Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960) is one of those overlooked movie gems long overdue for rediscovery; worthy, not only of renewed viewing, but our unerring admiration for Kazan’s breadth and prowess as a film maker. That Wild River has been so fundamentally forgotten by the general public for so long is indeed a tragedy. Like all of Kazan’s work, Wild River remains tainted by Kazan’s reputation, despoiled by his decision to ‘name names’ during the Hollywood blacklist; thereby establishing his own as synonymous with that of a pariah for decades to follow. Even as late as 2008’s Oscar telecast, where Kazan was slated to receive an award for his lifetime achievement and formidable body of work, many in the artistic community chose instead to boycott even his nomination, illustrating their disdain for the Academy’s decision to go ahead with the presentation ceremony by not offering up their applause, proving that old wounds had not healed in the nearly 70 years since; prompting presenter, Robin Williams to thereafter interject a note of levity, passionately declaring, “Let Lainie sing!”
All kidding aside, 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, ascribing no blame to either, yet discovering the humanity in the cause itself, and dissect the essential flaws in the characters who populate his narrative in order to reveal a parable about human suffrage and redemption. In this latter regard, Kazan is working with superior talents; Montgomery Clift, Jo Van Fleet and Lee Remick, each giving powerful performances that have not aged since; also, a magnificent screenplay by Paul Osborn (cribbing from two novels; Borden Deal's Dunbar's Cove and William Bradford Huie's Mud on the Stars). Wild River is the sort of ‘rough around the edges’ masterpiece Hollywood was not particularly comfortable making in the fifties (and has all but forgotten how to make now), but was ultimately willing to give it a gamble in 1960; ostensibly, the year everything about Hollywood itself changed. For starters, it was the end of the big and splashy era with verve for widescreen Bible-fiction epics, sprawling westerns and gay and gaudy musicals. Like most every other studio toiling during these glossy times, 2oth Century-Fox had succumbed to the elephantiasis of the decade; had moved away from former President Darryl F. Zanuck’s investment in powerful social dramas, and embraced the width, instead of the depth in storytelling with then new-fangled Cinemascope (and briefly, Cinemascope 55). Wild River bears the stretch marks of this elongated film process; the sight of vintage twenties automobiles and supposedly Depression-era slums inhabited by country bumpkins along the sparse banks of Tennessee River, creating something of a minor disconnect within this rectangular frame – and with color by DeLuxe no less. Ellsworth Fredricks’ cinematography helps to capture the period as a good solid counterbalance. And then, there is the triumvirate of top-tier performances to reconsider: Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and the magnificent and – today – spectacularly disregarded Jo Van Fleet.
It should be noted that the trajectory of Montgomery Clift’s movie career was forever changed by a 1956 automobile accident that nearly decapitated the star. 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 on-screen characterizations. But the gruesome injuries sustained as a result of 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 truer self guarded from the outside world. It is as though the wreck exposed his closeted insecurities. A gay man in 1950’s uber-conservative Hollywood…how could this be? It also stripped Clift bare of his inner poise as an actor. To compensate, or rather, overcompensate for the rape of his confidence, Clift became a chronic abuser of painkillers and alcohol, the combination steadily eroding his ability to remember lines and equally hardening his already altered visage. To those closest him, it was a hellish downfall to behold; Clift’s crippling insecurities often getting the better, resulting in flights into giddy and embarrassing euphoria from which he would spectacularly crash into devastating despair, more haunted and emotionally disturbed than before. For the rest of his career and life, Clift’s on screen heroes would be played with elements of this awkward stutter. He became 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 and, in the end, none of his efforts proved sufficient camouflage for these inner demons. His excruciatingly deliberate mental and physical decline – the latter, the result of a bout of dysentery – destroyed his reputation in the industry and has since been described as ‘the slowest suicide’ on record; a very sad epitaph to what had once been promoted as one of the monumental talents of his time.
In Wild River we get glimmers of Montgomery 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, 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. This is not to suggest 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 coax a tired old woman from her beloved homestead before a nearby public works project floods her property. And Clift is rather magnificent at conveying the strength of empathy rather than suggesting it as the lesser of masculine pursuits. But there is also a sense of distinct weariness about Clift. He seems either to be not terribly phased or merely accepting of his own defeat, his on-screen alter ego unable to convince Ella Garth to vacate her farm, knowing in the end the government will win out one way or the other. As such, he is merely contented to remain the intermediary and sit on his hands until the hour of the inevitable is at hand. Arguably, this bodes well for his character and the film’s subject matter – but upon closer inspection and 20/20 hindsight – always more astute in its retrofitted observations – the acting choices Clift makes throughout Wild River appear to be inspired more by Clift’s own mental and physical exhaustion than any sound artistic decisions calculated for the benefit of the characterization itself.
