' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Wild River (1960)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Wild River (1960)

Both literally and metaphorically, a small island stands at the center of the “Wild River.” The island and its aging matriarch is the lone piece of land the TVA – Tennessee Valley Authority – has failed to clear in advance of flooding that will be wrought by a new and necessary dam along the Tennessee River. It also becomes the symbol of progress, what is being left behind and all that is to come. It was directed by Elia Kazan, a noted cinematic social crusader, and while Kazan’s leanings are in no way unclear, the film itself never quite becomes a full-on rally cry for one side or the other. Everyone is wrong. Everyone is right. Taking a stand is brave and foolhardy, meaningful and pointless. It’s a film set in the 1930’s, made at the tail-end of the 1950’s, but it still feels topical and urgent, as necessary now in this pick-a-side America as ever.

Shot in majestic Technicolor, the Tennessee River seems to cut through the background of nearly every shot, always suggesting the battle lines, always reminding of the imminent flood that will tear through to bring about (force) change. Montgomery Clift, out-of-place from his first entrance into the frame in a stodgy three-piece suit, is the requisite idealist sent by the TVA to convince eighty-year old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her land and evacuate. His stance will be swayed, of course, but Clift was far too clever an actor to ever make an arc so dramatically obvious – that, and the writing paints him as a man of morals and realism. It’s not simply that he yearns to save Ella from certain death, but to help re-vitalize a dying region. Notice how in his first moments Chuck is already asking locals what they think he should do, not simply trying to enlist their approval but to demonstrate a willingness to listen.

Perhaps politicking over-consumes “Wild River’s” opening stanza, but then what else happens when a Government Man turns up? Ordinary conversation over a cup of coffee? Please. Policy debate is all they know. Ah, but the riverside beauty awaits, and here she is Ella’s granddaughter, Carol, played by Lee Remick in a grand performance of quiet desperation. Her husband has passed and the little house where they lived on the other side of the river, across from the island, sits empty and alone. She now tends to her grandmother and, as such, becomes the demarcation line between the past and progress. That is not to say she is simply an emblem. In one splendid moment she literally says each line of Chuck’s before he says it – a step ahead. A love interest, an adversary, an ally, a human being. She doesn’t save him, and he doesn’t save her. Rather, they help each other grow, as painful as that growth is.

As she inevitably falls for the TVA man and their relationship gradually goes public, the public turns against her, in one frightful scene forming a kind of lynch mob, reminding us this is the 1930’s south. “For a moment there,” says Chuck, “I forgot where I was.” That is, a place where whites are hired to clear away the land in advance of the flood, not blacks, because if blacks are hired, the whites will walk off the job. Chuck eventually hires blacks anyway, and it is just another evocation of Clift’s acting dexterity – a man maintaining efficiency while also acting ethically. Thus, the flood, just like the great one that sent Noah scrambling to construct his Ark, breeds progress of the social order, coming to wipe away outdated mores.

Then again, that’s not all the water is coming to wipe away. “Maybe in the days of the pioneers a man could go his own way,” declared Burt Lancaster in another Montgomery Clift production, “From Here to Eternity”, “but today you gotta play ball.” Ella is caught between those notions – a pioneer who wants to maintain their ethos of individualism and being forced (literally in the end) to play ball.

Anymore if you lament progress, just a little, you are instantly branded a Luddite who simply REFUSES TO GET WITH THE TIMES. Watching Ella dig in her heels and espouse her roots even as it all fades away, it’s not hard to detect echoes of the futuristic stunted factory towns and technological advances that are slowly eroding the middle class. Ella Garth’s no dummy. She knows she can’t stop what’s coming. She cut her teeth in a world that has left her ill-equipped to face the new one. And perhaps it’s technically a spoiler to say she is moved off the land and the dam goes up and the water rises and the island floods, but how on earth is that a spoiler? It’s what’s been going on since the beginning of time. Sink or swim. Adapt or die. Black or white. It’s never really that simple. But somehow, by the time the check comes, it always is.


Alex Withrow said...

Great review, my friend. This is one of the few Clift films I have yet to see. Need to get on it right away. He's one of my Top 5 favorite actors. The best.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, man! Thanks for reading. Yeah, this was one I'd been dying to see for a long time but it's so hard to track down. Then I saw it pop up on the Fox Movie Channel, DVR'd and boom! Finally. Off the movie bucket list. Well worth the long wait.