. Henry Award. Far from Hollywood, but not from the raging controversies over America's black citizens, one individual saw possibilities in it.
This was George Pepper, formerly the head of the West Coast's leading progressive coalition, the Hollywood Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, which had been a vigorous sponsor of antiracist civil rights demonstrations in the 1940's. Named as a Communist Party member during the House Un-American Activities Committee's inquisition in Hollywood in 1951, Pepper left the country rather than testify. He started a company in Mexico and launched a pseudonymous career as a producer, raising investment capital largely from other blacklisted Hollywood musicians (he was originally a violinist). As scriptwriter, Pepper employed Hugo Butler, a fellow refugee from HUAC who, ironically, was to achieve his freest work during this difficult exile.
Butler had been an influential CP activist in the Screen Writers Guild in the 1940s. His only screen credit with any social criticism was The Southerner (1945), starring Zachary Scott as a beleaguered tenant farmer. Adapted from a novel, Butler's screenplay was directed by Jean Renoir after being rewritten by uncredited hands, including William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson. The drama is wooden and the politics are sentimental and unspecific, but the mere depiction of a (white) farmer's poverty was sacrilege in the South, where The Southerner attracted boycotts and a ban in Tennessee.
On the brink of self-exile in 1951, Butler had written an adaptation he could sell as a low-budget, internationally marketable picture--The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In Mexico, Pepper succeeded in coproducing it, using a 'front' to remain anonymous. The film fared well when it was released in 1954, earning royalties for Butler (screen credit: 'Philip Roll') and the coproducers.
A little like Pepper and Butler, the director of Robinson Crusoe was a sometime leftist and self-exile, although from an earlier time and place. Luis Bunuel had renounced his native Spain after the left's defeat in the Civil War, then found himself the victim of an antileftist backlash in the U.S. In the 1950s, ironically, Bunuel was finally enjoying a comeback as a director in Mexico after a decade of inactivity.
Having paid Matthiessen a tiny deferment (against profits which never materialized) for the rights to "Travelin Man," Pepper approached his star director with this new tale of a white man, a black man, and an island. As a director, Bunuel's method of working with screenwriters was fairly standard:
I've always needed a collaborator. If I'm working alone, it takes me three days to write a scene that would get done in three hours after a conversation with the writer. But I'm there for every stage, since it's my film. If I were writing for somebody else, I'd go along with their way of working.(2)
In the case of The Young One, Bunuel was making his first film on an American theme, and a serious theme at that. He was, no doubt, dependent on Butler to supply a specifically American feeling for characters and especially dialog.
Butler, of course, could also be expected to contribute his progressive politics. He did, although ironically leftist politics were not an essential part of the equation. For Butler and most other blacklisted film workers, it was a struggle to work at all. "I doubt whether Hugo would have deliberately chosen a piece of social significance," recalled his wife Jean, who was also blacklisted. "We were just trying to survive."
Butler had a comfortable relationship with Bunuel, having worked with him on at least two other stories Pepper was trying to produce. "The Cadillac" was loosely based on a news item--a Cadillac was found with some survivors after plunging from a cliff. The Loved One, based on Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel, was eventually directed by Tony Richardson (1965) from a different script.
Collaborating on "Travelin Man," Bunuel and Butler kept the central character's name, but little else about him. Matthiessen's original Traver is a fight-scarred, hulking John Henry type, an unlettered ex-con with "the big hands and haunches of his race." The movie's Traver comes from a more sophisticated social matrix. He is a jazz musician as well as a working man, a visitor from the North who displays a sarcastic sense of his own independence and dignity.
Most important, Traver is decriminalized. The original character is an alumnus of jails and chain gangs, currently guilty of arson and the abduction of his girlfriend from her lawful spouse. In contrast, the Traver in the movie is a victim, falsely and deliberately accused of rape by a white woman on the mainland.
Butler and Bunuel made other changes. They took Matthiessen's white antagonist, named him Miller, and gave him a sidekick, Jackson. By creating two characters, they could depict a wider typology. Miller is a garden variety racist, who proves somewhat tractable under pressure; Jackson is a more virulent white supremacist.
