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Elia Kazan's Wild River has all the earmarks of a Savant favorite: a complete dud on its first release, it has grown in stature over the years despite a dearth of decent screening copies. Both the Fox archive print and 16mm 'scope elements had faded to purplish hues by the early 1970s, when associate professor Stephen Mamber wowed us with it at UCLA. Wild River is a powerful picture about a progressive New Deal program from the Great Depression. Kazan said that he got the idea for Wild River during his communist days working for the Department of Agriculture in Tennessee. Protagonist Chuck Glover, a Northern bureaucrat going up against 200 years of prejudice and insularity in the "wilds" of Tennessee, parallels Kazan's own experience on the road in middle America. Almost perfectly realized in every respect, Wild River creates strong feelings about a complex clash of humanist concerns, while enveloping the viewer in a moving, impressive love affair.
The Roosevelt Administration's Tennessee Valley Authority has built a dam on the Tennessee River to quell seasonal floods that destroy towns, wash away precious farming topsoil and take a heavy toll of human life. TVA purchasing agent Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) arrives to complete a mission that has already frustrated two predecessors -- persuading the octogenarian pioneer landholder Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell Garth Island before it is swallowed up by the rising water. Garth's shiftless adult sons Cal, Ham and Joe John (James Westerfield, J.C. Flippen & Big Jeff Bess) try to frighten him away, and when he finally talks to the old lady face to face, she angrily rejects his entreaties. Chuck retaliates by hiring Ella's black farm workers as additions to the work crews clearing the land. This brings him into conflict with the local racists, especially filling station owner and farmer Hank Bailey (Albert Salmi): the whites don't want mixed work crews and they want to pay black workers less than half of what whites receive. Chuck's only positive contact is with Ella's widowed daughter Carol (Lee Remick), a 21-year-old with two small children and no future. Hoping to reach Ella through Carol, Chuck falls in love with her but is emotionally ill equipped to verbalize his feelings. Carol practically sets up house with Chuck, much to the consternation her on again, off again fiancé, local contractor Walter Clark (Frank Overton). The kicker is that the more Chuck studies Ella Garth, the more he respects her point of view. For Ella, th notions of progress, taming the river, and making life better for others have no value against her fierce love for the farm her husband carved out of a wilderness. She vows never to leave her island alive.
Wild River takes on a theme that Hollywood films rarely treat seriously, the New Deal. Chuck Glover represents an unwelcome Federal authority imposing its will on an entire Southern region for its own good, which is just the kind of situation that riles Southern conservatives even as Federal dollars pour into their states. It's easy to side with Ella Garth, a deceptively frail-looking old woman who is nevertheless powerful enough to cow her shiftless relatives and serf-like black sharecroppers. Audiences love watching Ella Garth lecture Chuck as to why she'll never give an inch "to no damn guv'ment." We admire her tenacity, even when her arguments are selfish and her values dead wrong. Ella's black sharecroppers are too frightened to contradict her, listening as she cruelly patronizes Sam Johnson (Robert Earl Jones), her most loyal employee. No matter how you look at it, these people are only a few notches above slavery.
Although the Civil Rights issue is certainly present, Wild River does not push a liberal message. Chuck Glover has been selected to effect a positive political solution, not uphold anybody's rights. He knows it is best to stick to his mission and keep his personal reactions to himself. When he finds out that he can't mix black and white work crews, he gives the Mayor an congenial smile: "For a minute there I forgot where I was."
Elia Kazan called Wild River his "love affair with the New Deal." The Chuck Glover character was originally a Jew, until Kazan's writing collaborators persuaded him against unnecessary complications. Calder Willingham and Ben Maddow worked on the script until Paul Osborn took over. 1 Osborn's plays and screenplays are marked by strong emotions: Cry 'Havoc', The Yearling, Portrait of Jennie, East of Eden. For audiences that accept Montgomery Clift's acting choices, Wild River is intensely passionate. Chuck Glover and Carol Garth meet literally over her husband's gravestone, and just a couple of hours later cannot keep their hands off each other. As little dialogue is involved, Osborn's script must carry a lot of stage direction to explicate the intense romance. When Carol re-enters the house she abandoned when she became a widow, it's if she's re-igniting an entire part of her life, with a new man. Brushing dead leaves from her former wedding bed, Carol is overcome with mixed emotions, including shame when she sees that Chuck has been watching. What reads like a supremely fake bit of symbolism is both moving and profound. They're in a run-down shack with the wind outside blowing autumn leaves onto the river. It's quiet, they're alone and the sexual chemistry overwhelms any other consideration.
At dawn Carol is drifting back across the river on the hand-pushed ferry, waving to Chuck in the morning fog. Before he came she felt drained of life; Chuck feels constricted by the stress of his work and his own difficulties in communicating his feelings. Wild River is a celebration of the positive healing power of old-fashioned heterosexual lust.
