July 14, 2016
Green Mansions – US, 1959
I’d say that films like Mel Ferrer’s Green Mansions are products of their times and wouldn’t be made today, yet the very week I finally got around to watching it, Lionsgate Pictures’ The Legend of Tarzan hit theaters. That’s right. In the twenty-first century, we have a new Tarzan movie. But I digress. Green Mansions was made in 1959, and the film can perhaps best be described as an odd, unholy amalgamation of the Tarzan films, Walt Disney cartoons, and an advertisement for South American tourism. The film will likely remind contemporary moviegoers of the silliest parts of Pocohantas, and viewers in 1959 likely saw parallels between the film and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s a film that is truly impossible to hate, yet also very difficult to like in its entirety.
The film follows the exploits of a young man named Abel, played by Anthony Perkins. Abel has seen his fair share of death and violence in Venezuela and decides that he must acquire a fortune in order to exact revenge on those that committed atrocities against foreigners there. During his search, he is captured by a local tribe and threatened with death. To survive, he tells them his life story, which the local people sit enraptured listening to even though there is little proof they can understand a single word he is saying. In fact, among the villagers, there is only one person who can understand English, a former missionary named Nuflo (Lee J. Cobb), who is the adopted son of the village chief (Sessue Hayakawa).
In one of the film’s most ridiculous moments, Abel finds himself in a beautiful forest being lured here and there by the siren calls of what he thinks is a bird. Eventually the sounds lead him to a young woman named Rima, who we later learn has been living there with her grandfather since she was four. Interestingly, the film never establishes whether it was actually Rima who made the bird sounds, which would make sense given the playful nature in which they were voiced, but not gel with anything that follows.
And just who do they get to play this female version of Tarzan? Why, the great Audrey Hepburn, of course, because nothing says woman of the jungle like the woman who won an Oscar playing an Italian princess in 1953. (In the interest of disclosure, I should also note that she was married to the director at the time.) The only question remaining is just how invested Hepburn will be in the role. Will she speak in broken English, a la Tarzan and the many comic versions of the character that followed, or will she play the character as if she had still gotten the kind of education that others could only dream of receiving? I’ll give you one guess. In fact, in the film, language is the great indicator of class and values. Those who speak no English or who speak a broken form of it are portrayed as violent, untrustworthy, and capable of murder. Since Hepburn’s character Rima speaks perfect English, she must therefore be a sympathetic character, and since Nuflo doesn’t, it is not hard to guess that he is the unscrupulous one.
For the first half an hour, the film concerns itself with establishing Abel as a man of noble convictions and great bravery, and it might have been fun to see what he would have done upon returning to Venezuela. However, the film sees him assigned to kill “the Daughter of Didi,” which is what the chief has taken to calling Rima. From there, audiences are treated to over thirty minutes of scenes resembling outtakes from earlier Disney films. We see Rima and Abel discussing the concepts of living forests and the value of all living creatures. In truth, I half expected for the animals to start talking back or for a magical tree to whisper, “Listen to your heart.” This section of the film even gives audiences a musical interlude, as Abel breaks into a song about the power of love and Rima looks at him admiringly from a distance. Their budding love is, of course, tested by Rima’s disapproving grandfather and interrupted by the arrival of Nuflo and his men. Their mission: to finish off Rima once and for all.
Films such as this one are often studies in duality. Here, the way Rima talks is stacked up against the way the other residents of the land do, and, with it, she is shown to be superior. Abel’s guitar solo is contrasted with the stereotypically crazy war dance of the villagers, and Rima’s grandfather, by being protective and concerned about Rima’s well-being, is shown to be a better father figure than Runi, the village chief, who seems only interested in sending his “sons” into battle. Also, Rima truly values the forest, while Nuflo seeks to burn it down in the pursuit of glory.
By the time, the film comes to its predictable conclusion, conveyed in a scene that is anything but logical or understandable, it has gone on so many detours that it is hard to know if this was what was intended or if it was the product of a handful of script doctors who through up their arms and accepted defeat. Still, it not easy to pan Green Mansions completely. Anthony Perkins gives the film a much better performance than the film deserves, and Audrey Hepburn does as well as she can with her role. However, there's only so much she can do with lines as clumsily-written as some of hers are. In fact, the main problem with the film is Dorothy Kingsley’s script. Too much of it does not fit today’s sentiments, and its insertion of a plot point involving Rima speaking to her dead mother (and praying to her) is more puzzling than intriguing. It’s one thing for Rima to believe that her deceased mother can hear her; it’s quite another for her grandfather to react as if her ghost were able to cast curses and punish wrongdoers.
In the end, Green Mansions is a classic example of a mixed bag, and to be honest, I had a feeling it would be going into it. So, why watch it, you might ask? I can answer that in two words, Sessue Hayakawa. Ever since I read a book about his career, I have been curious about his life and his films. Unfortunately, his role in this film, much like his role in Swiss Family Robinson, does not allow him to showcase much of his talents. Here, all he is called to do is act stoically and have a determined look on his face. It’s a crying shame that Hollywood couldn’t find more roles of substance for him. He deserved them. As for Green Mansions, it has simply not stood the test of time, and maybe that says something positive about us. (on DVD)