living in Mexico, Luis
Buñuel created his second (and final)
American film, The Young One (aka La Jova, White Trash, or Island of Shame), in 1960. Although apparently
set on a coastal South Carolina island, Buñuel
actually shot it near Acapulco and in the Churubusco
Studios in Mexico City. He also used Mexican technicians,
so it may seem strange to consider this a product
from the States. But nearly all the actors were
American, and the film is performed in English.
It didn't do well critically or commercially when
it opened in New York, however, and The Young One now ranks among the most
obscure and difficult to locate of Buñuel's
works. It also ranks among the most misunderstood
of his films, as its apparent simplicity camouflages
more complex ideas.
of the problems with The Young One was its
anti-Manichean stance, which was an anomaly at the
time, although today it's all the rage . . . Once
upon a time, the movies reflected the prevailing
morality very closely; there were the good guys
and the bad guys, and there was no question of which
was which. The Young One tried to turn the
old stereotypes inside out; the black man in the
movie was both good and bad, as was the white man."
Opening with a woman screaming "RAPE!" off-screen--an
automatic death sentence for any black man accused
by a white woman in that time and place--a black jazz
musician named Traver (Bernie Hamilton) escapes a
blood-thirsty lynch mob, using a motorboat to reach
a small isolated island that serves as a private game
preserve for the wealthy. He's not alone.
Inhabiting the island are redneck game warden Miller (Zachary Scott) and a young teen girl named Evalyn (Kate Meersman), whose grandfather has just died. (In Buñuel's signature style, we see the dead man's bare feet sticking out over his death cot.) When Miller heads to town for the day, Traver befriends the trusting teen and gives her $20 for food, supplies, and a shotgun. Clearly tempted by the innocent girl's provocative lack of modesty, Traver cautions her to wear more than a towel after showering and deliberately refrains from touching her. Not so with Miller, who later works much harder to convince Evalyn never to let on what he does with her privately inside the cabin. When Miller discovers the twenty dollar bill, he assumes the worst about the island visitor; after all, he knows exactly what he'd want from Evalyn.
A power struggle ensues, when Traver shows up toting Miller's shotgun for protection. He must wait until the tar on his damaged boat solidifies before moving on, so he needs a place to stay. Miller sure doesn't like bending to the will of a Negro, but he instantly seizes another opportunity that conveniently suits his basest nature. Miller decides Traver can take up residence in the small cabin and that Evalyn must then move her bed into his—his newfound energized body language clearly signals sexual anticipation. What freedom he will now have in close quarters with the budding young girl!
The balance of power shifts slightly when Miller tosses
a homemade grenade and demands his shotgun back. Traver
relents, so Miller briefly resides comfortably in
his manipulative "heaven," until interrupted
by another unlikely pair: a racist boatman named Jackson
(played by character actor Graham Denton, who appears
as Mr. Cunningham in To
Kill a Mockingbird, which features
a similar rape case) and Reverend Fleetwood (Claudio
When Jackson relates how a black clarinet player fingered
for rape has escaped, Miller immediate becomes gung
ho to nail that "nigger," despite the fact
that he's just raped an under-aged child. No matter
how many times he insists that Evalyn is now a woman,
Miller's underlying guilt continues to shine through,
and the others all sense his obsession.
This sexual obsession is only one of many Buñuel
themes and motifs. Although most modern treatments
would focus solely on the pedophilia and racist themes,
is far more interested in broader themes that encompass
the human condition. Once again Buñuel
graphically illustrates how futile and irrelevant
religion can be in an indifferent universe, how no
man can be painted as purely good nor evil, and how
man existentially plays out life no differently than
the natural world. Human life is as expendable as
the animals killed during the narrative. Thus, it's
no accident that Miller stalks an island deer at the
same time the lynch mob seeks Traver, nor is Evalyn's
instinctive crushing of a large spider insignificant.
Effectively contrasting with veteran actor Scott is
non-actor Meersman, whose complete inexperience comes
across as naive innocence. This naivety plays out
perfectly in one of the most comical scenes of the
film, conjuring up images of Bill Murray's great baptism
scene in Ed
Wood. In this case, however, the young
girl has no idea what the minister is leading her
through the woods for, as he attempts to "save
her soul" after her rape. Her sputtering timing
is pitch perfect, solidifying her memorable debut.
indicated, his best acting successes come from children
It's a shame that this film didn't receive more notice
when it was released, because that makes it extremely
difficult to locate on tape today. However, if you're
fortunate enough to find a copy, The
Young One is worthwhile viewing. Unlike
the majority of banal screenplays that touch on racism
and/or pedophilia, Buñuel
supplies far more complex material for post mortems.
For an artist that supposedly was anti-religious,
he provokes more discussions about life's existential
problems than more conventionally moralistic filmmakers.