Other more flagrant themes like homosexuality, voyeurism, sadism seem, over years, to have taken central stage in the general perception of the novella. John Houston, in his 1967 adaptation of the work, thankfully doesn’t accede to the misapprehension. Though there are still moments in film where the director is obviously overplaying the element of suspense- the eerie music that accompanies scenes of built-up tension is truly annoying and incongruous with the dominant mood.
Marlon Brando is Major Weldon Penderton, a repressed homosexual who is unhappily married to the feisty, sassy, adulterous Leonora, played by Elizabeth Taylor. The couple is joined occasionally by their neighbor, the Langdons, he the timorous, spineless, whey-faced lover of Mrs. Penderton, and she the morose, frail, suffering patient of her husband’s infidelity and her own chronic depression. Observing from afar and silently meshing in their lives is Private Ellgee Williams, who makes a nocturnal habit of sneaking into Leonora’s room to watch her sleep. The story is set at an army base in Georgia, during “peacetime” as specified at the outset of the novel, though interestingly the book was published in 1941, when the nation was battening down the hatches for the coming war.
This peacetime may very well be a periodic respite attending the imminent storm. The atmosphere seems loaded with fear and uncertainties. A marked sense of contrariness starts rearing its head in men’s tenuous hold on relations with other people and their inner selves. The traditional values no longer hold good, but no one is courageous enough to pioneer a change.
Major Penderton is a victim of this embattled period, a square peg obdurately scraping the confines of a round hole. Brando’s nonpareil talent dazzles in the sequence when he is thrown off his wife’s favorite horse. Seized with a sudden rage he starts whipping the poor animal, his face grimaced by laughter and tears. He then collapses onto the ground, contrite and repulsed at his depraved moral; a naked Private Williams glides in and gently leads the horse away, whilst Penderton looks on, his moist eyes gleam with shocked admiration.
The critical reception of the film wasn’t well, though Houston considered it his best. Twelve years later he would be attempting another Southern Gothic classic, but this time with better success. His 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’ Connor’s Wise Blood seems many ways an undiluted Bourbon to Carson’s pure water with rain. It’d be tempting to wonder if Reflections were released in 1979, and Wise Blood 1967, the verdicts would reverse or be any different.