AFED #42: The Young One (Mexico/US. 1960); Dir. Luis Buñuel

Although it's hard to imagine the director of such arthouse classics as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire as a Hollywood player it isn't as unlikely as you might think. Immediately after shooting his second and final collaboration with Salvador Dali, L'Age d'Or, Luis Buñuel spent six months learning about American film-making processes at MGM's studios as well as meeting the likes of Chaplin and Von Sternberg.

Buñuel returned to the US again after the Spanish Civil War forced him into exile, helping produce Spanish versions of films for the international market. However it wasn't until he relocated to Mexico in 1946 that he resumed his directing career.

Most of his work there over the next twenty years was in his native tongue, but he did produce his only two English films, of which Bunuel notes in his biography My Last Sigh that he was very fond. The first of these was an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, the second was a drama exploring racial tensions and underage sex, The Young One.

Traver (Bernie Hamilton, aka Capt Dobey in Starsky and Hutch), a black musician on the run after being wrongly accused of rape, steals a boat and escapes to a small island off the coast of Carolina. This remote spot is the home of bee keeper Miller (Zachary Scott) and Evvie (Key Meersman) the gauche teenage granddaughter of his recently deceased business partner. Having previously treated Evvie with cruelty, Miller's attitude towards her changes when he realises she's maturing into a beautiful young woman and he begins to harbor lecherous designs.

While Miller is making a trip to the mainland Traver comes in search of supplies and encounters Evvie, who's fascinated by the charismatic stranger. Miller is less impressed and a confrontation inevitably occurs before a truce and arrangement of sorts. But when further visitors come to the island and Traver's fugitive status becomes evident the dynamic shifts again.

It's a very different piece to the surrealist inflected work for which Buñuel is best remembered and but for the sexual taboo it touches upon you could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a Hollywood movie. Although Miller's eventual seduction of Evvie is a key dramatic moment it's not overplayed; morally repugnant though it may be such incidents weren't uncommon. Miller might be a bit of a scumbag but he's a man hardened and frustrated by his circumstances rather than a pantomime villain. On the evidence of this Scott was probably capable of more than the bad guy roles upon which he'd built his career.

The black/white confrontation has overtones of The Defiant Ones a few years earlier, but is played out with less melodrama. During their conversations we learn Miller and Traver are both war veterans who served in Italy, yet although they might share common ground the nature of southern segregation at that time meant they could never consider one another friends. In the denouement a reconciliation of sorts is arrived at and in certain respects Miller's simple gesture of waving goodbye to Traver says more than the grandiose statement of the Curtis/Poitier film.

Judged on its own merits, rather than just as a minor film in the catalogue of one of cinema's giants, The Young One is actually a very good piece of cinema. Over the years there's been a tendency to focus on the sensationalistic aspects of the plot rather than assess it as a drama; in the US it was released as White Trash while in the UK it was originally known as Island of Shame (coincidentally it came out a year before Ingmar Bergman's island-based drama Through a Glass Darkly). Perhaps nowadays it would be received with a little more balance.


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