Today we reminisce about
Wild River (1960)
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet
This post is in conjunction with the Montgomery Clift Blogathon which is celebrating the release of the new documentary Making Montgomery Clift, now available on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon as well as on DVD!
The Tennessee River is an important natural resource that can also cause a great deal of troubles to surrounding populations. Every year, the river claims countless lives due to the flooding and eats away at the land, creating serious and irreversible erosion. The results are morally tragic and devastating for local economies as businesses move away and leave those left behind with primarily low-paying agricultural jobs. To try and combat these issues, the State government created an entity called the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on 18 May 1933. TVA strives “to provide general economic development to the region through power generation, flood control, navigation assistance, fertilizer manufacturing, and agricultural development.” Their ultimate mission is “to modernize the region, using experts and electricity to combat human and economic problems”* by using a series of dams to contain the waters.
One of the places affected by TVA’s project is the town of Garthville, Tenneesse. It was founded sometime in the mid-nineteenth century by the Garth family who decided to settle the land after travelling down the river on a poorly made wooden raft. Son Woodbridge was only a boy then but would work the land from that moment on to clear the marsh and make the area habitable. He would eventually bring his wife, Ella (Jo Van Fleet), to live at the family farm and together they established not just a homestead but a successful system to upkeep the property. The Garth farm is detached from the rest of the town as it is located on a moderate size island surrounded by the river’s waters. After Woodbridge’s death in 1889, Ella took over as matriarch. She hired black workers because they were cheap labour but also took care of them, providing them housing and ensuring their health. Her and Woodbridge’s children would somewhat continue the traditions though they were less concerned with physical labour.
Slowly but surely, the Tennessee government is buying up every piece of land in Garthville so that a nearby hydroelectric dam can soon be opened. In order to safely flood the land, they need to completely clear it of trees, greenery, and any man-made structures. The only person to show opposition to the TVA project is 81-year-old Ella who refuses to sell Garth Island. Two TVA supervisors have already come and gone, unsuccessful in trying to persuade the old woman to change her mind. The company tries again with Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), a young supervisor at TVA who has little idea of what is awaiting him in Garthville. When he arrives, he too is initially booted off the Island but is miraculously invited to come back to talk, at which time he becomes acquainted with Ella’s granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick). He learns not only more about Ella’s attachment to the land but also finds that he and Carol enjoy each other’s company. They quickly start a relationship despite the fact that she is already spoken for and all the while he continues to find a way to get Ella off of the Island as peacefully as possible.
Thoughts & Discussion
Wild River is an important film in a historical context at the same time as it is a remarkable story of love and understanding. Director Elia Kazan had been inspired to do a film about rural Tennessee River life after having worked there in 1934, the same year in which the film is set. He was eyewitness to the devastation the Great Depression had on that area as well as the specific local culture of rural Tennesseeans. It was a very personal project for him; something which is apparent in the overall feel of the film. Every detail is so well thought of and represented that it is literally as if he just started filming a slice of everyday life. The sets and costumes are perfectly adequate – neither overly drab nor too fancy – and accurately represent the era’s living conditions. This is by no means an outwardly glamorous production though you may be surprised by the warmth that it brings.
The film commences with actual footage from an early 1930’s newsreel. Surging waters are racing through towns, seemingly swallowing things in their path. A dishevelled-looking man recants how his automobile was overtaken by the swift currents, taking his entire family (wife, three young children and father-in-law) as victims. The devastation is even too much for him to fully comprehend. Similar events have undoubtedly also taken place in Garthville and will continue if nothing is done. Local leaders respect the authority of the TVA although they are unable to adhere to set deadlines in clearing the land. This is due to their principle of only hiring white workers who are paid 2.5 times what black workers are given for laborious farm work. Forcing a change in the townspeople’s mentalities is part of Chuck’s job as is getting Ella off of Garth Island. To boot, it all must happen within a few weeks time.
Nothing could have prepared Chuck for the challenges he would face. He was more of a big city man, working between the state capital of Nashville and the TVA headquarters in Knoxville. In those places, discrimination was less pronounced and there was more social order. Chuck was genuinely shocked to see that blacks were still treated like slaves by some people in Garthville. When he insists on hiring blacks to work on clearing the land and paying them the same as whites, Chuck faces fierce opposition. There is a moment when he is confronted by a cotton field owner named R.J. Bailey who demands financial retribution for Chuck having indirectly caused one of his black men to miss work. Apparently, the man decided to quit working in the cotton fields to take a better paying job clearing land for the TVA. Bailey found out and beat the man, injuring him so badly that he was laid up for two days. This sort of behaviour is shocking not only for Chuck but also for audiences who were living through the American civil rights movement and acknowledging a change in societal norms. Kazan had not expressly focused on these aspects because they were relevant to current events as he had wanted to make a picture about his experience since the mid-1930’s. However, it could be that these details made it more interesting for the studio to greenlight the project when they did.
This tale is able to come to life and feel so sincere in large part thanks to the strength and talent of the cast. Jo Van Fleet was a notable stage actress before she made the transition to motion pictures, earning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Kazan’s East of Eden (1955). At 40 years old, it was her film debut. She appeared in a number of guest starring roles on various television series and was very selective about her film work, not compiling an exhaustive filmography but rather one that was of high quality. Her turn as Ella Garth is one of the best roles in her career and one that should have earned her further accolades. In real life, Jo was almost half the age of Ella yet portrayed an elderly woman staggeringly well. Physically, she was aged with the help of cosmetics, often going the extra mile on her own accord by applying additional make-up to fully grasp the transition. Like Montgomery Clift, she was a method actress and every little aspect of getting into the character counted.
