Wild River (1960) is a stunning, clever, and unexpected film. It’s all about transition. It’s all about cultural clashes. It’s all about opportunity and love. It’s about how modernity addresses current problems and, through knowledge and technology, makes those challenges and troubles a thing of the past: poor rural Tennessee residents have been subjected to floods for years, and with the construction of a dam, many of them will not only be protected from flooding but will also have access to electricity.

Wild River Cast

Wild River, directed by Elia Kazan and written by Paul Osborn, was based on Kazan’s travels to the area as well as William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars and Borden Deal’s Dunbar’s Cove, both fiction: Mud on the Stars is about race relations and country living in the Tennessee Valley, with one theme being the attempt to make government work for ordinary people; and Dunbar’s Cove is about how the Tennessee Valley Authority’s confiscation of The film Wild River features the great actor Montgomery Clift as Chuck Glover, a government agent assigned to move the remaining few people who have refused to abandon the land bought or commandeered for where the dam’s waters wreak havoc.

Ella Garth knows something important about what goes into making a living, and she knows that she has roots in the land and cannot survive without them. Chuck Glover may be an avatar of the future, a man of progress, but Ella Garth knows something important about what goes into making a living, and she knows that she has roots in the land and cannot survive without them. Carol, her granddaughter, can recognise both perspectives’ limitations and possibilities.

Wild River Director

Elia Kazan, an American director, is a guy and an artist who created a body of work that includes a number of beautiful, clever films that depict powerful stories that are both familiar and strange. Elia Kazan (1909-2003) built a name for himself as a theatre director, with some of his works later becoming well-known films.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), about a struggling New York tenement family, a dreamy and drunken father, a responsible mother, and the daughter who sees them both; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), about a struggling New York tenement family, a dreamy and drunken father, a responsible mother, and the daughter who sees them both; Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), starring Gregory Peck as a journalist pretending to be a Jew to report on anti-Semitism; Pinky (1949), starring Ethel Waters, Ethel Barrymore, and Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned girl who refuses to accept her social status and inherits a wealthy woman’s estate; A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Ethel Waters, Ethel Barrymore, Wild River (1960) is one of Elia Kazan’s most recognisable films, a work of history and poetry in which the present collides with the past to create a new future.

Wild River is maybe his most poetic, natural, and beautiful film (and what happens at the end is unavoidable, something terrible and triumphant—the most real American event of all). It’s astonishing that a man who might have been labelled marginal did so much of what was considered good American theatre and film work. By virtue of his enthusiasm and labour, Elia Kazanjoglous was born in Turkey to Greek parents, and in the United States of America, Elia Kazan graduated from New Rochelle High School and Williams College, before going on to Yale to study acting.

As an actor, Kazan was a member of the Group Theatre, where he practised the Constantin Stanislavski style of acting, which encouraged exercises that drew on sensory experiences and the actor’s personal history in the construction of a character. In 1947, Kazan formed the Actors Studio and began directing plays by Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams.

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Wild River Storyline

The depth of the 1960 film Wild River—so much thinking and passion, truth and observation—might have been too much for some: “Mr Kazan, it must be stressed at the outset, not only knows his subject intimately, having worked on it, intermittently, since 1955, but also has filmed it thoughtfully, compassionately, and with many touches of meaningful artistry,” wrote A.H. Weiler in the New York Times upon the film’s initial release.

One has to question if using two novels as source material for Paul Osborn’s script, William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars and Borden Deal’s Dunbar’s Cove, was an embarrassment of riches. To say the least, the competition of young love and the impacts of progress on traditional conventions proves to be an insidiously intrusive paradox” (May 27, 1960). It’s amusing now to think of the film as being overly considered: we’re both personal and public, political and spiritual, and any other portrayal of human existence may be a reduction of form and meaning.

Stresses between and among the various parts of who we shape our identities: each of us is a reconciliation of those opposing aspects, for better or worse. Our choices colour society to varying degrees, bringing peace and conflict where they are needed.

When Wild River was presented in Manhattan in the autumn of 2009 as part of a retrospective of Elia Kazan’s oeuvre, the critic for Time Out New York sounded hurried, brief, and cursory in his two-paragraph assessment of the film, which included the following summary: “Forget the grainy opening footage of flooded neighbourhoods; Elia Kazan’s tragically overlooked 1960 tragedy is all about the river.”

