My penultimate post explores Elia Kazan‘s little-known work: 1960’s Wild River. Oft-considered one of his lesser masterpieces, I wouldn’t put that level of praise on this mature and burgeoning social drama. Montgomery Clift, only six years before his death, is the weakest link in this cast which only helps the fantastic female double-team of Jo Van Fleet (reteaming with Kazan post-East of Eden) and Lee Remick. The social commentary is heavy-handed, but the performances give it the necessary gravitas; unfortunately, its introspective nature prevents it from being a movie you’ll want to put on repeat.
Chuck Glover (Clift) is a field administrator for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He’s tasked with evacuating/evicting a small island town in anticipation of a dam. Unfortunately, the residents refuse to move and are controlled by town matriarch, Ella Garth (Van Fleet). When Glover falls for Ella’s widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick) everyone in the town becomes as uncontrollable as the water itself.
There are movies that are good but you wouldn’t be enticed to watch them on a whim; that’s Wild River. Kazan is well-regarded for his quiet, sobering, methodical dramas bristling with social commentary; Wild River is the institution for all of what Kazan stands for. Chuck represents big government, working under the belief that he’s helping backward citizens get on their feet and find a new life (he promises to give them all electricity in their new homes; the lightbulb that will go off in their heads). Glover represents modernity and civilization, whereas Ella Garth represents tradition, freedom, and choice. Jo Van Fleet commands the stage as Ella Garth to the point of becoming a fearmonger for the town. An indelible sequences involves her browbeating a resident to sell his dog, regardless of whether he intends to sell. She’s using him as an example of what she perceives the government is doing to them (it doesn’t matter what they’re paid, they’re required to leave), but you understand exactly why residents fear going against her wishes.
Unfortunately, she’s the true pants wearer in the film as Montgomery Clift is oatmeal. Clift was still reacclimating to films, four years after a disfiguring car accident that almost claimed his life. I’ve reviewed The Misfits and hadn’t watched Clift in anything pre-accident; watching this shocked me (after seeing him in The Heiress) because there is a startling transformation in his facial features as the result of plastic surgery. Unfortunately, that is only part of the issue with Clift’s acting in this picture. His face evokes no emotion so his eyes stare straight ahead and the facial gesture for happy could easily stand in for mad or upset; there’s no change. This is mimicked in his monotone speech and general malaise in the entire film. I never felt he believed in his character or that he wanted to be there. It’s a shame because Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet are acting with all their might, and Clift meanders into nothingness.
Lee Remick’s already made a Summer Under the Stars appearance, but she carries this film apace with Van Fleet. Carol Garth Baldwin is a small-town girl who isn’t looking for life’s grand adventures. She’s loved, married, and bore two children for a man who died and left her to squander and toil on the island. Sure, she has another suitor waiting to marry her, but there’s no love there. The only thing she can hold onto is the idea that she’ll find an escape or a way to live out the rest of her days. It all changes when she meets Chuck – although based on Clift’s performance she could do better. Chuck offers modernity, class, security, and love. The problem is she takes to him so quickly that Chuck has no idea how to handle things. Remick downplays her gorgeous looks, but there’s no way to hide her beauty. In that case, I’d say it’s hard to believe she’s a native of this town, but it never bothered me enough to consider it as a negative.
The movie does have a schizophrenic tone, particularly in the climax. I understood Kazan’s issues with big business, but he adds in a subplot involving Southern racial tensions that just came off as a cheap way to stay socially relevant. It’s never given any gravity other than to say that racism is bad. This ends up crippling the third act when a group of citizens start attacking Carol’s house for reasons I never fully understood. It was a rather ridiculous “defend the fortress” ending that only proved Chuck’s weakness when he’s easily beaten into submission.
Overall, Wild River wants to be as wild as can be, but ends up being a gentle stream that crashes against the rocks. Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet are fantastic, but the cold acting from Clift makes him superfluous. Kazan does craft a settled film, but the depressing tone can be less than enjoyable for casual viewers.
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