Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Rumer Godden, Jean Renoir
Based on a Novel by: Rumer Godden
Starring: Patricia Walters, Adrienne Corri, Thomas E. Breen, Radha Burnier, Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Arthur Shields, Suprova Mukerjee, June Hillman
Country: France, India, UK, US
Running Time: 99 min
Year: 1951
BBFC Certificate: 12

The River was made at a time when its director, the great Jean Renoir, had fallen out of favour and was struggling to find backing for his films. He’d found acclaim originally in France before moving to Hollywood after the poor reception to La règle du jeu (which would later be considered one of the greatest films of all time). In America, by the end of the 40s, however, he found himself struggling, as his style and methods clashed with those of the studio system.

During this period, he came across Rumer Godden’s book of ‘The River’ and was enchanted by it. He soon snapped up the rights to turn it into a film and managed to find backing from florist Kenneth McEldowney to make it outside of Hollywood.

Godden was an English woman living in India who also wrote the source material for Black Narcissus. She was displeased with how Powell and Pressburger had treated her book, preferring a more naturalistic approach. As such, she was hesitant when she heard Renoir wanted to adapt ‘The River’ for the big screen.

However, when the director explained that he wanted to work with her personally on the script, she changed her mind and they went about making changes to the story to fit the film.

Renoir hadn’t been to India previously but when he travelled there to scout for locations for the film he fell in love with it. His fascination with the country shows on screen and resonated with audiences too, as the film was a box office success. As such, Hollywood tried to bring him back, but he declined, moving back to Europe where he worked for the rest of his cinematic career.

The River may not quite have the clout of Renoir’s La règle du jeu or La grande illusion among critics, but it’s still highly regarded and has a high profile fan in the form of Martin Scorsese, who gets a quote on the cover of the BFI’s forthcoming Blu-ray release of the film, proclaiming it to be “one of the most beautiful colour films ever made”.

I’ll take a recommendation from Scorsese and haven’t seen nearly enough of Renoir’s films, so I got hold of a copy of The River and dove in.

The film focuses around an English family living in India by the banks of the Ganges sometime after the Second World War. Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the eldest daughter of six children (5 girls and 1 boy). They also have two close friends they frequently spend time with, Valerie (Adrienne Corri), an attractive older girl, and Melanie (Radha Burnier), the daughter of an English man and now deceased Indian woman.

Shaking up the girls’ largely tranquil existence is the arrival of Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), a handsome young man who lost a leg during the war. His presence stirs the blood of the young women and we follow their differing coming of age stories.

Our narrator and the youngest of the trio, Harriet, considers herself an ‘ugly duckling’ and nervously wants to impress John but feels inadequate. Valerie, being a bit older and more conventionally attractive, experiences a more sexual awakening (albeit in a chaste, fairly innocent, underage, early 1950s form). Melanie, on the other hand, is experiencing an identity crisis. She has an Indian suitor, whom she likes and is considering marrying, but with her western heritage and education, she’s also interested in pursuing the latter and becoming more independent. She finds herself interested in John too, which confuses her further.

Romance, tragedy and other such dramas unfurl as the girls vie for John’s attention and deal with their blossoming womanhood. Meanwhile, John has internal conflicts of his own, as he struggles to come to terms with his disability.

The film is somewhat of a game of two halves though. On top of the story described above, The River acts as a kind of travelogue of India. This wasn’t always the plan. Reportedly, due to the huge technicolour camera being so noisy, they couldn’t shoot scenes with sound to begin with, whilst they waited for housing to cover the camera (and because Renoir refused to dub voices later). So Renoir spent this time shooting documentary footage without sound. This helped introduce the documentary elements of the film that weren’t originally planned but add much colour to the film, both metaphorical and literal.

Obtaining this extra material was fortunate too, as test screenings didn’t go very well for the first cut of the film, which stuck fairly closely to the original story. Audiences didn’t warm to the central characters and were confused by the story, so the drama was trimmed back and the documentary sequences were given more prominence. The film’s voiceover was embellished later on too, to help make the story clearer and explain the travelogue footage.

This approach brought aspects I found both endearing and offputting. I’m a fan of documentary filmmaking and haven’t personally visited India, so the footage and descriptions of various customs and locations from the country were fascinating to see, adding a wonderful sense of place and setting it apart from similar coming of age dramas from the era.

However, I found the voiceover narration particularly grating. It’s terribly overused, incessantly describing everything going on, and I felt it was rather condescending too. Perhaps this is because many Indian customs are more widely known now, but I felt the explanations about what the local people were doing were often unnecessary.

With the voiceover particularly prominent in the first third of the film, I struggled to get into it initially. On top of some slightly clunky performances (a lot of the cast were a mix of children and amateurs), it all felt a little too dated.

Thankfully, I found myself warming to the characters and slight but effective story over time and enjoyed the film overall by the end.

Aiding my enjoyment immensely was the film’s cinematography. The River, quite simply, looks magnificent. Technicolour is known for giving bold, heightened colours but Renoir (shooting in colour for the first time), alongside cinematographer Claude Renoir (Jean’s nephew), managed to get sumptuous yet natural imagery from the format. They truly make the most out of the rich colours and textures of the Indian landscape and culture.

A particularly striking sequence breaks out of the more naturalistic style though, bringing one of Harriet’s stories alive. In this, Burnier plays a woman due to marry who turns into a Goddess for a moment and performs a spellbinding dance for her husband, who becomes Lord Krishna. It’s a magical scene that outdoes most Hollywood musicals of the era.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Renoir’s view of India was not truly representative of the country at the time though. Renoir presents a highly romanticised India and focusses almost solely around an English family living in the country, showing and telling little of India’s then-recent successful fight for independence or the turmoil and suffering it was still facing. Though it paints the country in a poetically beautiful fashion and demonstrates some of its traditions to western audiences, it does little to tell India’s actual story or give a voice to the nation’s people.

