An army post in Georgia, where Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) teaches the new recruits while his wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) tries to amuse herself as best she can, staving off the crushing boredom she feels as a spouse of a military man. She does this by going horseriding on her favourite steed, Firebird, feeling that she understands the animal more than... well, more than her more uncertain husband does anyway, as he is nowhere near the experienced rider that he would like to be, a source of shame. But he has another uncomfortable truth to face up to...
And that's connected to one of the soldiers on the base, Private Williams, played by Robert Forster in a role that must have made him think appearing in his debut with Taylor and Brando would be exactly what his budding career needed. Unfortunately for him, the film underperformed with what baffled audiences it could attract, and while those megastars could deal with that kind of disappointment and still be as famous as they were in the first place, Forster's career spiralled off in all sorts of directions, quite often landing him in very low budget, pay the rent works. Naturally this sort of thing is the stuff of cult actors, and he found his fans by and by.
Plus appearing stark naked in your debut is always going to attract some kind of attention, which is what he did here, riding around bareback and starkers for the sake of his art. This attracts both the Major and his wife, although that desire is sublimated in each with a drive to tame the white stallion that Williams has some kind of back to nature connection with, for neither of the Pendertons can come out and admit that their marriage is a farce. Farce being an interesting word to use, for under John Huston's direction, adapting Carson McCullers' novel (she would die about the time this was released), there were hints that a sense of humour was needed to get through the movie.
For a start, Huston seemed intent on holding up each of the main characters to varying degrees of lampooning, as if they could not see how ridiculous they were but it was plain as the noses on their faces for us onlookers. So they each simmered with repressions in the lazy summer heat (originally illustrated by the golden haze on the image), and each found such emotions so hard to cope with they unavoidably led to tragedy. One character summing this up better than most was Alison Langdon (Julie Harris), wife of the Lieutenant Colonel (Brian Keith) who has fled into the sexual embrace of Leonora; why has he done so? Because Alison suffered a massive mental breakdown when her baby died, and in one of the most infamous plot points of the era, "Cut off her nipples with garden shears!"
So it's safe to say she is in a fragile state of mind, though she does find solace in her Filipino houseboy Anacleto (the very strange Zorro David in his only screen role), but that doesn't stop the horseriding trips her husband and Leonora take doubling as shagging sessions (offscreen, though apparently Taylor did have a nude scene too where she strips off to spite Weldon). Such was the prevalence of horse symbolism that when Weldon tries to ride Firebird the animal bolts and after a harrowing experience throws him, so he beats it until the naked Williams appears and tames the horse. Whatever can that mean? Were these scenes trying to reveal something about the torrid feelings of a bunch of emotional freaks?
If you're in any doubt, the sight of the nude young man makes Weldon begin to lust after him in ways he cannot understand, leading him to follow him around, but he's in for a nasty surprise as he doesn't know the Private is a bit of a perv who sneaks into his wife's bedroom to watch her sleep and sniff her nightie. Meanwhile Alison spots him from her bedroom window next door and begins to think for some reason that she's hallucinating thanks to everyone telling her she's crazy, in not so many words. Leonora is undoubtedly no help, and Taylor's wide-eyed airhead, only thinking as far as the next social occasion to break up the monotony, was one of her better portrayals. There was enough material here for a batallion of shrinks, but weirdly it was possible to take their problems sincerely, no matter how overwrought they became, thanks to perfect casting and Huston's sharp sympathy, tempered with that look askance at their behaviour, frustrated to the point of violence. Music by Toshirô Mayuzumi.