In a major departure from the original story, the screenwriters invented a female character, Evvie, a tomboy on the threshold of adolescence who is Miller's ward. Innocent, self-possessed, and free, Evvie resembles the symbolic 'young ones' in other Bunuel films.
Being the first person Traver encounters, and unwittingly the cause of his detainment on the island, Evvie becomes the focus of a radically different story line in which a testy truce is hammered out between Traver and Miller, only to be shattered when the lynch-minded Jackson arrives from the mainland.
The white men tie Traver to a post near their cabin. An unexpected scene occurs when Jackson steps outside at night and speaks his mind to the black prisoner in an earnest, even thoughtful tone. "A lot of soft- hearted people try to make out a nigger's a man. I just don't believe it. God left something out of you--soul, maybe. If you was a man I'd be mad-- but I'm sorry for you. Thirsty? Want some water?"
Evvie sets Traver free later that night; he hides in other parts of the island. Meanwhile the movie's only other character, a minister from the mainland named Fleetwood, uses moral blackmail on Miller to force a resolution--Miller having taken the thirteen-year-old Evvie to his bed in the course of the story. In the end, Miller offers to help Traver get off the island and to set things right by marrying Evvie.
Jackson is bent on hunting Traver down and taking him back to a lynching on the mainland; Miller lives up to his newfound responsibilities by taking Jackson's gun before he leaves in search of Traver. But Jackson still has a knife, and it remains for Traver himself--now hobbling on a game leg--to defeat him. The men fight viciously on the sandy shore, with the roar of the sea around them. Traver knocks Jackson's weapon away and pulls out a knife of his own. Truculent to the last, Jackson says to go ahead and kill him.
These scenes bring Bunuel and Butler's script into some harmony with Matthiessen's original conclusion, despite all the other changes in the adaptation. Matthiessen's Traver experiences both an emotional and a socially conditioned inability to give his enemy the coup de grace when he has the chance. ("He supposed he could kill a white man if he had to, and a white man could kill him. But a black man did not kill a white man.") The script's Traver experiences the same double reaction. First the gut feeling:
The savagery drains from his face--he regards the knife, the throat- he closes his eyes, opens them, starts to press the knife home--but again, fails.
Then the practical consideration:
White trash. Did I kill you I'd never get away with it. (Spits back) That's the only reason I don't.
Using a pair of oars as makeshift crutches, Traver leaves Jackson on the ground and resumes his painful way to the water's edge, where his boat is waiting. Still echoing Matthiessen's original plot, the script takes a cruel final turn. Down but not out, Jackson lobs a heavy rock at the black man's skull from behind. The blow is fatal.
At the shore, Miller waits to see Traver off; the boat floats nearby. As Miller calls Traver's name in a friendlier tone than we have yet heard, we see the dead man lying in the brush:
On his back, arm thrown back, the oars on either side of him; blood stains the whole front of his white shirt, trickles thinly from his mouth.(3)
Cut back to Miller, vainly calling, and fade to black.
This grim and ironic ending, very close to the brutal vision of the human species which Bunuel showed the world in Los Olvidados (1950), survived at least one script revision before being altered.
As Pepper and Butler progressed with their project, they could take heart from a new release directed and produced by Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's self-defined "professional liberal voice" now that the leftists were chased away. In The Defiant Ones Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, chained by the wrist and hating each other, evade a posse across Southern swamplands. Flouting conventional wisdom, The Defiant Ones was proving that a message picture--with a downbeat ending, yet--could make money. Perhaps an unflinching story about the glaring topic of racism could find an audience in the States. Another thing Butler and Pepper couldn't fail to notice: the film's cowriter was a blacklistee, Nedrick Young--one of the first to put a crack in the blacklist.
In the fall of 1959 Pepper traveled to the States with Bunuel to cast the production. The part of Traver went to Bernie Hamilton, an unknown player in his thirties. By coincidence, Miller would be played by Zachary Scott, Butler's 'southerner' of years before. There was talk of shooting in original locations off the coast of the Carolinas, but in the end Mexico was the obvious choice. Bunuel was accustomed to it, and it was easier for Pepper and Butler to function pseudonymously.
