Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960) is one of those overlooked movie gems long overdue for audiences’ rediscovery. It is worthy not only of our renewed viewing, but an unerring appreciation for Kazan’s breadth and prowess as a film maker. That this film has been so fundamentally forgotten by the general public for so long is indeed a tragedy. For in Wild River Kazan manages to do what, arguably, Kazan always did best; pick at the scab of a social injustice, looking at the issue from both sides, ascribe no blame to either side, discover the humanity in the cause itself, and dissect the essential flaws in the characters inhabiting his narrative to reveal a parable about human suffrage and redemption. In this latter respect, Kazan is working with superior talents; Montgomery Clift, Jo Van Fleet and Lee Remick, each giving powerful performances that have not aged since the movie was made.
It should be noted that the trajectory of Montgomery Clift’s movie career was forever changed by a 1956 automobile accident. Until then he had been primarily known as a devilishly handsome leading man, capable of interjecting a complexity of deep-rooted angst and inner turmoil into his characterizations. But the gruesome injuries sustained as a result of his smashing into a telephone pole did more than alter his looks. It seems to have deprived Clift of that thin veneer so necessary to keep his true self guarded from the outside world. It is as though the accident exposed his closeted insecurities. For the rest of his career Clift constantly played his heroes with an awkward stutter, becoming all too easily flustered and occasionally over dramatic in his attempts to keep the outsider’s fascination with his deteriorating sense of self at bay. In the end, nothing Clift did seemed to work. His excruciatingly deliberate mental and physical decline – the latter the result of a bout of dysentery – has been described as the slowest suicide on record.
In Wild River we get glimmers of Clift on the wane; the way he allows his character, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) administrator Chuck Glover, to be readily manhandled by both men and women alike throughout the narrative, suggests the man – instead of his fictional alter ego – simply going through the motions in a role, career and life he so desperately wants to escape. That isn’t to suggest that Clift phones in his performance in Wild River. On the contrary, he is both genuine and affecting as the put upon quiet man, desperate to evict a tired old woman from her beloved homestead before a nearby dam floods her property. But there is also a sense of weariness to Clift. Arguably, this bodes well with both his character and the film’s subject matter – but upon closer inspection the choices he makes seem inspired more by his own exhaustion than any artistic merit.
At the crux of Wild River is a problematic romance between a man, who has allowed his social conscience to deprive him of human intimacy, and a careworn twenty-something widow desperate to rekindle her youthful passions; even if the material chosen to replace her late husband is less of a man and even more the softy. The confusion over just what place the middle aged Chuck (Clift) intends to occupy in this young girl’s life goes beyond what we now know about Clift’s own proclivity as a practicing homosexual. As example, knowing that Rock Hudson was gay today does not spoil the charm of his performances as a romantic leading man opposite Elizabeth Taylor (Giant), or Doris Day (Pillow Talk) back then, because Hudson’s manufactured persona is stronger than the reality hidden behind the myth of his own star power. However, in Clift’s case, knowing he was gay adds yet another layer of complexity to his performance as Chuck Glover – one not anticipated or perhaps even aspired to, but nevertheless present and distracting as the film’s romantic scenario gets repeatedly sidelined.
Wild River opens with a devastating B&W montage of 1937’s Ohio River Flood – a massive natural disaster that claimed 385 lives and left hundreds homeless after its apocalyptic devastation. We transition to color footage: the cabin of a plane, presumably flying overhead and surveying the wreckage, but actually a very obvious studio bound process shot married to aerial footage photographed by a second unit. Chuck Glover arrives in a small Tennessee backwater as the new administrator of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA is a government organization funded by the Roosevelt administration for the express purpose of appropriating local farmland. Chuck is the third administrator to be given this plum assignment; convincing the more stalwart locals to agree to their relocation. But eighty year old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), who lives on a remote island in the middle of the river, isn’t about to go quietly. In fact, she absolutely refuses to decamp.
Chuck’s first attempt to convince Ella is a complete disaster when her nephew, Jo John (Big Jeff Bess) takes it into himself to toss Chuck into the icy cold waters. Ella’s granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick) is more reticent in her judgments. She understands well enough that the government will win this battle in the end. Her concern is for her grandmother’s safety if the law is invoked to forcibly remove them from their land. Carol befriends and follows Chuck to the mainland. She tells him about her late husband Jim Baldwin, and shows him the house they were once so happy to live in with their two children, Jim Jr. (Jim Menard) and Barbara (Judy Harris).
Carol leaves out a few details, however – chiefly that she has begun seeing Walter Clark (Frank Overton); a man for whom she has no romantic feelings but who undeniably desires to become her second husband and a father to her two children. In the meantime, Ella grants Chuck a second audience on her farm. She explains that her late husband is buried on this land and that she too will one day soon be laid in the earth next to his. She then attempts to explain the incongruous nature of the government’s plan to take her land away without her consent by offering one of her hired hands money for his beloved dog. When the man refuses to sell the animal, Ella tells him that it doesn’t matter, because whatever his decision she intends to take the dog anyway; thus proving her point.
