"To a handful of unforgettable motion picture triumphs, Elia Kazan now adds an event of the first magnitude... the powerful, smoldering story of the New South... of the wild river that captured the attention of the entire world... of the deep longings, churning passions, the sudden loves that blazed on its banks..." - from the trailer for Wild River.
Sandwiched between the more fondly remembered A Face in the Crowd and Splendor in the Grass in director Elia Kazan's filmography, the nuanced 1960 period drama Wild River definitely counts as a film that's overdue for a reassessment. If it doesn't live up to the hyperventilating prose from its ad campaign, the arrival of this 20th Century Fox production on Blu-ray will hopefully gain an appreciative audience for this meaty, worthwhile project - an audience which the film (strangely) failed to acquire upon its original release.
Wild River takes place in 1933 rural Tennessee, in the aftermath of devastating floods that ravaged an area already hard-hit by the Great Depression. Montgomery Clift's Chuck Glover, an idealistic federal agent working on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), is sent to a particularly blighted region to oversee the construction of a new dam that would potentially bring electrical power to the locals. Glover is especially determined to coerce the last holdout in the middle of government-purchased land that will be submerged once the dam is completed - an old woman who owns an island, presiding over an insular mini-community with assorted family members and a few dozen African-Americans who "help her out." Glover tries to reason with the indomitable Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), but she won't budge from land that has been in her family for at least a century.
Even by the standards of 1960-era big studio films, Wild River has a uniquely progressive outlook, and I think it mostly comes from the fact that Kazan presents both sides in this Northern/Southern conflict as having validity (and, thankfully, he avoids presenting the poor as stereotypical backwoods hicks). The Clift and Van Fleet characters are both fully realized people, arguing their merits while subtly acknowledging that their respective points of view have their own inherent faults. Eventually, Clift's character manages to find an in with Van Fleet's vulnerable granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), a young widow with two children. The repressed Carol seems liberated to find a reasonably intelligent man to talk to, and her fascination with the man turns into full-on lust (it helps that the actors have good chemistry). After Glover convinces her to move back into the boarded-up home she shared with her husband (away from the island), Carol becomes an ally in efforts at moving her grandmother to safer territory.
There's a secondary conflict in Wild River as well, erupting when Clift goes forth with plans to hire some local African-Americans to help build the behind-schedule dam. His efforts don't go over well with the local business leaders, especially when they find out he's planning to pay the black workers the same wages as the whites. Although Kazan didn't have a hand in Paul Osborn's absorbing screenplay, he did tour the South as an actor with Group Theater in the '30s. That experience truly informs the film in recreating a time when slavery and the Civil War was a not too far-off memory. It's fascinating, and yet I can understand why a film steeped in a still-contentious topic didn't exactly light up the box office in 1960.
Wild River is the kind of film where seemingly insignificant gestures carry a lot of weight and meaning. It shows in scenes like the one where Remick's Carol achingly caresses the bedspread in the home she abandoned after he husband died, or the way the weathered face of Van Fleet's Ella is framed by the rocking chair that she refuses to sit in after being relocated. Kazan actually gets some amazing work from his leading actors here; Clift's mixture of intellect and softness seems perfect for this role (which Kazan apparently wanted Marlon Brando for - thank goodness that never came to be). Remick does a fantastic job of conveying Carol's reticence and subsequent liberation. Most impressive of all is Jo Van Fleet. Kazan and Van Fleet had already worked together in East of Eden, in a collaboration that nabbed the actress an Academy Award. Van Fleet's Wild RiverWild River, Van Fleet would be it.
Fox's Blu-ray edition of Wild River is mastered from an absolutely pristine-looking print that appears to be 99% free of dust and artifacts. The subtle colors, rich darkness present in the original film's Cinemascope photography has been well preserved in the disc's 2.35:1 image. The image looks slightly over-sharpened, but that's a slight detriment to what is a beautifully presented film.
The mono soundtrack for Wild River has been mixed in a spacious manner for this edition with clear dialogue and an evocative score that makes use of Southern musical styles of the era depicted. It doesn't particularly jump out at you, but it's a pleasant listen. An alternate audio track is also available in Spanish, along with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.
An informative audio commentary by film historian Richard Schickel is the main extra here, and it's excellent. Schickel is informal throughout and doesn't often speak directly on whatever's happening onscreen, but the track is full of fascinating tidbits on where Kazan was at the time, the actors participating, and the central themes explored in the script. The only other bonus content is Wild River's torrid original theatrical trailer, slightly beat-up but fine.
Depression-set drama Wild River (1960) counts as one of the lesser-known films directed by Elia Kazan, perhaps undeservedly so (on every level it betters Kazan's follow-up, Splendor in the Grass, for instance). The film tackles racism and Southern pride in mature, nuanced fashion with great work from Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and especially Jo Van Fleet. Home video-wise, the film was previously buried in a 2010 DVD set; Fox's excellent Blu-ray edition gives this buried treasure the spotlight it deserves. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.