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Vol. 9, No. 1

Luis Bu˝uel & "Travelin Man"
by Peter Matthiessen

Luise Buñuel & "Travelin' Man"


"Travelin Man" appeared originally in Harper's Magazine in 1957 and was reprinted the following year in the O. Henry Prize Stories collection. Somehow it came to the attention of Luis Buñuel, and not long thereafter, our mutual friend, producer Lewis Allen, brought us together in New York City for a lively supper and discussion of its potential as a film—an exciting and surprising idea, since the story is an elemental one, with no spoken dialogue (literally none) until its final paragraphs, when one character speaks, in a tragic and startling denouement.
            Briefly, the story concerns a black convict, Traver, escaped from the chain gang, who takes refuge on an uninhabited barrier island off the Carolinas, which he knows well from the past and where he knows he can feed himself and remain hidden. But he soon discovers that a white man has a camp there, hunting the wild cattle and wild boar transplanted by pioneer settlers of long ago (a confederate comes every few days and takes away a cargo of meat), and Traver soon learns that this poacher, wanting no witnesses to his illegal operation, will kill him at the first opportunity, all the more readily because Traver is black. Though taking great pains to leave no traces, Traver, terrified, must contrive to find food while stalking the poacher to be certain of his whereabouts; inevitably Traver's presence is given away by the alarm calls and flight of the wild creatures. Both men are skilled hunters and trackers, but only one is armed; eventually, the poacher spots Traver at the water's edge and fires from a distance, the slug slapping into the canal-bank mud close to his head . . . and so forth, to the strange yet inevitable climax. The only sounds throughout are wild sounds of the birds and animals, the water and wind, so that when the human voice is heard, it is explosive.
            Bu˝uel loved this stark idea, and we were all in complete accord about shooting the story straight—with the earth's silence broken only by the wind in the trees, and the wild voices as a distinct presence, even a kind of character. Both Luis and his producer, George Pepper, were socially concerned—and presumably were drawn to the story for its indictment of the still-violent racial bigotry in our country—but like many filmmakers in the ugly, red-baiting climate of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late fifties, they were in political banishment, making low-budget films in Mexico; under the circumstances, I was content to accept a modest $500 advance on full payment of $1,500 for the screen rights to my story, which became the film The Young One.
            Unfortunately Luis and Pepper were at the mercy of their backers, who harassed them throughout the shooting, insisting on intruding a Lolita-like girlfriend for the murderous poacher—who turns out to be kindhearted under his rough exterior—and replacing the powerful black man with a skinny hipster figure; as I recall, this improbable swamp fugitive says things like "Yah-hay, man, I'm like there aw-ready!" when his new friend and savior, the redneck poacher, says to meet him at the boat for a ride off the island. The poacher is played by Zachary Scott in Northwest woods garb, so unsurefooted that he couldn't sneak up on anything.
            I saw this travesty at an early screening in New York City and was so embarrassed that, sitting alone in the back row, I felt myself go bright red in the face. I was vastly relieved when the film's distribution was held up, and vastly surprised when I later read that aficionados of Bu˝uel's oeuvre much admire The Young One.
            Years later, the producer's widow, going over old accounts, discovered that $1,000 was still owed on my advance. When she inquired of me whether this was true I wrote back to say that it was, but that I couldn't prove it. Based on other experiences with the film business, I never expected to hear back; the check came at once, for which I honor her. She still has the film rights to the story, and presumably would accept an appropriate offer. I do hope one day someone will make the film properly, as Luis Bu˝uel was never permitted to do.

To read other stories from the Spring 2005 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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