Wild River Remains a Lovely Film Study
by Kristin Battestella
Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is the third Tennessee Valley Authority Officer sent to pressure Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her home as part of the TVA's Depression era relocation project to build a new dam up river. Mrs. Garth refuses to leave her island homestead, and Chuck finds himself in a sudden romance with her widowed granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick) despite his intention to leave Garthville once the dam is open. While some families welcome the chance to work and receive modern homes as compensation for their move, other townsfolk and businessmen object to Chuck's final construction plans – causing racial tension, mob violence, and family divides amid the already coming to blows Garth versus Washington battle of wills.
Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) produced and directed Wild River, a sad 1960 story opening with black and white footage of raging river destruction and distraught eyewitness testimony hitting home the reasoning behind the Tennessee Valley Authority's dam and relocation program. The TVA is buying land soon to be underwater at a fair price and providing homes for the thousands displaced while taming the flood waters. It's necessary New Deal progress, but our elderly hold out wishing to live and die where her loved ones are buried has every right to stay put. We admire her spirited allegiance to the rugged American way of life and feel for the TVA's use of force as a last resort. Neither side is wrong, but someone has to budge in this painful dilemma and nobody is really going to win. The bureaucratic D.C. committees don't have time for this refusal making them look bad, and Wild River has both the grand nature, water, and government scale as well as the personal qualms and one on one conflicts. Incredible vistas balance the intimate car conversations, tender love triangles, and tense rivalries while the all around Method mood transcends into bleak realism with fast moving, natural dialogue. Transition and transportation moments flow smoothly from one conversation to the next, and there's even humor when some good ole boys in overalls toss officials into the river for talking bad about their mama. TVA employees say it's time to let this stubborn old broad drown, but excellent debates question the taking away the soul of a land in favor of electricity or of one losing a small island so thousands more won't die in seasonal floods. Many arguments are outdoors with two people face to face – there's no need for camera embellishments, fancy editing, or even much action as each pleads his or her case, young versus old and man versus woman. Sadly, there are of the time racial slurs and stereotypical African American workers talked down to like children who need white folk to look after them. However, Wild River responds with the radical notion that it's better when any man can look after himself, and taboo talk of paying the black worker $5 on par with a white man adds racial undercurrents to the titular dilemma as opportunistic businessmen speaking so fine with their racist threats and lynching farmers with 400 acres of cotton living like its the nineteenth century take advantage of the TVA. Lawyers circumvent with fit to sell or unfit incompetence declarations, and the intensity is done with men sitting on opposite sides of a room calmly saying what one is going to take from the other unless he gets his way – using words to carry the conflict rather than today's in your face thrills. Construction deadlines move fast, and there's not supposed to be any time for human beings in all this man made harnessing of nature's wrath. The argument over standing pat in the face of progress never gets old, and Wild River remains a time capsule example of its onscreen era, the behind the scenes mid-century turmoil, and today's ongoing off the grid defiance. Can the river be tamed or should nature be left wild? Loyalty and family ties run deep, the poor wait in line for food, and there's no time left for talking as progress plows ahead whether you hitch a ride or not.