At the crux of Wild River is a problematic romantic entanglement between a man, who has allowed his social conscience to deprive him of virtually all human intimacy, and a careworn twenty-something widow desperate to rekindle her youthful passions; even if the beau chosen to replace her late husband is considered less of a man and even more of a softy by the roughhewn local yokels. The confusion over exactly what place the middle-aged Chuck intends to occupy in this young girl’s life goes beyond what we now know about Clift’s own proclivity as a practicing homosexual. By comparison, acknowledging Rock Hudson was gay does not spoil the charm of his robustly paragoned romantic leading men opposite Elizabeth Taylor (Giant, 1956), or Doris Day (Pillow Talk, 1959) 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 perplexity to his performance – one not anticipated or perhaps even aspired to, but nevertheless somehow more obvious, distracting and ultimately detrimental to the brewing and conflicted romantic scenario, repeatedly sidelined. Indeed, the weakest points made in Wild River are devoted to dewy-eyed exchanges between Lee Remick’s waffling young Miss and Clift’s exorbitantly bashful elder statesman. By now, either due to his position in Hollywood or simply with the passage of years, or further to, channeling his training as a devotee of ‘the method’ (a school of acting now best considered defunct), Clift ought to have been more stably capable of suggesting something better and more concretely refined beyond a sheepish grin or smiling-eyed blush of discomfiture. Mercifully, the focus of Wild River is not on Clift’s romantic pas deux with Remick for too long. Rather, it is a sideline, one therefore practically overlooked even as it remains terribly unprepossessing.
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 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. Alas, curmudgeonly recluse, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), who lives on a remote island in the middle of the river, refuses to go quietly. In fact, she absolutely repudiates the government’s right to make her leave the only home she has ever known these past eighty years. One has to rather admire Ella’s spunk, or rather, the audacity of her thoroughly misguided convictions. Ancestral rights are more important to her and she clings to the notion one person can take a stand and resist the changing times.
Chuck’s first attempt to coax Ella off her land is a complete disaster when her nephew, Jo John (Big Jeff Bess) takes it into himself to toss Chuck into these icy waters. Ella’s granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick) is more reticent in her judgment. Despite a lack of education, she understands well enough the government will win this battle of wills in the end. Her concern is for her grandmother’s safety if the law is invoked to forcibly remove her. 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, she has begun seeing Walter Clark (Frank Overton); a man for whom she has no romantic feelings but who undeniably now desires to become her second husband and stepfather to her two children. In the meantime, Ella grants Chuck a second audience on her farm. She explains to Chuck about her late husband, since buried on this land. Thus, she too will someday soon be laid in the earth next to his. Ella reasons the incongruous nature of the government’s plan to forcibly take what she is unwilling to give, offering one of her hired hands money for his beloved dog. When the man refuses to sell the animal, Ella tells him it is of no consequence because whatever his decision she intends to take the dog anyway; thus, proving her point.
Chuck is sympathetic to Ella. While he suspects his predecessors likely viewed these locals as merely a backward rabble, blindsided by their own stubbornness, Chuck can clearly comprehend the passion that fuels their resolve. Home truly is where the heart resides, and Ella, more than anyone else perhaps, clings to this sentimental value in her emeritus years. Moreover, Chuck begins to understand how utterly lost Ella would be without the isolation of the island to sustain her comfort. On the mainland, she would be considered a dotty old recluse. On the island she is queen of all she surveys. Regrettably, the decision to disrupt is not Chuck’s 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 and hires ‘coloreds’ to work alongside the white laborers, paying 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, 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 to rough him up. 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 viciously assaults him 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 motley crew smashes into Carol’s back door with a truck and overturn Chuck’s TVA car, dumping it into the river. Realizing time has run out, Chuck evokes the law to forcibly evict Ella from her land. To lighten Ella’s burden, he arranges for a comfortable house on the mainland and enough land to keep Ella, her hired man and her beloved cow together. Ella’s island farm is leveled by government bulldozers and the house burned to the ground. As the floodgates of the dam are opened and the waters rise, consuming 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. Ostensibly, their lives will never be the same again.
