Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Paul Osborn
Based on novels by Borden Deal, William Bradford Huie
Producers: Elia Kazan
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 110 mins
Elia Kazan is one of those unfortunate directors whose films have almost been overshadowed by his personal life, specifically his decision to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the era of Hollywood Blacklisting, a choice that drew much criticism and seemed to clash with the more liberal elements of his issue-led films. Although I can’t say I agree with Kazan’s decision to testify, too often reviews of his work are entirely coloured by discussion of this, often with the result of his work being condemned on these grounds by people who couldn’t possibly know what it was like to be placed in the position of being subjected to McCarthy era interrogation. I think it is unfair to judge Kazan and his films on this one incident and I will make this the last mention of it in this review, as Wild River is very much a film that deserves to be judged on its own terms.
Kazan’s catalogue of films includes some genuine masterpieces, most notably the truly brilliant On the Waterfront and the Tennessee William’s adaptation A Streetcar Named Desire, but it also contains films that, in attempting to tackle important issues, end up too bogged down in discussion when they should be showing rather than telling. Chief among these such films is Gentleman’s Agreement, a watchably well-meaning examination of anti-Semitism that won the Best Picture Oscar but has aged poorly, emerging as an overly-talky drag of a picture, especially when compared to the brilliant Crossfire, Edward Dymytrk’s sleeker, franker and far more effective film about the same issue which lost the Oscar to Kazan’s film. Given its surface themes, Wild River could easily have gone the same way as Gentleman’s Agreement but fortunately it is a much more complex film, looking at several issues from different angles, incorporating opposing but understandable viewpoints and, for the most part, avoiding the brassy melodrama that would mar Kazan’s next film, Splendor in the Grass.
Montgomery Clift plays Chuck Glover, head of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s land purchasing office, who is tasked with persuading elderly widow Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her land to the Government so it can be flooded as part of the development of a new hydroelectric dam upstream. Garth has already driven Glover’s predecessor to quit with her stubborn insistence not to sell. Alongside this problem, Glover must also deal with the fact that the work on clearing the land has fallen behind schedule because the local mayor will not use black workers through fear of opposition by the white workers and other elements, notably local cotton farmer and bully R.J. Bailey (Albert Salmi). In the midst of the tension these obstacles create, Chuck also finds himself falling in love with Carol (Lee Remick), Garth’s widowed granddaughter.
With so many plot-strands in the pot, Wild River could easily have emerged as a bloated, preachy and melodramatic mess and, given its relative obscurity, you’d be forgiven for expecting just that. However, there is a lot more going for this film than merely its themes. For one, it looks amazing. Ellsworth Frederick’s beautiful colour cinematography really brings out the enormity of the striking locations. Wild River was largely shot on location in Tennessee and you can practically fill your lungs with the open air, a feeling that is not diminished by the well-staged studio interior scenes. Only a couple of dodgily phony shots of Clift in a plane which bookend the film detract in any way from its atmosphere. Amidst these glorious backdrops, Kazan drops a group of fine actors doing solid work. I won’t pretend the majority of the performers here are at the top of their game. Montgomery Clift has been and would be much better but he’s solidly sympathetic as the Government man who sees things from several different angles (I still maintain that Clift’s finest performance ever was his Oscar nominated cameo in the following year’s Judgement at Nuremberg, a film by Stanley Kramer, a director who shares many of Kazan’s tendencies towards issue-lead films and an occasionally over-earnest approach said issues). Jo Van Fleet does her speciality of playing a character much older than she really was (she was 45 at the time) and her Ella Garth is convincing and surprisingly understated, leading many to suggest that she was robbed of an Oscar nomination. But by far the best performance comes from Lee Remick, still at a very early stage in her career but positively bursting with barely repressed passion and a mixture of vulnerable confusion and strong-willed determination that is visible in her facial expression and body language. Truly, this is a performance that was robbed of Oscar recognition and Remick’s growing presence throughout the film strengthens it and increases viewer interest as the story builds.
Wild River has several different strands (the battle between Ella and the TVA, the tensions between the townsfolk and Chuck concerning the black labour, the awkward but irrepressible romance between Chuck and Carol) and manages to give sufficient time to all three without placing one more prominently in the spotlight. The film’s structure may surprise some viewers, as it does not necessarily pander to expectations. Scenes in which bullies would normally be taught a lesson end with emphatic anti-climax, with threads left hanging and desserts left unserved in the name of greater realism. The plot strands rarely overlap onscreen but in the growing psychological motivations of the characters the abundance of incident is crucial, especially when the various problems in Chuck’s life inevitably start to kiss bumpers.
Perhaps it is the combination of the subtle performances, the confounding plotlines and the moral ambiguities of the level-headed script that pushed Wild River into obscurity when it ought to be considered a semi-classic. It is an enigmatic contradiction, a big-little film, an epic that runs at less than two hours and refuses to surrender to predictable melodrama as staunchly as Ella Garth refuses to sell her land. Certainly it is one of the highlights of Kazan’s canon and it’s little surprise that both he and Remick counted it among their favourite of their own films, or that noted cinephiles like Martin Scorsese have identified it as a lost gem.
Wild River is released on Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series on 23rd February 2015. Extras include a feature length commentary by critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme, the original theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills from production and a 40 page accompanying booklet essays on the film and rare archival imagery.