The following sample from a newsreel sets the scene for the societal issue: The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Chuck Glover (Clift), a New Deal fanatic, is in charge of the much-needed dam construction. All bets on stark realism are off the minute he comes onto the doomed property of cantankerous matriarch Ella Garth (Van Fleet) and encounters her widowed daughter-in-law (Remick). Tradition vs. progress, individual rights vs. government requirements, black vs. white—the battle lines have been drawn. But the film’s central question is: “When will this handsome Fed and his rural hottie erupt from too much-restrained lust?” (October 19, 2009, online; October 21, 2009, print) Even now, the film necessitates a level of concentration and analysis that may be exhausting. It’s easy to make it sound simpler than it is.

(Every generation has its own conflicts, and many people now may be angered by being forced to ponder whether technical advancements merit criticality and scepticism when they have conquered current life so thoroughly—by trains and aircraft, by telephone lines and internet connections.) “Sympathetic to both sides, the movie sets tradition against development, rugged individuality versus the greater good,” wrote J.

Hoberman, a critic for the once bohemian, sometimes intellectually challenging, and eventually uninspiring weekly the Village Voice (online October 13, 2009; in print October 14). (Van Fleet’s anti-government rhetoric has a modern ring to it.) Indeed, the idea was so Popular Front that critics were startled by the degree to which romance overshadowed social drama—and possibly by the relationship’s strangeness. Despite the fact that Wild River appears to be a fairy tale in which a New Deal hero saves a backwoods Rapunzel from a reactionary old witch, the film’s casting effectively reverses the roles. Clift is the sleeping beauty, whose reserved demeanour is (perhaps) softened by Remick’s sexual warmth.”

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Wild River Achievements

To understand how it seems born of depths, one must see the film Wild River, which was selected as significant and for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2002 for the National Film Registry. Its landscapes, the town and island, the woods and waters, are born of years; and the attitudes of the people in those places were forged through trouble and tenacity, as well as ignorance, courage, humility, mercy, and humour.

Nothing can be adequately summarized in a few words. Like music or poetry, the film explains why so much of American life is both sad and hopeful. The land is vast, ripe for exploration and development. It is possible to achieve a lot. People aren’t as open as they used to be. People in town and on the island are instantly hostile: they fear anyone they don’t know, especially someone who enters bearing the authority of education, money, and power. (However, some of them are intrigued about the difference, about the education, money, and power: Carol is one of them.)

As the government agent, Clyde goes by, one man utters abuse. Clyde is plunged into the river by another man, who is offended by Clyde’s queries and comments about the island’s matriarch, Ella Garth, a relative. Fearful and ignorant people use aggression as a primary resource, a reflexive response to discomfort and disapproval—those who see no other way to safeguard their own dignity and property when confronted with education, money, and power.

The government agent speaks with Negro employees, who are decent and humble people who rely on the island’s work, charity, and judgement, and who have the status of adopted children. The coloured community, men, women, and children living side by side in crude wood houses in a small quarter on Ella Garth’s island, lacks independence and power; however, there is a certain amount of civility in their situation—civility and mutual loyalty—but most of the blacks yearn for a more decent, more rewarding life and work elsewhere.

The government agent provides the black men respectable pay for clearing land, which shakes up the white town: equal pay for equal work disturbs the island’s and town’s economies: it disrupts the usual assumptions, the usual exploitation. Men of power in the community, as well as regular white labourers, retaliate with threats of violence. Townspeople assemble at Carol’s house, where they know Clyde is, largely men but some women as well.

On Carol’s roof, a woman does a dance (it might be a ritual). Carol’s house has a car parked against one of its walls. Clyde and Carol are knocked to the ground when they go outside to speak to the assembled audience.

There is, nevertheless, hope, albeit not for everyone. Clyde and Carol, the government agent and the matriarch’s granddaughter, are two very different individuals from two very different places, but they are able to communicate honestly—with intellect and sympathy—and that is a bridge for them, a bridge to each other and to the future. Clyde has respect and pity for the old lady, Ella, as the agent learns to comprehend her sense of history and family, of individuality and duty.

