Starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Beautiful, thoughtful film about the awful inevitability of change.
Elia Kazan’s Wild River, set during the 1930s, presents a perfect example of the proverbial unstoppable force—progress, here represented by Tennessee Valley Authority worker Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift)—meets the corresponding immovable object—tradition, represented by Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), a southern matriarch with a will of iron. In this case, the TVA’s actions to control the Tennessee River will flood the old lady’s island, but she refuses to move. Glover appears, smug and cocksure, certain he can remove her from the island when all the men who came before him have failed.
The movie proves difficult at first. Both Chuck and Ella are not characters that viewers can easily relate to. It’s hard to root for the stubborn Ella when it’s clear that her only option is to leave. And it’s hard to root for the arrogant Chuck who fails to take into account the attachments of a little old lady. The sluggish pace also provides a stumbling block for viewers in the beginning.
However, soon the pace no longer seems sluggish but deliberate and refreshing. And Chuck and Ella become complex, interesting people that we viewers want to support. And this is the central problem—because one must lose. There’s no possibility of compromise, no third path that would satisfy everybody. Kazan sagely begins the movie with newsreel footage detailing the loss of life caused by the flooding of the river prior to the TVA’s involvement. This opening makes the TVA project to control the river seem vitally necessary and, thus, makes the kicking of an old lady off her land seem understandable.
Wild River keenly illustrates the famous line from the philosopher Hegel, “Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights.” This movie refuses to paint one side as the bad guy, not choosing a side in the conflict. It presents both sides as right and lets the audience feel the tragedy of that.
The movie picks up speed as the inevitable flooding of the island approaches. It leaves the audience wistful for that lazy pace at the beginning of the film, the one reflecting the leisurely rhythm of a past rapidly disappearing.
Kazan once wrote that Jo Van Fleet was “full of unconstrained violence” and “would eat Clift alive.” He makes the most out of the contrast between Fleet’s strength and Clift’s weakness. In one great scene, Ella looks down on Chuck and remarks, “He looks so small,” in a voice that’s both astonished and emasculating. Fleet, who was only 45 when playing the octogenarian Ella, is excellent here (as is the age make-up). Ella could easily become a cliché of a stubborn old woman loaded with noble pathos, but Fleet imbues her with enough intelligence to transcend the cliché. As Kazan noted, Clift is no match for her strength, but he has the force of inevitability on his side. Chuck becomes his own enemy; he resents that he will have to win the battle with Ella. That’s the only possible outcome.
While much of Chuck’s sympathy for Ella derives from his innate goodness, some of it certainly develops along with his budding romance with her granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), a young widow with two children. Remick gives a beautiful performance, giving the character perception, strength, and dimension. Throughout the film, Carol remains torn between two suitors, Chuck, who represents progress and the wider world, and Walter (Frank Overton), whom she doesn’t love, but who represents the comfort of the traditional and the familiar. Overton, mostly a TV actor, delivers a fine, nuanced performance here. Walter understands that Chuck has a spark with Carol that he doesn’t, but he also knows that Chuck will leave in the not-too-distant future.
Midway through the movie, Chuck faces another adversary—entrenched racism in the rural south. As a federal agent, he proposes to hire African-Americans from the community and pay them the same wages as white workers. This proposition does not go over well with the town leaders, who point out, probably correctly, that the area’s whole economy depends on paying African-Americans significantly less than other workers. This subplot again pits progress against tradition and, despite the film being a period piece, reflects the time period of the film’s production—1960—and the civil rights struggle that was ramping up at that time. Chuck’s main foe among the townspeople is gas station owner Hank Bailey, played to perfection by Albert Salmi. Instead of being cartoonish, Salmi shows admirable restraint and cleverness.
The treatment of race in this movie leaves me ambivalent. On the one hand, the film clearly supports equal rights for people of color. However, its presentation of African-American characters may make modern viewers uncomfortable. Most are shown as an undifferentiated, anonymous group. The one who does have a large role, Sam (an uncredited Robert Earl Jones—James’s father), Ella’s loyal servant, acts more like her pet than like a fully realized human being. Yet, the movie’s intentions are in the right place even if it contains antiquated portrayals. Furthermore, it’s one of the few movies of its time where the decisions of the African-American characters affect deeply the outcome of the movie as a whole. Their choice to abandon the island marks the beginning of the end of Ella’s resistance. This movie, unlike most from its time period, shows that what the African-Americans think and do matters to the community as a whole.
The film deftly balances a sense of renewal with one of loss. It shows the past and the rural heritage of America sliding into oblivion. It’s a thoughtful film, one that knows that progress must leave tragedy in its wake. With change, something old must end forever, never to be recaptured. Yet, out of that tragedy spring new possibilities.