Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet
20th Century Fox, 1960, 110 minutes
Director Elia Kazan had visited the Cumberland area of Tennessee in the early 1930s as an idealistic, young communist. He admired the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which tamed the flood-prone Tennessee River while providing much-needed hydro-electric power. For many years, Kazan desired to make a film about the tensions involved in the push for the greatest common good as represented by the TVA versus the disruption of individuals’ lives caused by the project.
It’s the 1930s and the TVA is on the verge of damming the Tennessee River and flooding several river valleys. Chuck Glover (Clift), a TVA bureaucrat based in Washington, is sent down to Garthville, Tennessee with the mission of removing the last remaining holdout, eighty-year-old Ella Garth (Van Fleet), who has no intention of selling her soon-to-be-flooded river island. Her widowed granddaughter, Carol (Remick), is attracted to the urbane Glover and the two quickly form a relationship. Glover persuades Ella’s Black tenant farmers to leave the island along with their families but the matriarch remains adamant. At the same time, resentment mounts among the local White citizenry towards Glover’s policy of paying Blacks the same wages as Whites to help clear trees. Carol aggressively pursues the ambivalent Glover, asking him to marry her at the very moment the rednecks arrive at her house in order to send Glover packing. He can only admire Carol’s spunky defiance of the gang of good ol’ boys and asks her to elope. A federal marshal is finally brought in to evict Ella from the island. She is provided a small house on higher ground but dies of heartbreak shortly after. On their way to Washington D.C. via airplane, Glover, Carol, and her two children view the river and the only portion of Garth Island still above water; the family cemetery containing Ella’s fresh grave. Glover admired Ella for her foolhardy stubbornness but she stood in the way of “progress” and had to be sacrificed.
Kazan filmed “Wild River” on location in the towns of Charleston and Cleveland, Tennessee. Close to one-hundred locals were used as extras. Emotionally crippled Monty Clift barely held it together throughout the filming. Kazan’s accounts of the actor’s performance are quite interesting. While Kazan bragged that he bullied Clift into remaining sober throughout the shoot, town lore has it that the McClary sisters regularly snuck liquor up to his room at the Cherokee Hotel. Twenty-five-year-old Lee Remick is superb as the young, love-starved widow. When she confidently and aggressively courts Clift, it’s all he can do just to sit alone, gape-mouthed, on the couch, leaving every viewer scratching their head. Jo Van Fleet is fantastic as Ella, skillfully portraying the eighty-year-old matriarch at the age of forty-five. Albert Salmi is entertaining as the alpha good ol’ boy. Overall, it’s a wonderful cast which includes several Kazan regulars.
“Wild River” was one of Kazan’s favorite films although its limited art house release guaranteed unprofitability. Fox was convinced 1960 movie audiences would not be interested in a film about the TVA. The movie was rarely shown on television and was only recently (2013) released on DVD.
Kazan had attempted to write the film script himself but eventually hired seasoned screenwriter, Paul Osborne. Kazan especially admired the conflict between Glover and Ella in which both held to positions that were simultaneously right and wrong. Relations between Blacks and Whites in the 1930’s segregated Deep South are portrayed quite candidly for a movie made in 1960.
I’ve seen “Wild River” many times but I appreciated watching it for the first time in HD on Blu-ray. Commentary is provided by Time magazine film critic, Richard Schickel, who doesn’t hide his deep admiration for “Wild River” or for Kazan and Remick. This is a pretty good film but Remick’s performance as someone attempting to straddle both “tradition” and “progress” was Oscar-worthy outstanding.
Additional thoughts from a believer
The Black workers on Garth island and Carol and her children regularly sing old Gospel hymns, with “In the Garden” featured most prominently. Kazan contrasts Christianity and “traditional” values (which includes negative attitudes such as racism) with utopian Liberal Progressivism. I’m all for improving people’s physical circumstances but true redemption can’t be found in either progressive or conservative politics. Jesus Christ transcends politics and physical conditions. But in all fairness to Kazan, one of the main messages of this film is that even the most “successful” progressive social engineering project will have its share of victims.