UNITED STATES—Peet Boggs: So Nita stays behind to accompany Benjamin, the refugee with a heart condition?
Jules Kaminsky: The film is about a hopelessly naïve artist/intellectual/philosopher caught in the jaws of cataclysmic events totally unequipped to deal with them. He still has one tool: his crystal-clear reason. That first night he planted himself in the clearing and wouldn’t budge, he told Nita that he was nearer the goal; the goal was to carry the manuscript, the precious manuscript in the bag, to Spain, from Nazi France. And Nita went against their plan to go back to the village and promised to stay with him. He didn’t have a blanket and there were wild animals.
He threw reason right back on her face: She was to bring a mother and son back from the village and her husband would be disturbed if she did not show back up. So he would stay alone on the mountain and she would go back.
Seated, Benjamin won the argument.
Boggs: How did Nita and her husband know Benjamin?
They had met in a camp the French had for German refugees and Nazis before the surrender. They both knew how helpless Benjamin was. In the camp, Benjamin told about how he had now chosen to stop eating meat.
“You sure picked a wrong time to quit eating meat,” the husband said.
“It’s painful,” Benjamin conceded.
“But you are a vegetarian and there is no meat here in the Vernuche Ritz.”
“The effect of not eating meat will take my mind off the camp conditions. I need to the force of the effort to occupy me, otherwise I could not endure it a single minute more.”
Nita returns in the morning and wonders if he’ll be there, if he has been attacked by wild bulls. She finds him out like a log, on the ground. She crouches down and listens to his heart, concern all over her face. Then there reverberates a loud fart. Nita waves it away with her hand and holds her nose. Even philosophers fart, ya know.
The group continues, now with two more refugees, the mother and son from the village. The road becomes steeper and steeper as they move toward the crest of the Pyrenees. There is suspense as the path at points nearly vanishes and is barely visible running through big rocks. To Nita’s surprise Benjamin was quite adept at reading the map and keeping them on track. The old smugglers’ path they were on ran below and out of sight of the main road, heavily patrolled by French border guards that followed the mountain ridge. When the two roads approached each other too closely, Benjamin was not allowed to smoke or speak—he had a booming voice which many a librarian had had to shush.
To keep his strength he walked at 10-minute intervals, and rested one minute. He showed fortitude. He seemed occupied by timing himself and forgot the weariness of the hike. The son and Nita took turns carrying the bag; it was awfully heavy. Nita wondered silently what the book might be about. Years later she would be asked if Benjamin had developed new philosophy or penned a manifesto? But that conversation was for later; now she was trying to save a few souls from the Nazis.
Now they came to a steep vineyard. This is where Benjamin gave up. “This is for billy goats,” he groaned, “Not for me.” The boy and Nita both lifted him by the arms and the damned bag swung heavily as they carried him forward. He was breathing heavily. Then, once they put the vineyard behind them, they all rested on a narrow hillside.
Boggs: I’ve been one of the lucky few to see the scene. You screened it one night in the late 70s after hours at the Pussycat. It’s what Orson would call a transcendent moment.
Kaminsky: I prefer to think of it as a Bergmanesque epiphany . . . I got Antonioni’s cameraman to do a panoramic shot and then we would do the close-ups in Griffith Park. That was the plan.
Boggs: You hadn’t cast at this time . . .
Kaminsky: I wanted Brando. We got all the exteriors in the actual Pyrenees. Beautiful Eastmancolor, that muted palette. And I was going to do the rest in the States . . . They all rested, the mother, the son and Benjamin. Nita gazes upon some white rocks that turn out to be a goat skeleton and there are vultures circling above. Death is present, yet it is a moment of supreme peace . . . Then they got up and resumed their hike to the peak, just before the descent to Spain: it’s sheer eye candy, there’s the Spanish coast, the blue of the Mediterranean, the deep red of the Spanish soil. Benjamin gasped and clutched his chest. “It’s so beautiful, “I have never seen anything so beautiful in all my life.”
Nita thinks, “Oh, his heart!”
To be continued…
Grady Miller is a humorst. He lives in Hollywood.