Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Fourteenth Film: “Wild River”

Today, as part of our “Kazan Redux” series, we’re going to re-review director Elia Kazan’s fourteenth film, “Wild River.” The review below was first posted on June 27, 2017 and has been slightly revised.

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Wild River
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet
20th Century Fox, 1960, 110 minutes

5 Stars

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

M&L

It’s the 1930s and the TVA is on the verge of damming the Tennessee River and flooding several river valleys. Chuck Glover (Monty 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 (Jo Van Fleet), who has no intention of selling her soon-to-be-flooded river island. Her widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee 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 in preparation for the controlled flooding. 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 look down and view the river and the only portion of Garth Island still above water; the family cemetery plot 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.

Comments

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 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 Blu-ray 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 circumstances. 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.

Next up: Kazan’s fifteenth film, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961).

16 thoughts on “Kazan Redux: Elia Kazan’s Fourteenth Film: “Wild River”

  1. Excellent review, Tom. You have definitely sold this movie to me, and I plan to order the DVD. What iced this decision is that it is has commentary by Richard Schickel. I love commentary tracks, and Schickel is one of the best. He does commentary for “Double Indemnity,” which I have, and also a Kazan film I own, “East of Eden.”

    Superb post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot, David! I hope you enjoy “Wild River.” Please send me your thoughts after you view it. Yup, Schickel does a great job on the commentary. He’s unabashed in his admiration for Kazan’s films and even wrote a biography of the director, link below:

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m responding to your comment on my post: Wow driving 70 miles for the shots! THat’s a lot of driving! Yikes! I was able to get fillet O Fish on Fridays a few weeks ago but my wife discourage me to not eat that “unhealthy thing”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My wife could have easily rescheduled her second vax to be given at a nearby drug store, but was afraid of making the change. At least we only stood in line for 30 minutes this time around rather than the 60 minutes for her first shot (whine).

      Fillet o Fish unhealthy? It’s all relative. Fillet o Fish is probably much healthier than my hot dog regime.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I recall reading this previously when you posted it, espeially with its link about TVA. Thanks for this review, its amazing he touches also about race issue and equal pay, in some sense Kazan is quite forward thinking and ahead of his time

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Kazan had some fantastic insights into the foibles of American society and of humankind in general, but of course could offer no substantive alternatives. It’s somewhat amazing that audiences patronized Kazan’s films and the plays he directed because the criticisms were directed at them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for sticking with me over the years regarding these Kazan film reviews. I think many Christian bloggers do a knee jerk and assume I’ve “gone Hollywood.”

        Liked by 1 person

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