This film is rich with tormented people. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967; dir. John Huston) is based on the novel by Carson McCullers, for whom the South was a place of repression, prejudice, and private angst. What filmmakers have picked up on in her fiction, Huston foremost among them, is repression. Huston’s film earnestly endeavors to ensure that no one miss its presence.
The film is set in a Southern town with a military base. Because McCullers grew up in Columbus, GA, we can assume that the base she had in mind was Fort Benning, but the film offers no clue as to exactly where it might be set, other than in a Southern town. The military in this film is an agent of control and masculinity, though the conflicts it shows have little to do with the military. Instead they have to do with sexual roles and sexual identity. A central motif is the horse, a symbol of masculine sexual power. Lenora Penderton (Elizabeth Tailor) can control the stallion she rides, but when her husband, Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando), tries to ride it, he loses control and the horse runs away with him. He beats it violently in retaliation. This is a general representation of their marriage. Lenora refers to her husband as “prissy.” He tells her that she “disgusts” him, in response to which she languorously removes her clothing and slinks away naked up the stairs to her bedroom, aware that he won’t follow. (This is the best scene in the film, and the only time when the Elizabeth Tailor mystique is evident). They sleep in separate bedrooms. He threatens her but never carries through. In the Penderton marriage, gender roles seem reversed. She enjoys riding her stallion, drinking hard, and playing cards with the man next door (with whom she’s also sleeping). He, on the other hand, practices martial gestures before the mirror. He becomes increasingly fascinated with a private who tends to his wife’s horse, and who also sneaks into her bedroom at night to hold her undergarments and to stare at her while she sleeps.
In the U. S. Army of 1967, there is no ambiguity about gender role expectations. Men are supposed to be men. Yet the film offers examples of men who don’t fit that conventional role: Major Penderton is one. Another is Capt. Murray Weincheck, a relatively minor character, but his interests are described in such a way as to imply that he is homosexual, or at least far outside the desired military definition of what is masculine: he loves art and music, he holds receptions at his home, he values a collection of silver spoons, and so on. It’s so obvious that he doesn’t fit the military mold that other officers talk about him. (Weincheck’s name suggests that he may be Jewish: is that also a reason why he doesn’t fit the Army mold?). Finally his commanding officer advises him that he has no future in the military, and he decides to leave the army. The private who is so fascinating to Weldon is another ambiguous individual. On the one hand he is a peeping tom who lurks outside the Penderton house at night and spies on Lenora while she sleeps. On the other hand, the Pendertons see him riding a horse naked, and Major Penderton sees him sunbathing in the nude. The film implies without stating outright that the private is aware of the major’s interest in him, but leaves ambiguous what his reaction might be.
The U. S. Army also brings with it a clear set of social standards, priorities, and protocols. Officers and military men do not socialize with one another, for one. Officers and their families do socialize. However, wives are expected to remain faithful to their husbands, and there is no room for unconventional sexual relationships. This is a context for the film, but not one that it explores deeply. Instead it focuses on the characters—the Penderton marriage; the affair between Lenora and Colonel Langdon; Major Penderton’s attraction to the private; the Langdon marriage; the character of Alison Langdon, who cut off her nipples with gardening shears after her baby’s death; her friendship with Anacleto, a Filipino homosexual who is her personal confidant and servant. One might also expect that the Southern setting could reinforce the atmosphere of repression that permeates the film, but for the most part this doesn’t happen. Several characters, including Leonora and her husband, have Southern accents, but their backgrounds and upbringings for the most part do not seem factors in what transpires. The environment of the South has little to do with what happens in the film, though perhaps we are supposed to see in the forces of repression, puritanism, prejudice, and rigid social boundaries a connection.
An example of what happens when a character openly rebels against a social role is evident when Alison Langdon decides to leave her husband. She knows he is having an affair with Leonora. He decides she is having a nervous breakdown and has her committed to a mental institution. Does he to this to avoid the shame and embarrassment he’ll suffer when she leaves him and when his affair with Lenora becomes publically known? She dies of a heart attack soon after he leaves her at the mental institution.
As a film Reflections in a Golden Eye is confused: it doesn’t know what to make of the homosexuals it portrays. Do they suffer from repression in a world that narrowly defines what male and female mean? Or are they agents of perversion, worthy of ridicule or worse? With characters such as Major Penderton and Captain Weincheck, the film might seem to lead towards the former alternative—these are men whose normal inclinations are suffocated and hidden by the lives and roles they live--but in the character Anacleto, a mincing homosexual stereotype, the film also leans in the latter direction. It is Colonel Langdon who embodies the conventional American male in this film, and it is towards him that Lenora gravitates as an alternative to her weak and ambiguous husband. However much sympathy for Major Penderton and Captain Weincheck the film might show, however much discernment it might have about the rigid gender definitions forced on them, all the fundamental signs and indications suggest that this film views them as a perversion that underlies the veneer of military and Southern society more than they are victims of repression.
The film ends in an outburst of violence that doesn’t seem earned. Major Penderton sees the private entering his wife’s bedroom. He finds him gazing at Lenora as she sleeps and shoots him. This moment might represent the cathartic reassertion of Penderton’s masculine self, roused by jealousy to defend his wife and his sexual turf. Or it might be simple jealousy that the man to whom he was attracted instead was attracted to a woman. Or it might be a release of anger and passion in response to the repressive forces at work in the film. Lenora screams in horror, repeatedly, over what has happened, and these screams bring the film to its conclusion. The incoherence of this final moment is a fitting expression of the film’s overall incoherence.
Reflections in a Golden Eye appeared in the same decade as a number of films dramatizing in Freudian terms the powers of repression. Examples: The Haunting (1963), based on the 1959 Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House, concerns domestic repression, while The Children’s Hour (1961), based on a 1934 Lillian Hellman play, concerns alleged and repressed lesbianism. Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), based on the D. H. Lawrence novel, and The Sergeant (1968), deal more directly with male bonding and male love than does Reflections in a Golden Eye.