Moreover Mexico, the moviemaking hub of the Latin American market, was courting American projects, partly to help offset rising production costs. "They want foreign production now," observed blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in 1958, "and are laying out the red carpet for all kinds of politically soiled artisans."
The red carpet, of course, was for the major studios, not low-budget independent pictures like The Young One. And the necessity of working under fake identities was as stressful for Pepper and Butler as it was for most other victims of the blacklist. Jean Butler has recalled the constant tension:
Hugo had been keeping his name out of any connection with his pictures, because they had to get financing back in the States. Any suspicion that he might be the author might kill the project. He was introduced to the cast by one of his pseudonyms.
Ruth Ford, Zachary Scott's wife, was talking to Zachary just before shooting: "With this picture, you will have done two little masterpieces-- The Southerner and this one." At that, Hugo just burst out laughing, and it soon came out that he was the writer of both. Zachary was very understanding.
Shooting got off to a rocky start, owing to the disparate range of talent in Bunuel's little cast, but once the actors were in character, the power of the story asserted itself. Even the young Key Meersman--"totally allergic to filmmaking"--finally identified with her character, Evvie. During the seduction scene she seemed frightened, "as if it were really happening." Bernie Hamilton, who approached the part of Traver as "a passively resisting man, a man above everything, who just wants to be left alone," got so involved in his fight scene that he was throwing real punches and had to be calmed down.(4)
At some late point, Bunuel and Butler decided to scrap their downbeat ending and allow Traver to live. In the redesigned finale, Jackson and Reverend Fleetwood leave for the mainland with Evvie, who will be in the latter's custody for a time. Then Miller, relieved and friendlier, has a moment of relative warmth with Traver before the black man pushes off for the mainland. The new ending is a safer commercial choice, but it may also reflect a spurt of optimism from the filmmakers about new possibilities of social progress back in the States.
Editing took only a couple of weeks, according to Bunuel. He tightened scene transitions, pointed up ironic contrasts, and kept the soundtrack as uncluttered as the visuals, using all natural sound effects, with source music at key moments--Traver's clarinet or Miller's guitar. No musical score is heard, just an opening and closing theme--Leon Bibb performing the folk song "O Sinner Man," a current recording that was a favorite of Butler and Pepper. Bunuel uses the song's simple Christian lyrics ("Where you gonna run to?") as a final ironic counterpoint to the complexities of the story.
In the end, Bunuel felt he created The Young One "with one stroke," and it remained one of his favorite works for some time: "I made that film with love." The labor of love had its first exposure at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1960, with the script credited to Bunuel and 'H. B. Addis'; Pepper was 'George P. Werker.'
Variety's Gene Moskowitz, a Bunuel fan, praised The Young One warmly and hoped it was "in line for a prize." (The Golden Palm went to Fellini's La Dolce Vita; Bunuel got a noncompetitive special mention.) It also fell to Moskowitz to assess The Young One's box office potential, and here the forecast was less sunny:
This looks in for difficulty in the U.S. but could be of arty calibre for special situations and more general spotting in northern areas, with the south probably closed to it.(5)
Distributors were thus warned: this was a problem picture in more than the usual sense. With such a limited market, would The Young One even have staying power as an art-house item? Publicizing it would require sensitivity and flexibility. Eventually, Pepper sold U.S. distribution rights to a company called Valiant Films, which proved to have neither.
Among the season's hits, Exodus and Spartacus were leading the pack, both with screenplays by Dalton Trumbo in his own name--a victory over the blacklist, which continued to crumble throughout 1960.
As soon as the winter holidays, with their major new releases, were past, The Young One opened on January 18, 1961 at Loew's Victoria in New York, and two days later in Los Angeles. During the premiere weekend a blizzard battered the Northeast, snarling John F. Kennedy's inauguration, dumping twelve inches of snow on Manhattan, and cutting irreparably into The Young One's box office.