Wild River is a rare color picture for Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun) coming in his difficult post car accident era. Maybe he's not as pretty as he was the decade before but that just adds to Chuck Glover's hardened veneer. He's stepping into a messy ongoing case with this dam opening (the puns just write themselves) all on his shoulders. Chuck isn't supposed to care, but he doesn't underestimate Mrs. Garth's spirit or intelligence either. He tries talking to her, speaking both with confident declarations and hope or try doubts, but his polite introductions are stonewalled lo though he persists. It's Chuck's job to ruffle Ella's feathers and pit sons against their mother – a lightning rod catalyst embodying the changes to come. Chuck isn't a bad guy deliberately taking advantage of the situation. He does his job in the most honest way possible, bluntly speaking his mind and insisting that the eroding land isn't the problem but when your passion for living erodes. Chuck wonders why nobody ever thought of moving just to see the river from the other side, but he knows how to listen to every aspect of the case. He fights for jobs for local blacks despite risking white townsfolk ire for – gasp! – paying all colors the same rate for the same job. Unfortunately, Chuck isn't very tough and lets enemies take advantage of him, but he doesn't complain to police about threats he receives, calling them mere bumps on the road to progress. He desperately asks what Mrs. Garth is trying to prove yet he understands she is fighting for her dignity and won't use mentally unfit legalese against her. Of course, nobody said this relocation would be easy, and Chuck ends up moving in on a dead man's girl with a ready made family when he is supposed to leave. When he came to Garthville, Chuck wanted to best anyone standing in the way of the TVA program. After falling in love with Carol, however, he realizes he wasn't really a complete human being. There's more to life than an office or dam statistics – such as a porch and a river view. Maybe Chuck can't stand up to the man or win a fight on his own and needs a good woman, but he's going to stick it out all the same and appreciates how far he has come, arriving to end a home but finding his instead. Wild River could be all about Chuck – today the handsome, man pained white guy earning his morality is ridiculously abundant in Hollywood. However, rather than dominating every scene, Clift transitions from leading man to supporting strength. As in Suddenly, Last Summer the year before and The Misfits after, he knows how to listen to strong female characters and embraces the excellent chemistry here for the onscreen equality it is.
Lee Remick's (Days of Wine and Roses) Carol née Garth is a lovely young widow, a mother returning to her childhood home with two kids and some education – as if life is over and now she's supposed to sit silently beside her grandmother on the porch. She hears what Mrs. Garth is saying, but she's grown beyond this backward island and is looking for something more. Carol has to do what's best for her children and has her own life to think about, but she's conflicted by her love and fear for her grandmother. She doesn't really love the new guy she is going to marry, but she won't let Chuck to use her against Ella, either. Naturally then, she falls in love with him while objecting to the idea that having a fellow is the answer to everything. Carol's confused and getting impatient in her buttoned up white sweater, and Lee's always on the brink of tears pretty is real, fresh, and unabashedly honest to match the simmering but innocent innuendo. Carol hasn't “talked” to someone in so long and asks Chuck to get the key to her boarded up marital house as she invites him across the threshold wherein she parts the dusty bed curtains. Talk about electricity! This is a sex scene – and it's done with nothing but laden conversation and a suggestive camera. The audience knows what's happening behind closed doors, and that's the sexiest thing of all. The winking of the time risque is Southern steamy without being today's vulgar, remaining mature as the interior camera framing reflects Carol's unsaid feelings. One picturesque snapshot captures Carol standing on the river bank next to a “Keep Off” sign – as if she too is untouched thanks to this island's boundaries and she begs to be taken on the ferry to the mainland twentieth century. Do you grieve and live in the past or is it time to move on with the current? Carol becomes strong, staying in her house alone wearing jeans and pulling her hair back as she takes charge of her romance. She's going to be on the other side of the river with a modern kitchen and all the conveniences whether her grandmother likes it or not. She loves Chuck even if he isn't ready to marry her but she won't be hurt again. Carol puts on lipstick and admits she knows what she is doing is perceived as wrong, and she doesn't care. Nowadays we're lucky if we have cardboard female characters even talk to each other in one movie, but Carol becomes independent and progressive thanks to her love, and Remick gives an excellent, multifaceted performance as a daughter, mother, widow, lover.
Jo Van Fleet – Best Supporting Actress winner for Kazan's East of Eden and just as deserving here – didn't have to be made up so old to play the small but standing tall Mrs. Ella Garth, but she did it anyway because this grandma has that kind of over her dead body Method grit. Mrs. Garth's sad little exterior belies her holding out against the man power, for big men don't want to hear anything spoken against this feared matriarch and when she speaks, the crowd listens. Why is she resisting this move when there is such flood danger? Is she senile or sentimental and not understanding? Hardly! Ella sees this New Deal project is for making the White House look good just as much as it is about the dam. She doesn't like to be used or blamed for an ulterior motive despite good that could come from the move. You are either with her on the island or on relief with the government – there is no in between but anybody is free to do either. Mrs. Garth speaks plainly with superb analogies regarding who has the right to make one sell anything dear to them, such as a dog or a home. Her headstone is already waiting in the island's high point cemetery, and Ella's proud to tell of the blood, sweat, and tears that turned this swampland into workable fields. She's harnessed this land, but refuses to recognize man's attempt to tame nature by going against it. Neither she nor the river is going to crawl just because government says so. Mrs. Garth does however make her son apologize for throwing Chuck into the river before chastising the scandalous Carol by calling her a cat in heat. She considers those so easily convinced by the TVA as betraying her, yet stubborn Ella respects those who would stay with her by telling them to get while the getting is good. Mrs. Garth's stance is layered with generational attitudes, and kids today perhaps won't relate to such notions of my generation's grandparents with ice boxes, butter churns, and gas to electric lamps – much less the idea of hard work and tilling hand to mouth as a pioneer reward rather than desperate circumstance. Fortunately, anyone who has worked their own land can understand Ella's point of view, reaping and sowing success that isn't owed to anybody else yet passes on to your future kin. Mrs. Garth chops down the ferry pole herself, and those fields soon to be underwater are going to get plowed nonetheless. Her porch is going to be swept, but that new rocking chair won't do. Here's Ella's sixteen cents she owes for two pounds of sugar, and she'll carry her own bag thankyouverymuch.
Wild River is crisp, colorful, and even more breathtaking on blu-ray – Lee Remick's eyes alone, my word! Sad brass notes and bittersweet strings accompany the aerial location footage capturing the Tennessee Valley rustic and its earlier Southern rural way of life made poorer by the Great Depression. Plain fashions, fedoras, retro glasses, oil lanterns, wood stoves, and a lone radio where everyone gathers round match the little white house above the river simplicity and rocking chair on the porch quiet sense of stillness. Vintage vehicles only take one so far before one must walk the dusty dirty roads amid wagons, work songs, hymns, humming, and evocative natural sound effects. Our titular water is a beautiful divide between its deserted island only accessible by a rickety ferry and the budding main street infrastructure – smoke, burned brush, and timber clearings sell the man power construction. Wild River begins in a late blue summer before changing to fallen Autumn leaves, bare trees, and a rusted patina. Mrs. Garth's homestead is made of worn, seasoned wood matching its overgrown surroundings and looking ready to come down itself in favor of refreshed white homes and seeded green lawns. Likewise, office candlestick phones, paperwork piles, pictures of FDR on the TVA wall, and a burning home with the American flag waving in the foreground symbolically contrast the government ready versus the innocent laughter of switching a light on and off in a new home with electricity. We don't have to stay in the stubborn past like Mrs. Garth, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate how far we've come. Of course, I must shout out to my favorite ye old contraction “oughtn't,” and hello $1.44 to fill up the entire gas tank. Remember when it that was cheap per gallon?
Although some audiences may find this a slow, Southern potboiler with no real doubt on how it ends, Wild River layers its resilience, emotion, and sadness into a complex us versus them and then versus now interplay. Thanks to decades toiling on VHS only before its recent blu-ray release, Wild River is also somewhat obscure – unjustly ignored between Kazan's controversial Baby Doll and his Splendor in the Grass glory. The cast and crew spoke fondly of the picture, but its post-McCarthyism release perhaps contributed to the lack of awards recognition, adding an intriguing side study on how Kazan's career was impacted and if his legacy is totally forgiven now. Fortunately, Wild River stands on its own as a beautiful little piece about people against nature, the nature of bureaucracy, and the unavoidable tide of both – literally, figuratively, and maybe ironically considering that HUAC history. Wild River succeeds as a drama and a romance in all the right ways with character subtext, social strata, and all the ills in between continuing to provide new relevance with every viewing.