I did appreciate the inclusion of the Melanie character though. She wasn’t in the original book but her addition here helps give a fraction of an Indian point of view. I found her struggle to find her place in the world due to her mixed heritage more interesting than most of the other story strands. It isn’t fleshed out a great deal, but it must have been quite a daring aspect to the film, given that interracial relationships were frowned upon back then.

So, after being initially put off by the grating voiceover, I found myself eventually falling for The River’s charms. It’s stunningly beautiful, as expected, but I also grew fond of the characters and the poetic musings of life and love that Renoir and Godden include. The film is of its time in many ways but still has enough timeless qualities to win over a modern audience.

Film:

The River is out on 30th August on Blu-Ray, released by the BFI. The transfer is beautiful. Yes, there’s some slight colour fluctuation in brief spots and occasional minor flecks, but overall the detail and richness of colour is something to behold and it’s rare to see Technicolour films transferred to modern formats so successfully. The images in this review are from screengrabs to give you an idea of the quality. The audio is clear and rich too.

The film is complemented by an impressive set of bonus features, largely housed on a second disc:

– High Definition digital transfer from the restoration by the Film Foundation
– 2-disc limited edition
– Introduction to The River by Indian filmmaker Kumar Shahani
– Around the River (2008, 60 mins): Arnaud Mandagaran’s documentary about the making of The River
– India Matri Bhumi (1959, 91 mins): several stories depicting the landscapes and fauna of India are mixed with documentary footage in acclaimed filmmaker Roberto Rossellini’s rarely seen film
– Around India with a Movie Camera (2018, 73 mins): with material drawn exclusively from the BFI National Archive, Around India explores not only the people and places of over 70 years ago, but asks us to engage with broader themes of a shared history, shifting perspectives in the lead up to Indian independence and the ghosts of the past
– Villenour (French India: Territory of Pondicherry) (1914, 4 mins)
– Manufacturing Ropes and Marine Cables at Howrah, Near Calcutta (1909, 8 mins)
– Trailer
– Image gallery
– Reversible sleeve offering a choice of original posters
– **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Illustrated booklet including new writing on the film as well as previously published archival material

Wow, this is quite a release. I think it should have been marketed as a box set rather than a single title, as some of the supplements are long and strong enough to stand alone.

Most notably, we get Roberto Rossellini’s India Matri Bhumi. This is an unusual documentary/drama hybrid that uses location footage and real subjects but crafts short stories to go around these. Different characters narrate different sections of the film as it tells tales that largely examine man’s relationship with nature and how much closer this seems to be in India.

The film takes in a wide range of subjects and aspects of Indian life, from the bustle of Bombay to villagers working with elephants to the building of a giant dam to the jungle, with a few family dramas interwoven with these. It beautifully captures the country at that time. It may be another romanticised outsider view that ignores its colonialist past, but it’s captivating to watch and contains some stunning footage.

It has a poetic slant too, with some pondering and philosophical narration at times. This is backed up by a wonderful soundtrack of authentic-sounding Indian music as well as the sounds of nature.

I particularly loved the story with the elephants. It’s amazing to see these creatures slowly and carefully work for their human masters, taking down and carrying around trees. They seem quite well looked after too – there’s a lovely bit where they’re bathed, for instance. They also share some human traits, shown in their relationships with one another.

The final tale of the monkey who loses his master is touching and beautifully portrayed too.

Overall, it’s a remarkable film that’s easily worthy of its own solo release.

The other feature-length ‘bonus film’ in the set is Around India With a Movie Camera. This montage piece starts with footage from way back in 1899. It then uses a vast array of archive material to run through Indian history in the early 20th century.

It works like Rossellini’s film in capturing a great sense of the country though it also offers a strong socio-political slant in looking at British colonial rule at the time (something severely lacking from the other two films in the set). There’s also some less savoury footage (or rather period narration) that helps demonstrate some of the West’s less respectful attitudes to the country, as well as films that show the disparate divide between the Indian people and the British colonisers.

A particularly memorable sequence intercuts a stylishly shot dance routine with Gandhi leading the Salt March.

This is all backed up by a beautiful soundtrack by Soumik Datta and, as with India Matri Bhumi, it’s a wonderful film that’s worthy of its own release.

The making of, ‘Around the River’ is excellent too. Running around an hour in length, it covers a lot of ground and offers plenty of archive stills and some behind the scenes film footage. This is occasionally contrasted with shots of the locations in the present day.

Kumar Shahani’s introduction is very good too. It’s a relatively short piece, but rich in substance. He discusses Renoir’s use of colour, the symbolism of the river itself and the film’s documentary elements. He’s also honest in saying how he and some other Indian filmmakers like Satyajit Ray were embarrassed by the film initially, due to its sugar-coated representation of their country. He goes on to say he appreciates The River much more now, for what it is.

The two archive shorts are featured in the longer Around India With a Movie Camera film but it’s still nice to see them in their entirety here. I was particularly fascinated to see the rope production process.

Then, on top of all these treasures, you get the booklet, which is loaded with fascinating essays and interviews, including a wonderful archive piece from Satjiyat Ray, describing his experiences with Renoir during location scouting for The River. There is also an illuminating essay about the presence of colonialism in The River and India Matri Bhumi, discussing how and why India wasn’t given its own voice in these films.

The BFI’s release of The River then is a rare case of a set where the bonus features are even better than the film itself. As such, it comes as very highly recommended. It’s easily one of the best single-title releases of the year, if you can call it single-title.

Disc/package:

The River (1951) - BFI
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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