More than the storm, though, it was Bosley Crowther who killed the film's prospects. The chief movie critic of The New York Times pronounced the story "slipshod," the action "random and vague," and found the moral of the movie a "pat" application of the good old golden rule. "The note of bigotry is heavily struck, almost as if Senor Bunuel thinks he has hit upon something new," wrote Crowther, as though Hollywood could point to an impressive backlog of nuanced variations on the theme of race relations.
Nothing could offset a pan in the Times, but for what it was worth, The Herald Tribune ran a thoughtful appreciation, while The Amsterdam News made an effort to stir the interest of its black readership. Without printing a full review, the latter paper suggested that The Young One was "finely directed" and "different from the normal black against white films."
Bernie Hamilton, whose biggest movie part this was, also worked the black audience, pointing up the contemporary relevance more plainly than the establishment papers dared to. "The production is related to what's happening in the South today," he told The Amsterdam News, "and it's important for every Negro to see it."
But few viewers did. The Young One grossed just enough to hold it over, but another seventeen inches of snow halved its earnings, and the film departed Times Square after a total run of four weeks and two days. In Los Angeles it played two screens and lasted two weeks.(6)
The distributor had one game plan left--take the money and run. Pepper's company had to sue Valiant Films later for The Young One's revenue, and although Pepper won the suit, Valiant never did pay up.
International distribution by Columbia Pictures was no better. In England the film was retitled Island of Shame, in France it was poorly distributed, and it probably never played anywhere else. In a postmortem, Bunuel suggested that the pattern was no accident but part of a cultural struggle.
Columbia did a really poor job of distributing it; they're good at that sort of thing...That's Hollywood policy: you buy up the products that seem to be a threat, so they can't compete. But Columbia is even worse. Their artistic policy is to buy up intelligence so as to eliminate it.(7)
When The Young One appeared, the first wave of the civil rights struggle was cresting. The next wave--the years of rage, the rebellions, assassinations, and militance--lay ahead. Black anger, however, found no dramatic reflection in movies. When films in the mid-1960s had black heroes at all, these were non-threatening individuals gingerly making their way in the white man's society: One Potato, Two Potato (1964, with a politer Bernie Hamilton), Nothing But A Man (1964), and Stanley Kramer's popular Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967). Even if The Young One had somehow been a hit in 1961, it would soon have been eclipsed. As it is, no history of blacks in American film mentions it today.
Considering the cultural politics of the time, this was a film that was bound to self-destruct. Bunuel, in Jean Butler's words, had "such a need for there to be no blacks and whites," morally speaking, that he and Butler included something to vex everyone as they pursued a diverging goal: making a progressive social polemic with heroes as well as villains, yet basing it on Bunuel's amoral world view.
Bunuel understood the contradiction. He recalled one reaction: "A Harlem newspaper wrote that I should be hanged upside down, like Mussolini, on Fifth Avenue."(8) (Assuming this "Harlem newspaper" existed--research has not yet uncovered it--was it perhaps some black nationalist or leftist broadside? If so, The Young One stirred up an ideological cross-current.)
Any response like this, Bunuel maintained, was because people prefer to see only stereotypes. "For people to like a film like this, the black man has to be a hero who saves the white man in the end, or else the other way round. But in my film, there is no hero."
The American moral system, perfectly geared to the movies, was based on good guys and bad guys. The Young One was intended as a reaction against this old habit. The black man was good and bad, and so was the white man ... This anti-Manicheanism of mine was probably the main reason for the film's failure at the box office.(9)
This bears discussion, however. In the years immediately following The Young One, Bunuel built much of his artistic reputation on this anti- Manichaeanism, so it is no wonder he often denied that a film of his--even a minor one, even a film produced and cowritten by ardent leftists--could harbor a message, moral, or thesis. The Young One, he insisted with hindsight, "doesn't claim to have a thesis; it sought to understand, though not justify, the characters who are racists."
