Wild River (1960) is a drama film directed by Elia Kazan. It has been a hard film to come by over the years, but is now available as part of the “Kazan At Fox Volume 2” collection. It will also be release in a single disc version sometime in January.
During the 1930’s, on a small island in the Tennessee River, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) has lived with her family for most of her life. She never leaves the island and has no intention of leaving in the future, ever. Unfortunately for her, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has decided to build a dam downriver that is going to flood her island almost completely. Everyone else in the community has sold their land to the TVA, but Ella refuses to even consider their proposition. She has lived there too long to leave without putting up a fight. In addition, she also has several black families that have been working her land for years, who would now be displaced.
After several failed attempts to convince her otherwise, the TVA is sending a young, idealistic man, Chuck (Montgomery Clift), to talk to her before they finally have to remove her by force. Chuck thinks that he will be able to get her off the land quickly, but soon realizes that her reasoning is not just pure stubbornness, but rather passionate and quite understandable.
In Chuck’s mission to remove Ella and her family, he begins to fall in love with Ella’s widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), and her two children. Carol agrees with Chuck and is the first to leave the island. Then Chuck convinces the workers to leave the island and come work for the TVA in their attempt to clear the land before the dam is closed. Of course hiring black workers at the same rate he is already paying white workers creates an entirely new set of problems for Chuck. Now he has to fight against racial prejudice that is running wild throughout this already racist community.
Once again, director Elia Kazan is completely fearless in his work. It seems that each and every one of his films tackle hard hitting issues, and he always does it without trepidation or apprehension. His constant passion for making thought provoking and insightful films has left us with one of the most impressive filmographys, and Wild River is just another stirring chapter to his life’s work.
Kazan shines as a director on Wild River with an immensely stirring and realistic feel to a time and place long forgotten. There are no surprises in this film. No plot twists or shocking conclusions. The entire story plays out exactly the way anyone would guess, but it doesn’t matter. The film is beautiful because Kazan makes it beautiful. He gives the characters depth and passion without overdoing anything. The sets and the lights help to create a realistic tone that transport the viewers back to this time. Nothing is sugar coated and everything is left raw and authentic. The flies alone make you feel like you’re in Tennessee yourself.
Wild River came at that awkward place in Montgomery Clift’s career. After his car accident he had trouble with almost every role he attempted. His best work came at the beginning of his career, but somehow despite all of his personal problems, this performance comes out looking good. Even though he appears to be in need of confidence and perhaps some concentration in this role, I can’t say that his performance is lacking in any way. His character doesn’t have a lot of depth, and therefore many scenes he actually is under acting in order to not take away from the other characters. His scenes with Jo Van Fleet and Lee Remick seem to have Clift almost sitting on the sidelines, but it is the women that have the most emotional roles in the film, and if Clift were to be more dramatic he would take something away from the other marvelous performances.
Jo Van Fleet was phenomenal. At the age of 45 she plays an 80-year-old woman, and she pulls it off without anyone even think twice about her age. She is brilliant, and it would seem that she and Elia Kazan worked extremely well together between this role and her Academy Award winning role in Kazan’s 1955 film East Of Eden.
Today, Wild River is a film that is easy to overlook. It certainly isn’t Kazan’s best film. It isn’t Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick or Jo Van Fleet’s best performance either, but that shouldn’t take away from the overall quality that this film has. Wild River has been selected for preservation by the Library Of Congress for its importance and significance in film history, but there again, many of Kazan’s other films have been as well. Wild River is yet another step in the incredible career of Kazan, and is a film that any fan of his certainly won’t want to miss.Back to Home for More Reviews