After partying with one of Carol’s suitors, Clyde pays Ella a visit and expresses his admiration for her. His intoxicated confessional state touches her—so it’s human, so vulnerable, and so idiotic. She’s still willful, a figure of pride, and a figure from a bygone era that’s being swept aside in the name of progress. Ella’s weakness is immediate as Clyde finishes his job and Ella has relocated off her property into a new house, an attractive, decent, tiny dwelling: Ella’s roots have been severed, and her homestead’s destruction—first by fire, then by flood—is a tragic and modern ritual of exorcism and cleansing, as well as a rebirth for others, including her granddaughter.

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Wild River Roles

One of the things that the picture satisfies is what some of us call the simultaneity—the indivisibility—of perception, thinking, and feeling, the complete presence of human beings and knowing; and Wild River engages and fulfils that sense of complexity. The fact that the characters are strong and engaging bits of help. Montgomery Clift is a fascinating figure: along with Marlon Brando and James Dean, he was one of the most important actors of the mid-twentieth century: each man, each actor, is complex, but with a dominant quality—for Brando, that quality is sensuality, for Dean, sensitivity, and for Clift, intelligence.

Montgomery Clift was a lone figure who was aware and decent, but also fragile. His own life was tragic (a terrible car accident that left him with a scar on his face, binge drinking and drugging, and sexual conflicts), but his filmography is worth a second, third, fourth, and fifth look: Red River and The Search, The Heiress, A Place in the Sun, I Confess, From Here to Eternity, Raintree County, Lonely Hearts, The Young Lions, and Suddenly Last Summer. In Wild River, Clift as Clyde is a figure of serenity and intelligence. He possessed a rare combination of potential and susceptibility.

“Through its narrative and visual texts and rich subtexts, Wild River constructs a sophisticated discourse that defies the almost biblical purity of its tale,” British film studies lecturer Elisabetta Girelli said in the article “Man and Boy” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television. If the picture is purportedly about good men combating evil and harnessing nature’s power to bring safety and progress to all, it is relegated to another storyline, which is generated by Clift’s dubious mimicry of Chuck.

Clift’s role as a government agent, man, and lover has a fundamentally subversive element to it, and he also develops an outlandish relationship with his female love interest: it is the intimate interaction of these two threads of meaning that carries the film’s emotional structure” (online September 23, 2011). Clift as Clyde is a talker and a listener, and he is fragile, implying physical frailty and deference to women—he accepts equality and does not try to reject or destroy women’s strength.

Most men’s values and responses are not the same as his. Montgomery Clift’s emotional and physical sensitivity, his failure to embody traditional masculinity, his queerness, and the resulting formation of a new kind of relationship with the ladies in the film are all discussed by Elisabetta Girelli.

Jo Van Fleet’s portrayal of the old woman, the tribe’s leader, is remarkable (honest, without vanity); and Van Fleet was a well-known actress: in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, she plays the bad mother and the successful brothel owner, but she was also known for classical and modern stage work, as well as films. Lee Remick starred in films like The Long, Hot Summer and Days of Wine and Roses, radiating thought and sensuality, and he would go on to star in a number of television shows.

Carol, played by Remick in Wild River, exudes the confidence and urgency of a woman who realises she hasn’t reached her full potential and is eager to fight for a new, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. (To reach Clyde, Carol employs her knowledge, sexiness, and honesty.) The film’s strength lies in the fact that the women are truly formidable. Experience and philosophy are embodied by the characters.

Ella Garth and Clyde are in front of the black community on her island at one point, when Ella insists on buying one of the men’s dogs, Ol’ Blue, despite the man’s refusal to sell the dog. Ella is liked and respected by the tall, slow, gentle black man, who may be terrified of her as well, but he refuses to sell his dog. He claims that she won’t be able to force him to sell the dog. Ella is having this talk to show how the government is wrong for forcing her to take money for land (and to move) when she does not want to.

Individual rights vs the good of society (or the power of government) is still a debate that we are experiencing. The right to private property is regarded as a fundamental right, and it has long been a part of the country’s ethos—its ethics, philosophy, and purpose; however, the law of the land—the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution—allows the government to take private property for public use in exchange for just compensation: this is eminent domain, a fundamental aspect of sovereignty. Those two crucial principles are still in dispute.

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