Also debatable is Bunuel's repeated assertion that The Young One has no heroes, including Traver. "The black man was good and bad, and so was the white man." And elsewhere: "The picture is neither pro-black nor pro- white...The black man doesn't have to be perfect. He can have as many defects as any man."(10)
In his concern to de-positivize Traver, Bunuel exaggerates. Has he forgotten how he and Butler labored to tone down Matthiessen's original character? What 'defects' does the movie's Traver really have that match Miller's? Traver is an innocent victim--the good guy. He offers to pay for food and fuel; he doesn't dare lay a hand on Evvie. And he has the courage to talk back to the racists; he fights to defend himself.
Bunuel and Butler's film does contain a 'thesis,' of course--an antiracist one. From beginning to end, The Young One offers an unremitting depiction of the black man's social and economic exploitation. If anything, the drama heaps such insult and injury upon Traver that it becomes painful to watch.
At the same time, The Young One portrays racism dynamically, not statically. (In contrast, racism in Matthiessen's original "Travelin Man" is a static condition, tragically inexorable.) Miller vacillates and changes, subject to the conflicting influences of Jackson, Fleetwood, Evvie, and Traver himself. The handful of characters comprise a full spectrum, from innocence to extreme race hatred. In their comings and goings, their relations and interactions, we see a social fabric, we watch an irregular evolution, and we learn some important lessons about racism.
We learn that racism is not inborn--Evvie is free of it. We learn that certain racists, the Miller type, are capable of change, if only when they are threatened the law. Others, like Jackson, cannot change; their violence must be defeated with violence. As to Reverend Fleetwood, he represents a largely impotent liberalism. His main accomplishment is getting the oppressor to tie Traver's wrists a little less uncomfortably-- until the end, when he becomes the messenger of civilization and conscience, a catalyst of change.
What about Traver? Traver is an antihero (by Hollywood standards, at any rate): no cardboard heroics, no humanist speeches, no Poitier-like resignation either. He is a bit Brechtian, this character--resilient and adaptable, proud but not inclined to be foolhardy when his life is at stake. The filmmakers clearly wanted to paint a more positive and contemporary portrait of the African-American than the one available in Matthiessen's short story. Traver has pride and independence; he brings humor, music, and cooperation to a scarcely civilized world. He has soul, and fire in his soul.
Between "Travelin Man" and its screen adaptation only three years elapsed, yet it feels like a generation.
The positive ending in the finished film, so long resisted by Bunuel, at first feels like standard stuff: black-white cooperation, music up, shove off from shore, bygones are bygones. Yet it is possible to feel an underlying irony when we recall that Traver's destination, the mainland, still contains a mob of whites who could kill him. Even if Miller's helping hand is genuine, this has been a social experiment conducted in isolation; in the wider world, Traver is still up against the odds.
Beneath the surface, Miller's final reconciliation to Traver remains ambiguous. It is quite possible that Miller's change of heart is mere self-interest, not the work of an emerging conscience but "the result of bargaining."(11) And perhaps genuine human relations can result--can only result--from 'bargaining,' in Bunuel's world view. Just as there is no idealism in Bunuel's vision of Miller's motivation, so there is no great posture of optimism about human nature or progress.
Optimism and pessimism: the tension between them gives The Young One its dynamics, as well as its contradictions. Generally speaking, optimism in The Young One may have come mostly from Butler, the fruit of either conventional scriptwriting or the Communist preference for social realism. Pessimism, on the other hand, is Bunuel's hallmark. It was most likely Bunuel who held out for an abrupt, pessimistic ending which would have brought The Young One closer to the violent vision of Los Olvidados than to the muted ironies of Robinson Crusoe, for example.
Yet let us not be Manichaean about who contributed what. If anything, Butler brought his own measure of ambivalence to The Young One. Jean Butler has recalled that her husband in his Mexican self-exile was "going through a professional and cultural reappraisal of his own values...beginning to move sideways from his earlier blacks and whites, which were pretty much along political lines." With Bunuel's encouragement, Butler wanted to get beyond the good/bad formulas that were the stuff of Party rhetoric as much as movie tradition.
Conversely, Bunuel in many films softened the primal violence of his own vision. Surrealism, with its anarchic black humor, was his first allegiance, but Bunuel was intermittently sensitive to old comrades' arguments that a left-leaning artist should give people a reason to carry on, not despair of humanity.