Wild River is an exceptionally well-crafted drama; solidly acted, but with a subversively socialist undercurrent deliberately meant to critique – and occasionally condemn – the role government plays in the life of an individual. Drawing from the finer points of William Bradford Huie and Borden Deal’s competing novels, Paul Osborn’s screenplay builds its argument subtly without ever devolving into sanctimonious tripe. Kazan’s direction yields to this rich tapestry of social commentary. The best performance in the picture is undeniably Jo Van Fleet’s cantankerous last (wo)man standing. It remains one of Hollywood’s very sad ironies Van Fleet’s reputation has not ripened, or even weathered the passage of time; a superior actress, notable more for her stage work than screen roles, perennially cast as frumpish and emotionally scarred/tortured harridans with a spurious past. If she is remembered in the movies at all today, it is likely for the Oscar-winning cameo as James Dean’s estranged prostitute/mother in 1955’s East of Eden. In Wild River, Van Fleet commands the screen, going toe-to-toe, head-to-head and shoulder-to-shoulder with Montgomery Clift’s understated man of compassion. Van Fleet’s part is not showy. Nor is the actress about grandstanding, despite enduring nearly five hours of ‘wrinkle’ makeup applications daily to convincingly age her from 46 to 89. Yet, Van Fleet commands the room as no other actor in her presence can, or perhaps, dares to try. One can sense Ella’s wounded animosity simply from Van Fleet’s blank stares or eyebrows sharply raised during moments of disbelief, anger and inquiry.
A protégée under director, Elia Kazan’s tutelage, Van Fleet made the transition from Broadway to Hollywood in the early fifties, though disputably never fully warming to the new medium. Hollywood took notice of Van Fleet’s talent, but could not see beyond the cruel harridan she had made so indelible in East of Eden. After only a few more roles that similarly typecast her, Van Fleet’s career reached an artistic impasse. Some years later, Kazan reflected, “Jo stagnated, and, since she knew it, was bitter. And as she became bitter, she was more difficult to work with.” Kazan would have his ‘difficulties’ with Van Fleet on the set of Wild River; marginal, but daily altercations, generally causing Kazan’s patience to frazzle. His deep regard for Van Fleet’s natural talent kept these infrequently outbursts from boiling over into all-out war on the set, but in retrospect, Wild River would be Van Fleet’s last truly memorable picture. Though she continued to appear in movies and on television, her roles from hereon in were strictly speaking, character parts – variations on better work done elsewhere. The best scenes in Wild River can be distilled into virtually all of the confrontations between Van Fleet’s caustic matron and Monty Clift’s patient overseer. Their sparring matches crackle with a remote and rolling thunder clasp that builds into genuine storm clouds of violent melodrama; Clift, generally emerging from the fray bloodied but unbowed and Van Fleet’s ornery matriarch steadily brought to see things his way. Even so, Ella Garth will defy the government, rather dying than to accept their charity as recompense for an act she so clearly goes to her grave regarding as a social injustice.
The most awkward moments in the movie are all plagued by Montgomery Clift’s inability to convey as much love or compassion for Lee Remick’s clear-eyed widow. Clift is, if not incapable, then entirely unwilling to go the distance in order to make their burgeoning love affair believable. Chuck’s acquiescence to Carol’s proposal of marriage is perfunctory at best; Clift’s interaction well-rehearsed, yet undeniably stilted and occasionally stultifying. Somehow, Clift is unable to convince us Chuck cares for Carol – not only sexually, but also emotionally or perhaps, even at all. This lack of on-screen chemistry leaves the movie with a gaping hole through its middle – only superficially shored up by some deft writing and believable vignettes that divert the languor in their flagrante delicto and relocated the audience to other compelling bits of business that see the picture’s dramatic arc through to completion. It is largely due to Kazan’s skilled navigation through these narratively uneven waters that Wild River remains compelling despite its misfires. Kazan’s pacing and staging are unencumbered by Cinemascope – its screen proportions having proved the undoing of so many other great film makers along the way. Instead, Kazan uses the 2:35:1 aspect ratio effectively, his compositions always interesting and quite natural, yet artistically sound. In the final analysis, Wild River remains a minor work in Kazan’s canon, if deserving of much more playtime than it has been given in these intervening decades.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray has issues; chiefly - color balancing. I really am at a loss to explain why so many of the studio’s Cinemascope/DeLuxe color releases continue to adopt an unflattering and very faded teal/beige palette on Blu-ray. Previous HD masters of Wild River have kept the indigenous color palette intact. But the Blu-ray leans toward a teal bias that is strikingly off point and wholly unsatisfactory. Green foliage is now muted brown/blue; whites and shadow highlights have all adopted a tint of robin egg teal. Eyes originally cobalt blue now suggest an unhealthy teal strain. Flesh tones are ruddy and favor too much pink. Overall, we get crisp visuals with a very solid rendering of fine detail. But contrast occasionally suffers. I am not entirely certain how much better Wild River would have looked if Fox had deigned to give us a dual-layered 1080p transfer. Bad color timing is still bad color timing – period. While this transfer does not suffer from the oft waxen application of too much DNR, as some Fox Blu-rays have in the past, there is a residual smoothness evening out the grain texture of vintage Eastman stock. The audio is 5.1 DTS – and very well represented with directionalized dialogue and SFX. You will not be blown away by this sonic experience, but it sounds very indigenous to its source and that is welcoming news. Extras are limited to an audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended for content. But frankly, I am more than a little underwhelmed by this visual presentation. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)