One of Elia Kazan’s personal favorites among his films, the tepid, televisiony Wild River is indeed superior to such cinematic atrocities as Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), Splendor in the Grass (1961) and America, America (1963). Based on William Bradford Huie’s 1942 autobiographical novel Mud on the Stars, Kazan’s handsome, moderately interesting film revolves around the attempts by a young field administrator for the Tennessee Valley Authority to persuade an 80-year-old woman, the sole holdout, to sell her land to the federal government—land that will be flooded once a dam operates on the Tennessee River to combat land erosion and harness Nature’s power, bringing electrification to rural Tennessee. The time is 1933.
Ella Garth, of course, is doomed in her effort to retain her pride and dignity and forestall progress, for which the T.V.A. administrator, Chuck Glover, becomes the advocate in their contest of wills. Meanwhile, Ella’s widowed granddaughter, Carol, falls in love with Chuck, as do her young children, “humanizing” him. Some have complained that their improbable romance—no one questions the realism of their sexual affair—“dilutes” the socio-historical drama. Horse feathers! This is the most sensitive aspect of the film: two lonely individuals coming together as a couple. The anti-racist material is also satisfying, especially given the parallels we may draw between Ella’s resistance to what she regards as federal intrusion into her life and her destiny and the “states’ rights” arguments that would oppose the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and which still oppose moral, social, and even medical and scientific progress in the U.S., as any of the recent Republican Party debates reminds civilized souls.
The trouble with Wild River is how tame it is apart from spurts of melodrama that cast Glover, a Stoic, as officially unprotected and on his own.
The acting, however, is wonderful: Montgomery Clift as Chuck Glover, Lee Remick as Carol, and 45-year-old Jo Van Fleet as Ella, relying on intelligence and imagination rather than makeup and giving the performance of a lifetime.
Something else must be noted: the piercing, aching musical theme by Kenyon Hopkins that more than anything else in the film evokes our collective dream of the Great Depression.
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