The title is something of a misnomer, because Wild River (1960), Elia Kazan’s film about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s attempts to vacate landowners from a soon-to-be-inundated region during the Depression, is in fact a remarkably gentle, unhurried picture, one more about finding the tools to accept inevitable change than fighting the odds, one more about human behaviour and fading ways of living than high drama. A significant element in this gentleness in Montgomery Clift, who wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role of TVA administrator Chuck Glover, the man charged with convincing a formidable octogenarian matriarch named Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to surrender ownership of an island in the middle of the Tennessee River that’s been in her family for generations. Kazan might have imagined Glover a smooth-talking avatar of progress with no special feeling for the unreasonable convictions of aging hillbillies, but what he got from Clift was something much richer, a performance of great compassion and melancholic admiration. Clift helps elevate this film to an elegy, and, along with his equally gracious co-star, Lee Remick, he also manages to make Wild River’s love story seem as natural as it is seemingly unlikely. This is a very special film, gorgeously crafted, socially poignant, brimming with detail of place and period, a lesser-known highlight in Kazan’s career. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox.
Wild River opens with devastating documentary footage of houses collapsing into rising waters and a man struggling to itemize the loss of his family members to the disastrous flooding that was common before the government began construction on the dam project that would simultaneously uproot an entire region and bring safety and electricity to its people. The image then shifts from black and white to colour, and we see Glover surveying this same valley seen in the documentary footage from the window of a small plane. He occupies a local office, praises the “rugged individualism” of the now notorious last hold-out Garth, and soon sets out to visit her island, upon which a sign reading TVA KEEP OFF has been posted right by the edge of the water—water which Glover will be tossed into by one of Garth’s more impulsive middle-aged boys. That first visit to Garth’s island will also mark Glover’s first encounter with Garth’s granddaughter Carol (Remick), a 19-year-old widow and mother of two. Carol is pretty, sharp, honest, and perhaps the only person who can convince the old lady to accept the federal government’s offer and make way for the flood. What draws Carol to Glover is not mysterious: she’s lonely and desperate, and he actually talks with her, with kindness and interest, and he represents a second chance at a life barely started. What draws Glover to Carol? Other than her youth, energy and loveliness? Perhaps she can be for him a souvenir, something precious to hold onto from the world that his employers are about to destroy in the name of progress.
Wild River doesn’t pick sides. That isn't the point at all. Both parties are right, but only one is doomed. From the start everyone tells Glover that there’s no way he’ll ever get Ella Garth off that island without force, and in the end it turns out to be true. All she needs is a little force, a little push—she doesn’t have the heart to move otherwise. But how does this film get from that starting stalemate to its final resolution? The answer is lovingly complicated, and needs to be seen to be understood.