Based on the novel by William Bradford Huie and Borden Deal, Wild River was a clear-cut, socially conscious film about the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) buying up land around the Tennessee River in order to regulate water flow via dams, and prevent the deadly flooding that claimed property, livestock, and land year after year.
Set during the early thirties, Elia Kazan’s film follows the arrival of the third and apparently youngest government rep, Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift, somewhat miscast), who has to deal with holdout Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet, from Kazan’s East of Eden), a matriarch who refuses to sell her slender island to the government, in spite of the water that’ll flood her home when the dams starts building up the reservoir.
Garth’s island is also home to her three sons, as well as a group of black workers whose own livelihood depends on the small but stern woman. Managing the island since her husband’s demise, ages ago, she lives with an extended family that includes two granddaughters, and their mother Claire (Lee Remick, who also co-starred in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd).
The town doesn’t seem perturbed about Garth’s stubbornness – it’s taken as another bull-headed stand by a respected, independent woman – but there’s a quiet acknowledgement that something will eventually give, and it won’t be particularly pretty.
Woven into the story is the local racial tension between subjugated blacks whom Chuck wants to pay equal wage to speed up the clearing of trees from the soon-to-be flooded terrain, and local animosity when Glover starts to fall for Carol and her two kids.
Kazan’s film has a soft, almost meandering pace, and yet events do unfold – just at a slower tempo to accommodate the character moments which set up the major conflicts. There’s also the Chuck-Carol romance that has to be developed, and Paul Osborn’s script makes allowances for several small chatter moments between the two on Garth’s island, setting up their mutual interest. That eventually turns to sympathy as Chuck learns of Carol’s widow status, and their relationship breaks up a courting scheme with an older local man, Walter Clark (Frank Overton).
Walter is ostensibly a weak man, and that allows for local bullies to assault Chuck, which leads to a confrontation when leading thug Hank Bailey (Albert Salmi) directs his group (including a young Bruce Dern) tease and destroy Carol’s riverside home. Eventually the police break up the melee, but by that point Carol has made it clear she wants to leave town, now that she’s been freed of Ella Garth’s influence.
No one in the film is portrayed as a clichéd villain, and that’s perhaps why Kazan and Remick regarded Wild River among their favourites. It’s a small drama with local colour, and yet the conflicts don’t stem from unreasonable or solely racist stances. Van Fleet gives her character strong dignity, and there’s some paralleling to freed southern slaves when Chuck’s high-paying, tree clearing work motivates all of Garth’s black workers to leave, except for one loyal man whose torn between loyalty and a fear of suddenly being alone and responsible for his own keeping.
While set in the early thirties, Wild River still resonates because its themes and imagery –the area’s eventual flooding, Garth’s relocation to a small, newly built shack with electricity and phone service, and a loss of an old-world lifestyle – recalls the millions displaced by China’s Three Gorges Dam project, as dramatized in the potent documentary Up the Yangtze (2007).
One can see why Kazan’s film wasn’t a hit during its original release; the film kind of faded away under his more lustrous dramas, but it's has aged rather well. Kenyon Hopkins’ quiet, largely mono-thematic score functions as Claie and Chuck’s love theme and lament for Garth, and Ellsworth Fredericks’ cinematography is stunning. Great care was given to the transition of light in scenes as days become darker in the fall, and more amber light permeates the interiors of shacks and sheds. Entire shots have multiple levels of colour tones, and the print sourced for this Spanish Region 2 DVD is quite beautiful.
Vellavision’s DVD contains an English dub track, but it’s 2.0 mono rather than stereo. The extras are adequate, covering a stills gallery (pictures seen through a window pane, set to Kenyon Hopkin’s lovely blues theme), and theatrical trailer where Wild River has been deceptively reconfigured as a romance set in a rural hotbed of social unrest. (A surprise bonus in the trailer gallery is the 1965 European co-production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in its original ‘scope ratio.)
Up until his last film, A Face in the Crowd (1957), Kazan was fairly prolific, making a film almost yearly, and one senses he took a break to find a another character piece. The director followed Wild River with another period film, Splendor in the Grass (1961), before a series of more personal works, based on his own writings: the autobiographical America, America (1963), and The Arrangement (1969).
Clift, who had a similarly prolific career, would make The Misfits (1961), Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and Freud (1966) before his physical and psychological health disintegrated, and the actor died soon after completing The Defector in 1966.
Osborn’s other scripts include several live teleplays, in addition to film adaptations of East of Eden (1955), South Pacific (1958), and The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Film versions of Bradford Huie’s solo novels include The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956), The Americanization of Emily (1964), The Execution of Private Slovik (1974), and The Klansman (1974).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan