Pushing aside the little guy for the “greater good”

Wild River
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.

Plot

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, CarolM&L (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.

Commentary

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.

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4 thoughts on “Pushing aside the little guy for the “greater good”

  1. Love this review! This one seems very interesting to me! Especially the theme of “greater good” for the mass versus the little guy; and also the contrasts between progressives versus “traditional” though of course I understand this is New Deal Progressives and not the Progressives of today. I also enjoyed your additional thoughts from a believer. I bookmarked the movie on Amazon Prime to watch with my wife when I get the change; we like older movies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot, Jim. I like this movie quite a bit even with all of Kazan’s baggage. After his HUAC testimony, Kazan was drawn to themes of ambivalence where there were often two competing ideas or choices and both had undesirable consequences.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Over the last few months I’m amazed at God’s common grace for this man to make brilliant movies though he wasn’t a Christian and have some chips on his shoulders, and is not a Marxists, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Kazan had very accurate insights into people’s behaviors. Sin was not in his vocabulary but he understood what motivates people; fear, pride, ignorance, desire, and he delighted in holding a mirror up to society. In his 1988, 900-page autobiography he admitted to many, many “shortcomings.” I think I was attracted to Kazan’s movies as a young guy because they were so realistic and honest about human nature compared to the typical Hollywood assembly line stuff. Even the “good guys” were “bad” at times and that resonated with what I knew about myself and others. The Gospel’s just a short step away from that understanding.

        Liked by 1 person

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