The film was intended to be the first of several projects directed by Ferrer and starring his wife, but ultimately this was the only one released. It was one of the few critical and box office failures of Hepburn's career. Vincente Minnelli had originally been slated to direct the film, but delays in the project led MGM to choose Ferrer to direct it.
A young man named Abel (Anthony Perkins) narrowly escapes Caracas, Venezuela after it is overtaken by rebels. He decides to seek revenge, as his father, the former Minister of War, was killed. After getting supplies, he takes a canoe to the far shore, where he is nearly killed by a jaguar, but is saved by the native, Indian-like people.
He decides to prove his bravery by not moving once he sees the chief, Runi (Sessue Hayakawa) and telling his story. The Indians are impressed, and do not kill him. After a while, Runi's son Kua-ko (Henry Silva), who has lived with the missionaries of Caracas and speaks English, tells Abel that Runi has agreed so long as he does not harm them, they will not harm him. Abel agrees, and befriends Kua-ko, who tells him of the "Bird Woman", who killed his older brother, and that their tribe is not allowed in the nearby forest.
Abel ignores the warning and ventures into the forest, where he sees a young woman (Audrey Hepburn) who quickly disappears. He returns to the Indians, and Kua-ko tells him that Runi wishes Abel to use his gun and kill the girl. He returns to the forest, but decides to warn the girl instead. He sees her again, but is bitten by a coral snake. The girl takes Abel to her home and tends his wound. Upon waking up, he meets the girl's grandfather, Nuflo (Lee J. Cobb), who tells him her name is Rima.
The next day, with his leg wounded by the snake, Abel meets Rima again and they begin to talk. Rima takes a liking to him, but Nuflo warns her that he will leave once his leg heals. Abel is soon able to walk without a cane, and Rima therefore begins showing him the forest. Abel tells her that he has come to like her as well, and Rima is confused. She goes to speak with her dead mother's spirit, and decides to return to where she came from to ask a village elder about her strange new feelings for Abel. Later, Abel and Rima travel to the edge of the forest, where he shows her Riolama, which she remembers as her village. Despite Nuflo's initial reluctance to take her, Rima forces him to show her the way by threatening his soul if he does not.
Abel decides it is time for him to return to the Indians. He tells Runi of how Rima saved him, but neither he nor Kua-ko believe him. He quickly realizes that Kua-ko killed his brother and placed the blame on Rima, but is tied up. After a bravery test (withstanding bee and wasp stings without making a sound), Kua-ko and the Indians make ready to enter the forest and kill Rima.
Abel escapes and warns Nuflo and Rima, and together they escape to Riolama, where Nuflo tells Abel that he cannot return to the village because he caused a massacre. He managed to help Rima and her mother, and promised to take care of Rima, but was ashamed at his part in the massacre. Rima overhears, and curses Nuflo. She then rushes down to Riolama, where she faints in the heat. Abel follows and takes her to safety. When she awakens, Abel tells her how he has come to love her, and Rima does also, having only come to decipher her strange feelings and now recognizing them as love for him.
Rima steals away while Abel is asleep to go back to Nuflo and apologize, but when she finds him, the Indians have burnt their home and he is nearly dead. She asks his forgiveness, and with his last words Nuflo tries to warn her of the Indians. She quickly discovers for herself, and races through the forest to escape. Kua-ko burns the great tree where she has hidden. Meanwhile, Abel awakens and realizes what Rima has done. He quickly follows and finds Kua-ko, who teases that he killed her. The two fight into a stream, where Abel manages to drown Kua-ko.
Abel remembers a flower Rima told him of, which, if it disappears in one place, blossoms in another close by. He finds the flower, and not far off, Rima herself, who extends her hand. He takes it, and they begin their life in the forest together.Audrey Hepburn – Rima
Anthony Perkins – Abel
Lee J. Cobb – Nuflo
Sessue Hayakawa – Runi
Henry Silva – Kua-ko
Nehemiah Persoff – Don Panta
Michael Pate – Priest
Estelle Hemsley – Cla Cla
Although considerable effort had been made to produce a faithful and convincing rendering of the book, the film was not reviewed kindly by critics at the time and was not a commercial success.
Critics were not kind to the film, impressed neither by its lush widescreen visuals nor by the equally lush musical score that accompanied them …
The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos was originally commissioned to write the full score for the film. However, his music was inspired by the original novel, rather than the film adaptation.
Unhappy with the way his music had been used, Villa Lobos edited his full score into a cantata, Forest of the Amazon (Floresta do Amazonas). It was premiered in 1959 in New York City with the Symphony of the Air and the soprano Bidu Sayão under the composer's direction. The same forces recorded it in stereophonic sound for United Artists Records, which released it on LP and reel-to-reel tape. The recording had a limited release on CD.
Alfred Heller, a friend and associate of Villa Lobos, made a modern digital recording of the complete uncut cantata (74 minutes) with soprano Renee Fleming, along the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra. He wrote on the Amazon website that Villa-Lobos had completed work on the full cantata in December 1958. The United Artists recording used about 46 minutes of the cantata.
A separate source from that quoted above indicates that the score by Villa-Lobos was composed from a translated script prior to completion of the editing of the film. Though Villa-Lobos did some work on the edited film, the task of scoring the completed film was done by Bronislau Kaper, with Charles Wolcott conducting.
For the final score, Kaper wrote original material and used or adapted material composed by Villa-Lobos. Additional music and arrangements were supplied by Sidney Cutner and Leo Arnaud. The love theme "Song of Green Mansions" was composed by Kaper, with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster.
The complete Kaper score was issued on CD in 2005, on Film Score Monthly records.
Despite Hepburn's popularity the film was a box office disaster - it earned $1,190,000 in the US and Canada and $1.2 million elsewhere, resulting in a loss of $2,430,000.
The VHS film had only been available in cropped pan and scan transfers. Warner UK struck a deal with former special interest label Digital Classics to release Green Mansions. The film subsequently received an anamorphic NTSC DVD release in the UK on 6 April 2009.