Sometimes a project seems so misbegotten you wonder why somebody didn’t see it. This was based on a 1904 novel by William Henry Hudson that for some reason was a perennial favorite with readers. Maybe it was a good read, but the synopsis I read sounds pretty foolish. Hudson was primarily an ornithologist, known for his books on the fauna of South America, among other things.
This is a sort of jungle romance, with a mysterious white “bird woman” who has been raised in the jungles of Venezuela or Guyana. A man fleeing from Caracas (Tony Perkins) is taken in by the natives, who won’t venture into a certain area because of the bad juju of the woman who lives in there. And here is the problem. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Audrey Hepburn, both as an actress and a humanitarian, but she was totally wrong for this role. She always looks as if she just stepped down from the runway at a Givenchy fashion show. She can’t help it. She’s way too classy to be living in the jungle. And when that part doesn’t work, nothing else works, either.
I have to mention that the IMDb FAQ section maintains that the movie was shot in Venezuela and Guyana and Suriname. That is sheer bullshit. The director (Mel Ferrer, who was married to Audrey at the time) sent some camera men down there, and they decided it would be impossible to film much in the jungle. So they took some spectacular shots of waterfalls and mesas and other stuff, and came back home. The whole huge jungle set was built on a sound stage. The scenes where Tony Perkins or Henry Silva (he and Sessue Hayakawa play Indians!) are seen in front of these wonders are clearly rear-projections. Don’t try to fool me, I can always spot that stuff. Look at the lighting, it’s a dead giveaway. And in fact, we see some long shots of “Tony” in canoes that are clearly not in Hollywood, but you can never see his face. It’s a stand-in. I doubt that Perkins ever set foot out of California while making this film, and I can almost guarantee that Hepburn didn’t.
Add in a whole lot of birds that I’m pretty sure are African, some lethargic anacondas that look more like pythons to me, jungle river scenes that look a lot like the river cruise at Disneyland, and a leaping jaguar that I’m pretty sure is a spotted leopard, and it all looks pretty phony, even in lush Technicolor and wide screen. I doubt that that matter to many people in 1959, but the film was a big flop, and I think it’s mostly because of the bad casting.