Revolving not just around racism but around racism and sexuality, The Young One is built upon an ironic dramatic symmetry: the black man is falsely accused of rape and faces lynching; the white man forces himself upon Evvie, yet faces no consequence until the very end.
Further, The Young One sometimes implies that Miller's racism is based in a sexual jealousy. The film contains parallels between Miller's subjugation of Traver and his possession of Evvie--she cooks and cleans for him, while he barks orders and (in one early scene) strikes her. As dramatic motivation, perhaps Miller's racism serves the need to overcome his fear of Traver as an erotic rival. By the same token, as Miller's feelings for Evvie begin to civilize him, his prejudice against Traver loses its edge.
Miller's sexual relationship with Evvie, then, is a cardinal point of the story, and a difficult thing to judge in conventional terms. Evvie's seduction is a liberation for Miller as well as the beginning of her own loss of innocence. It initiates a consensual relationship between the man and the girl, not a forced one, and it proves that Miller is capable of becoming more human, even tender.
The script was clear on this point and so was the filmmaker: "Miller could have been violent with Evvie, but he acts almost against his own nature: he's tender, he gives her presents, he falls in love."(12) In the end, only the law might declare the relationship criminal, since Evvie is under age.
Discreetly understated in a dissolve to the morning after, Miller's taking of Evvie is thus a seduction, not a violation. Isn't it? When the film came out, nevertheless, some reviewers referred to rape. Others sidestepped having to name it. The whole theme made the script's first female reader, Jean Butler, "very uneasy."
Reviewers with today's heightened awareness about abuse are quick to call it rape too, but are more tolerant of the moral complexity of the situation. Thus Betsy Sherman concluded in a recent review:
Though the depiction of Traver's story was important for its time, it is Evvie's that now fascinates, precisely because Bunuel, while in no way justifying Miller's action, does not present her as a victim with a capital V.(13)
Writing on The Young One when it was recent, Jean Gili used the theme of Traver's musical talent to suggest that the film is not only about racial persecution but also shows "the drama of the artist forced to put his art in the background--or worse, put it out of his mind--and concern himself only with survival in a hostile environment." Gili assumes the artist is Bunuel, but the idea applies very well to Butler and Pepper (a former musician). Indirectly, The Young One is their own self-portrait, their victory over the odds.
Both men remained in Mexico after The Young One, even after the blacklist dissolved. The failure of their film was a setback, although in 1960 they had the pleasure of seeing NBC telecast How Tall is a Giant?, a Mexican semidocumentary produced by Pepper, which Butler had directed (as 'Hugo Mozo') just before writing The Young One. Butler resumed using his own name in 1963, and died at fifty-three in 1968; Pepper died at fifty- five the following year.
Bunuel, as is well known, felt the stirrings of a new artistic freedom once he had completed The Young One. Within a couple of years he would create Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel, masterworks that
brought him a more international audience, distanced him from the more conventional drama represented by The Young One and other films of the 1950s, and led to the great neosurrealist films of his final decade.
With its mixed nationality and low-budget resources, its obscure, off-Hollywood origins, its antiorthodox attitudes, and its box office failure and subsequent eclipse, The Young One has usually been slighted as a flawed or minor work.
Flawed, perhaps. The strength of Matthiessen's original story lay in its cool, poised style--its precise vocabulary, its control of points of view. The Young One does not offer the same dramatic purity; it even resorts to a deus ex machina, the minister. The film is best as a silent observer of people interacting with nature, weaker when dialog carries the burden of exposition or didacticism.
But The Young One has strengths of a different order. Today, after decades of near invisibility, Bunuel's film is resurfacing in some video stores, as well as occasional retrospectives and repertory screenings. As a result, we have the chance to rediscover a unique small-scale work that echoes our society's continuing conflict and does so with irony and insight. New viewers might even agree with the film historian Raymond Durgnat:
Easy for him to kill me. Hard for me to kill him. So, he still got the power. Offers me his hand! Expects me to kiss it! (taps rifle) I like it better this way. Yeah. Might say it made us almost equal.