Not only does she look 81 years old, she also has the maturity and mindset of one. Ella is a woman who stands her ground with remarkable intuition and devotion. While the townspeople and higher ups at TVA find Ella to be very much like a stubborn old battleaxe, she is in fact much different. It seems as though outsiders confuse Ella’s loyalty to her familial roots as being “difficult”. To put it more simply, she is a woman who questions authority but who ultimately does not go against the law.
Much like Jo Van Fleet, Carol is one of Lee Remick’s most captivating roles. Carol is a dedicated mother and granddaughter who is also a free spirit; something that she rediscovers when she starts opening up to Chuck. She is a 22-year-old mother of two who was widowed at the age of 19 when her husband James died unexpectedly. They were wed when Carol was 16 and she gave birth to their first child at 17. You sense that she has a certain maturity about her yet it is obvious that she is very much a young woman. Her hopes were darkened when James died and she abandoned their household, leaving it frozen in time while she stayed on Garth Island with Ella. The only real prospect she could look forward to in life was getting married again so that her children would have a father figure and she would have a companion. Spending time with Chuck reminds her that Carol still has a lot to live for and desire as he recognises her natural intelligence while also being sympathetic to the fact that she is very lonely. In a place where he is also a loner, they find support with each other and also express a burning passion that is not looked upon very kindly by the narrow-minded townspeople. Ella delicately brings up the subject of their liaison with Carol by using a beautiful anecdote that serves as a warning of sorts, all the while sharing that she understands how long and painful it can be as a ripe young woman with erotic desires.
“Carol, you remember that yella cat we had? Come her season, we used to let her out at night. It was dawn when she’d come back. Now a cat is really quiet… but I could hear her at dawn sneaking back into the house.”
Chuck and Carol’s relationship is emotionally potent and sexually charged with the two of them thirsty for each other’s presence. They unite fastidiously but the nature of their union is not based on carnal attraction alone. The two are spiritual equals, complimenting one another like puzzle pieces interlocking. With Carol’s help, Chuck opens himself up to being loved and having lasting, meaningful attachments. There is little information about his past and personal life but you get the impression that he is a very guarded person. With Chuck’s help, Carol has balance in her life and has a chance to do something more with her life than if she had no other option than to stay in Garthville. Along these lines, Chuck does not pity Carol because of her situation or that she is settling for the first opportunity to leave small town life. If anything, Carol is comfortable in her skin and is a very accepting person. She recognises Chuck’s faults and loves him even more with these imperfections, never pressuring him for anything in return though, in her heart, her hope never wanes. When Chuck finally has the courage to ask for her hand in marriage, he is upfront about being nervous and possibly making a mistake, but he knows deep down that she is the best thing that has ever happened to him.
There is no neat, happy ending to this story. We only have our imaginations to help us out with the epilogue but it is sure that we are rooting for Chuck, Carol and their little family. As for Garthville, we can only wish that positive progress continues in the town and that eventually the quality of life with improve for its residents.
I was introduced to Monty in one of his best known films, A Place in the Sun (1951). His George Eastman was a quiet and humble young man who had a distinct sadness about him. You can feel the weight of his melancholy nature in every single exchange he has but it does not deter you from liking him. In the end, when all goes wrong and he is on the run, it is difficult not to hope that he can somehow escape and be granted some sort of happy future. Thinking back to the film, I wholly believe that it is thanks to Monty’s generous portrayal of George that you are able to sympathise with an otherwise questionable personage. He brings a similar tenderness in From Here to Eternity (1953), The Misfits (1961) and Judgement at Nuremburg (1961). You can see why fans adored him and his friends cared about him so deeply.
Monty’s portrayal of Chuck Glover is irreproachable and once again he manages to bring out the favourable side of a character that, on paper, would be boring and dry. Chuck is educated and seasoned at his job but he can be out-of-touch at the grass roots level. Sometimes the homage he pays to locals in Garthville can actually be quite insulting. When parting with Carol’s on/off beau Walter Clark, Chuck says to him: “I’m going to give you a compliment. Carol could have done worse.” Unfortunately for the kind but somewhat simple-minded Walter, he actually does take this as flattery. It is actually quite interesting when you think about it – Chuck is far more uncomfortable with white country folk than he is with the black population. To him, close-mindedness and a lack of civility are foreign so he is shocked when these types of behaviour hit him in the face. I personally wondered how much of Elia Kazan himself is reflected in the character of Chuck.
If I was given only one word to describe Montgomery Clift, it would be unsuspecting. This gorgeous man with piercing hazel eyes, who seems so shy and reserved, was one of the most talented dramatic actors of his generation. His boy-next-door good looks allowed him to play nice guy roles but with an added twist when those characters turned out to have dark skeletons in their closets. He did not need to have the biggest muscles or flaunt his masculinity to signify his inner strength. Perhaps part of this comes from the fact that Monty was a method actor who invested every ounce of his energy into his roles, sometimes to the dismay of his fellow cast and crew who got agitated with interruptions and extra takes. The results of his efforts were breathtaking. Monty received Academy Award nominations on four occasions including his debut, like his co-star Jo Van Fleet, in the 1948 film The Search. His career was too short for my selfish liking and I wish that he had not had to suffer so much during his lifetime but that does not prevent me from cherishing the mark that he left on classic cinema.