Kazan's film is a great opportunity to observe great actors expressing the human struggle for meaningful communication. The troubled Montgomery Clift makes method acting seem the only way to approach his emotionally closed-off character. Chuck circles Ella Garth, trying to make a connection with reasoned speeches. The only time he gets through is when he's stone drunk, mumbling incoherently about her need for dignity. Albert Salmi's grinning thug beats Chuck to a pulp not once but twice; Chuck laments that he wishes that someday he could win just one fight. There was simply no other star actor that could play the physically unintimidating Chuck Glover, not even the 'method' stars Marlon Brando, the late James Dean or his successors -- we wouldn't accept the bruisers Brando or Paul Newman not being able to put up a good fight.
Chuck does everything reasonable to get Ella Garth off the island in a dignified manner, and pointedly refuses to allow her relatives to have her judged incompetent and removed for mental observation. If this were a conservative, reassuring John Wayne movie, such sordid happenings would magically vanish. The hero would charm Ella and/or carry her off physically, as standard heroes must take positive action. Chuck Glover goes the liberal, indirect route, undermining Ella's support in the hope of motivating her to make the right decision. Wild River is a powerful movie about the use of power and authority in the real world.
In this same vein, the dramatic climax of the film occurs when Chuck and Carol's romance comes to an impasse. Lee Remick's finest screen moment comes when Carol realizes that if she doesn't motivate him to propose marriage now, all will be lost. The conflicted, emotionally repressed Chuck isn't up to bold romantic gestures and finds himself incapable of responding properly... will Carol take his silence as a rejection? The answer comes after the arrival of Hank Bailey's vigilante mob, when Chuck realizes who will help him fight his battles. Wild River comes to an intensely satisfying conclusion.
People are shocked to discover that actress Jo Van Fleet was only 46 years old when she filmed Wild River -- she has perhaps the best old-age makeup job in films to that time, and her phenomenal acting does the rest. Ella Garth moves properly, reacts instinctively and has a dead-eye stare that would unnerve an ox. The actress also does remarkable things with her voice, whether speaking softly or shouting. Ms. Van Fleet won the Oscar for Kazan's East of Eden but is even better here... she carries half the movie.
Also making a big impact is Kenyon Hopkins' simple but memorable music score, which points up the relative simplicity of the storyline. Wild River unfolds at a deliberate pace to reflect the rhythms of country life. The Mayor is also the town barber; and the local 'good old boys' pounce on Carol Garth's defection to the outsider Chuck Glover as an excuse to form an impromptu mob.
Other notes: Elia Kazan's later wife (and accomplished filmmaker) Barbara Loden has a brief but arresting part as Glover's doubting secretary. Her solution to getting Ella Garth off the island is, "I'd let the old lady drown." Ms. Loden would ace a larger and more demanding part in Splendor in the Grass. Actor Bruce Dern has his first screen role as a local teen in search of a haircut. A curious technical problem shows up in a scene where Chuck introduces his black workers to new housing equipped with electricity. Apparently one of the lights that was supposed to be off at the beginning of a scene was "on", because a gray matte overlay is used to blot it out until Chuck flips the light switch.
(spoiler) Wild River never makes position speeches about the politics of the New Deal. Indeed, Chuck's bosses in Washington play a slick game when they order him to get the old dame out of the way while avoiding bad press for the TVA. The movie contains a truly complex image. When the Garth household is burned, the enormous conflagration is observed from the TVA's logging boat, with a large American flag waving in the foreground. The Feds have obliterated Garth Island and now watch as Ella's pioneer house goes up in a flaming inferno, with the flag proclaiming it all an official act. The new must destroy the old, which includes not just houses but people and ideas. And Ella Garth is never seen entering another house.
Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of Wild River is a refreshingly brilliant, sharp encoding of this wonderful picture. As the original negative has faded, the Fox team has apparently done wonders to bring the color values back. The clean images always look good, although some earlier scenes are 'colder' than expected -- Chuck Glover's first mysterious trip to Garth Island should be happening in the heat of the day. The exceptional images allow us to appreciate the exacting editing... when a film moves this carefully we becomes more aware when a cut is or isn't appropriate. Editor William Reynolds holds on one of Ella Garth's lengthy speeches. When she says she likes 'wild things', the view finally cuts away -- to a single on Carol. We get the message, almost subliminally.
The disc carries a commentary by Richard Schickel, who defends Elia Kazan's deeply problematical political history. Schickel makes an interesting point about the right of the government to seize private land for the public good, e.g., Eminent Domain: in 2005 a conservative Supreme Court extended the right of Eminent Domain to private companies, allowing people's property to be forcibly bought so that corporations can make profits. Also included is an original trailer that shows some kissing scenes and little else. The print ads and other campaign materials for this Fox title are simply dismal failures, unfit to promote such a superior movie attraction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wild River Blu-ray rates:
1. Research source": Michel Ciment, Kazan on Kazan (interview book), Cinema 1, 1974
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