Chuck is sympathetic to Ella. Moreover, he begins to understand how utterly lost she would be without the isolation of the island as her comfort. Regrettably, the decision is not his to make. In the meantime Walter has joined Sy Moore (Malcolm Atterbury) and Hank Bailey (Albert Salmi) – a pair of well meaning, but thuggish local businessmen who want Chuck and the TVA out of their county permanently – particularly after Chuck implements a plan that hires ‘coloreds’ to work alongside white laborers and pays both the same fair wage.
After witnessing an overnight rendezvous between Carol and Chuck through the window of her shack, Walter agrees to set Chuck up for a little homecoming of his own. At the last possible moment, however, Walter get cold feet and backs out of this arrangement, pleading with Chuck not to return to his apartment in town where Hank is waiting for him. Against his better judgment Chuck goes upstairs anyway. Hank demands to be paid four dollars as compensation for a ‘colored’ who crossed over into Chuck’s work program. When Chuck refuses to pay, Hank beats him up and takes the money anyway.
Shortly thereafter, Chuck attempts to walk away from Carol – presumably because his work in the region will soon come to an end. Instead he realizes he has fallen in love with her. The two elope to a neighboring county and are married by a Justice of the Peace. Several nights later Hank and Walter descend on Carol’s house with a lynch mob. Chuck is pummeled by Hank. Carol is knocked unconscious with a rock. The mob smashes into Carol’s house with a truck and overturn Chuck’s TVA car, dumping it into the river.
Realizing that time has run out, Chuck evokes the law to forcibly evict Ella from her land. In preparation for the already inevitable Chuck has arranged for a comfortable house and enough land to keep Ella, her hired man and her beloved cow together. The farm is leveled by government workers and the house burned to the ground. As the floodgates of the dam are opened and the water rises, swallowing the island, Chuck receives word from Carol that Ella has quietly died. The film ends with Chuck, Carol and her two children leaving the region in the same plane that brought Chuck to the area in the first place.
Wild River is an exceptionally well crafted drama; solidly acted and with a subliminal socialist undercurrent that critiques the role government has in the life of an individual. Based on competing novels by William Bradford Huie and Borden Deal, Paul Osborn’s screenplay makes its points subtly without becoming sanctimonious. Kazan’s direction yields to a rich tapestry of star caliber performances; the standout arguably belonging to Jo Van Fleet as the curmudgeonly last hold out on the river. A sadly underrated actress today, Van Fleet is exceptionally good herein; achieving a sustained likability, despite her more obvious outward bitterness.
Clift is very good in his confrontations with Van Fleet. The two share some wonderful sparring that crackles across the screen with a genuine excitement. The same, regrettably, cannot be said for Clift’s emoting opposite Lee Remick. He seems, if not incapable, then entirely unwilling to go the distance in order to make their relationship believable. Chuck’s acquiescence to Carol’s proposal of marriage is perfunctory at best; Clift’s interaction well-rehearsed yet undeniably awkward. Somehow, Clift is unable to convince us that Chuck cares for Carol – not just sexually, but emotionally or perhaps at all. This lack of on screen chemistry leaves the movie with a gaping hole through its middle – only superficially plugged by some deft writing and believable vignettes that divert the action away from the romance and carry us through to the final act.
It is to Elia Kazan’s credit that despite this glaring misfire Wild River is compelling to watch. Kazan’s pacing is unencumbered by Cinemascope – its screen proportions having proved the undoing for so many other great film makers along the way. But Kazan uses the 2:35:1 aspect ratio effectively, his compositions quite natural, yet artistic at the same time. In the final analysis, Wild River is a minor work in Kazan’s canon, but one that deserves much more playtime than it has been given in the intervening decades.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is only a single layer transfer, and infrequently the image tends to look thin, with pale colors that favor a strange teal palette. Eyes, that I assume were blue at one point, have an unnatural robin’s egg pallor. Flesh tones are sometimes ruddy and occasionally a tad too pink. Overall, we get crisp visuals with a very solid rendering of fine detail and fairly accurate contrast that only occasionally looks weak. I am not entirely certain how much better the film might have looked if the full 50 gigabytes had been utilized on this disc, but I’ll venture a guess that sharpness and grain structure would be the primary benefactors.
While the overall image doesn’t look as painfully waxen as some Fox Blu-rays have in the past, there is smoothness to the visuals throughout that I am entirely certain is not in keeping with the original Eastman stock. The audio is 5.1 DTS – and very well represented with directionalized dialogue and SFX. You won’t be blown away by this sonic experience, except that it sounds very indigenous to its source material and that’s very good indeed. Extras are limited to an audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)