' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Raintree County (1957)

Friday, December 05, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Raintree County (1957)

The title of director Edward Dmytryk's lavish Technicolor opus quite literally refers to the Indiana county in which it's set, yet more so it refers to the mythical tree said to have sprouted somewhere in the back country of the Hoosier State against every environmental odd purported to hold the meaning of life. Yes, the meaning of life. It's that kind of a film, you see, one striving to answer the universe's grand mysteries and doing so by deluging the screen with symbolism. Nothing is exactly what it is because everything is meant to resemble something else, something bigger, something richer, something having to do with......life. It is nearly three hours long and chock full of luminous supergiant silver screen stars, yet it is overstuffed, too long, too distant, a folly. Hmmmmmm. Perhaps it sums up life after all?


Its focus is a love triangle between the wondrously named John Wickliff Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift), a northern abolitionist, who seems ready and willing to marry Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint). After all, as his father not so subtly declares, marriage is about your beloved but it's also about region. Okay, then, that's a tasty recipe for true love if I've ever heard one. Alas, into Shawnessy's free-thinking world parades Susanna Drake. She is played by Liz Taylor, and so despite being played by Ms. Marie Saint, poor Nell Gaither never stands a chance.

Then again, Susanna Drake doesn't stand a chance either, and she doesn't stand a chance because if John Wickliff Shawnessey is a full-fledged Yankee, she's a straight-up southern belle, born and raised down on the bayou. As such, their relationship is less, you know, a relationship than an emblem of North & South, a series of politically-charged disagreements in spite of their affection. Eventually, upon realizing her bloodline can potentially (likely) be traced to the slave her father took as a concubine, well, hells bells, she breaks down and goes insane. It's not her insanity, of course, but an insanity meant to summarize secession, and these absolutely endless representations of drawn battle lines in lieu of genuine characterization turns the entire affair into melodramatic mush.

"Raintree County" has perhaps become more known for its off camera story than the one relayed on it - that is, Clift's god-awful car wreck in the midst of filming that almost physically killed him (and kind of did emotionally) and left him with a permanently scarred face. You can see the transformation in certain scenes even he and the filmmakers attempted to hide it, and it merely adds the level of regret for what could have been. When you have stars this grand, why go to such lengths to bury their immense electricity beneath gargantuan lampshades of allegory?

There is a scene much earlier, before Susanna goes bonkers and before war erupts and before everything goes to hell in a hand basket when our two still in-love movie stars - er, characters - are aboard a paddlewheel boat bound for the mouth of the mighty Mississippi. And golly gee, you just wish Monty & Liz - er, their characters - could stay on that boat forever, and ride it into a million more sunsets, and avoid all the horrible unrest to come. Alas, 'tis not to be. Life, man. It's f***ing bulls***.

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