Raintree County is a Crazy, Must See Mash Up
By Kristin Battestella
Once upon a time, the 1957 Civil War epic Raintree County was the most expense movie ever made. Though blacklisted director Edward Dmytryk’s scandalous tale of the South has long since lost that mantle, this adaptation of Ross Lockridge’s novel remains notorious for its troubled, turbulent production.
John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) has life dreams and literary aspirations thanks to the legends of his hometown in Raintree County, Indiana. His childhood sweetheart Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint), however, isn’t part of those aspirations once the wealthy and carefree Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor) comes to Raintree from New Orleans. Her romance with Johnny moves swiftly, and despite Susanna’s deception and lies, they are soon married and living on her family’s estate in Louisiana. Unfortunately, long held Southern scandals, family secrets, and the looming War Between the States ultimately divide John and Susanna’s seemingly blissful life.
Dmytrk’s (The Caine Mutiny) cast is clearly all too old for their roles, and the messy, muddled, overlong, and confusing topics, tangents, and situations don’t help Raintree County find any identity. What’s this tale really supposed to be about – finding the titular tree, country racing, romance and love triangles, the War, or racism and mental health issues? The uneven pace takes so long in introducing all the characters – the audience has no reason to care why these vignettes are happening amid the looming Civil War themes. Much of the opening feels unnecessary, and one wonders why Raintree County didn’t just begin with Elizabeth Taylor’s arrival to town. Scenes inexplicably move from one lesson or life story to the next with little rhyme or reason. The twists and ties supposedly interconnecting these plotlines are poorly put together thanks to the long-winded mid century pomp onscreen and the behind the scenes turmoil – not to mention the obvious editing, different film values, and camera work used to shoot around Montgomery Clift. By time we get past any scandals to the subsequent war search and battlefield action, the viewer has forgotten how we even got there in the first place. Then again, Raintree County must not be about the Civil War either, because after it there are another 45 minutes of the same old dry, crazy politics and erroneous romances. The tender moments between father and child feel like a different show and Raintree County limps into its final moments – that’s the frickin’ tree? By the end, nobody onscreen cares about the eponymous foliage either.
Although Elizabeth Taylor (There are just so many films from which to choose!) looks divine when she makes her scene stealing entrance twenty minutes into Raintree County, the audience never finds out why Susanna catches everyone’s eye – beyond those stunning eyes, fabulous frocks, and New Orleans drawl that is. We’ve seen Susanna’s Southern crazy, desperation, lying, and manipulation type before, yet it’s all played so juvenile, passionate, and wild. Yawn. Again, the cast is too old to play young in love, and the secrets, social mores, and scandals don’t explain the meh character motivations. Taylor is trying to bring some sort of nutty, look fair and feel foul, too good to be good true beauty hints, but the double talking script doesn’t help. If Raintree County was meant to be about her, then everything away from the Johnny and Susanna plots becomes superfluous. Screenwriter Millard Kaufman (Take the High Ground!) should have seriously paired down the novel and developed the core love triangle to its full measures – Susanna is cruel to Nell, both women are bitchy, and hints of North and South tension, divides, and deceptions go undercooked. Indiana versus New Orleans could have been a turbulent enough dynamic, but the core characters’ relationships, potentially racist attitudes, and social stereotypes end up all over the board with no justice to any of the concepts. There are some few and far between but wonderfully, eerie, disturbed moments from Taylor filmed in an excellent, hazy style. However, in a feeling long three-hour film such as Raintree County, Taylor doesn’t seem to appear enough for Susanna to have any fully realized character development.
Unfortunately, one truly sees Raintree County for one reason and one reason alone, and that’s Montgomery Clift. His infamous car accident during production of Raintree County caused significant pain, facial damage, and partial paralysis, and thus created drastic filmmaking differences in the picture. From up close shots of the young and pretty Clift ala the likes of A Place in the Sun to distant shots of a man clearly ailing, Raintree County has become an awkward spot the difference novelty thanks to this seemingly overnight change in onscreen character and performance. Clift’s passion is there, but the tragic circumstances are immediately apparent not just from scene to scene, but sometimes shot to shot with right side only filming tricks, and his different voice, weight, and stature. Too much is already happening for Johnny onscreen thanks to the all over the place script – the tree, writing, school, romance, running, fighting – but Clift is very into the character and then obviously unwell by the next cutaway. It’s makes Raintree County a heartbreaking, can’t look away, morbid curiosity, and the notion of Clift’s slowly being made mincemeat by the Hollywood industry is encapsulated in these few hours. If Terminal Station is his worst, then Raintree County is a close second at the bottom of Clift’s brief but otherwise excellent repertoire. The early, up close shots of Clift are the lone color scenes of him pre-accident – 1960’s Wild River and his final picture The Defector are his only other color movies. Beautiful and talented as he was, it’s almost as if Montgomery Clift just wasn’t meant for CinemaScope and the bright, zesty of color pictures. Despite some fine film work after Raintree County, this movie sadly marks the must see turning point between Clift’s career and his downward personal spiral.
Likewise, Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) feels woefully miscast as the so wide-eyed, innocent, and strangely dolled up Nell. The character should be the scene stealing heart of gold that the audience adores ahead of the lonely and scandalous Susannah. However, Nell comes across as some sort of nothing special, pining, interfering, mousy old spinster and Saint simply can’t compare to Taylor in style or presence with this kind of subpar material. Nigel Patrick (The League of Gentlemen) as Professor Stiles is also a bloated, smack worthy, unnecessary caricature – he’s so full of his own dang greatness and clearly flirting with all the student dames. His kind of teaching just feels so nasty and his entire plot could have been excised from the filming of Raintree County. How he received a Golden Globe nomination for this movie is beyond me. The supporting townsfolk also all seem like ignorant or drunk stooges, a whole town of jerks somehow making life difficult for Johnny in a series of coming of age clichés. Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou, The Dirty Dozen) and Rod Taylor (The Birds, The Time Machine) deserved much, much more. Most of the time I forget they are even in Raintree County!
Thankfully, Raintree County is a sewing enthusiast’s delight thanks to these big, colorful frocks and spectacle costumes – the lovely locales, regal homes, picturesque swamps, and wild ruins are divine, too. While he sure sounds pretty, Nat King Cole’s titular tune is a little out of place, and the scoring is a somewhat over the top with the fifties heavenly chorales. Most of Raintree County’s attempts at sweeping and epic end up over ambitious and stand as perhaps the perfect example of fifties filmmaking gone awry. The battle scenes are well done, but they are just quick, almost incongruous montages. All that time was spent on drinking, races, and trees, but you montage the Civil War?! Of course, one can’t see Raintree County in all of its then glory because there has been no official DVD release stateside. Netflix very long waits the all region, awkwardly divided two disc Asian release – in which the sound is uneven, the subtitles are screwy, and the innate 65-millimeter widescreen/CinemaScope conversion is in desperate need of restoration. In spite of all its flaws, I’d love to see Raintree County restored to its original, wannabe Ben-Hur-esque perfection on blu-ray just for the Montgomery Clift observations.
Fans of the cast or other Civil War historicals can enjoy Raintree County, but perhaps a multi-episode mini series format would have better captured the scope of the eponymous tales, scandal, and adventure. Too much was happening onscreen and off for Raintree County’s sweeping Civil War loves and losses to succeed in its idealized Gone with the Wind fashion. Nonetheless, the sad circumstances surrounding Montgomery Clift and the film’s off kilter, hot mess scale make Raintree County worth seeing at least once.