For some bizarre reason, the filmmakers decided to take the title literally and put a yellow filter on it. The result doesn't look golden so much as sickly. Oddly enough the trailer is in colour. Maybe the prospect of a yellow film would have been too much.
Bizarrely enough, it sort of works. The film is so lurid and surreal that the incredible oddness of the cinematography seems to fit, even if like a lot of the film, it is laughable. That hallucinatory aspect becomes more and more relevant as the film goes on and its characters descend even further into their paranoid obsessions, which are played out in the setting of a 1920's army barracks- despite Elizabeth Taylor's bang-on-trend hairstyle and clothing.
Voyeurism, sexual repression, postnatal depression, homosexuality and fetishism are all on display here- good on the filmmakers for having the guts to do this thing in the first place. Carson McCullers' novel, which this is an adaptation of, is a classic example of the Southern Gothic genre: a genre which uses lurid melodrama to explore the dark recesses of the mind, particularly perversity, loneliness and mental illness. Unfortunately the film lacks the novel's poetic narrative so it's boiled down to the salacious basics.
Basically, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) is the slatternly wife of Major Pendleton (Marlon Brando). She loves nothing more than to ride her white stallion, Firebolt, with a passion that is borderline-Equus. You know who else likes to ride horses? Private Williams (Robert Forster), who ironically enough has no sense of privacy: he likes to ride horseback naked and also likes to stare up at Leonora's window to watch her being naked. You know who else likes to stare at naked people? Major Pendleton, who is rather taken with Williams' riding antics and starts to creepily stalk him. It's generally a rather odd company as Lieutenant Colonel Langdon (Brian Keith) has it off with Leonora whilst his wife Alison (Julie Harris) suffers from neurosis and paranoia caused by her postnatal depression. She chopped her nipples off with some gardening shears (yes, really). Now she prefers the company of her fey Filipino houseboy Anacleto (Zorro David) and fantasises about running off with him.
For the first half, this is just completely hilarious psycho-sexual melodrama, with plenty of horses, whipping and Elizabeth Taylor removing her bra and throwing it at the poker-faced Marlon Brando, whose seething rage and Southern twang mumble (apart from this bit, where he seems to sound German) are so wonderfully overheated that it's a wonder he doesn't explode. Talking of seething, the female audience will be seething when they see how annoyingly stunning Elizabeth Taylor was. Us mortals can only dream of looking like her.
Talking of looking, the film is actually at its best when people aren't talking. Pendleton's obsession with Williams is never voiced; it's all in the looks. Repression is a large part of the Southern Gothic genre and whilst Brando's lusty stalking isn't exactly subtle, it simultaneously simmers and disturbs. Forster conveys the bizarre mystery of Williams well, as he vanishes and re-appears so frequently that it would drive anyone mad. His voyeurism and exhibitionism is handled nicely; it's only comic because it's unsettling.
The film even manages a sort of tragedy. Harris' character initially seems like just another stereotype but Harris makes her sweet and endearing, even though she's deeply neurotic and heading for a breakdown. Perhaps it's because she's harmlessly mentally ill; a victim rather than a victimiser. No wonder the weird innocence of Anacleto is a relief, when everyone else's sexual desires are raging. Keith, who's probably the most normal of the characters, has a poignant monologue near the end which makes you forget his cruelty.
I have no idea why, after redeeming the film, the filmmakers then chose to make the melodramatic ending an unintentionally laugh-out-loud one. Maybe the themes that they were dealing with were easier to brush under the carpet when they were made into ludicrous melodrama. Still, it has the two-fold pleasures of being 'so bad that it's good' whilst at the same time daringly exploring the dark sides of humanity. If you're male, make that the three-fold pleasure of Elizabeth Taylor's presence- or if you're female, the presence of Marlon Brando, who still had it at the age of forty-three.