It starts with stock footage. Raging torrents of water engulf towns and sweep away homes. A shaken man talks to camera. He recounts, in speech as intermittent as his blinking eyes, the loss of his children in the floods. It is a startling, unguarded moment before the Cinemascope artifice kicks in.
Wild River ain’t no documentary. This is an Elia Kazan film so you’re in for melodrama and actors who delve deep.
We’re in Garthville, Tennessee, early 1930s. A gleaming Greyhound bus opens its doors and out steps Montgomery Clift, also gleaming, his suit yet to be stained by the dirt tracks of this rural town. He is the latest in a long line of government fixers sent by the Tennessee Valley Authority to purchase land for clearance. All that stands in the way of a scheme to build a grand dam is a grande dame by the name of Ella Garth who refuses to sell her island despite threats both natural and diplomatic. She is salt of the earth, bound to the farm her late husband created, bound to the land, to family and to her black employees. Clift is just another outsider trying to work out how to manipulate these locals in the name of progress.
This is a broad brushstrokes tale of race relations and the inevitable creep of modern America. It is also a love story straight out of a charity shop paperback where a young mum sees a bright future in a city boys eyes. Those eyes, Clift’s eyes, are glazed, his mind somewhere else. This is after the actors car crash and perhaps the drink and drugs were taking hold but his withdrawn stance adds an effective uncertainty. Combined with Lee Remick‘s performance there’s an intensity that counters those moments when the picturesque landscapes and harmonica music threaten to engulf you in a Walton’s induced coma.
The portrayal of the racist, idle locals veers close to Deliverance but includes the brief debut of Bruce Dern, showing from the off how he could flip from all American boy to threatening nut job in a heartbeat. Other casting is less successful with Jo Van Fleet steadfast but jarring playing a role twice her age. On stage it might have worked (along with the theatrical scripting) but here it makes us realise just how far we are from the gripping reality of that blinking man. Despite all this Wild River works and there are a few moments where it threatens to break into something altogether more fantastic and strange. But Kazan always resists, his heart is with the young mum making an insane world sane while Montgomery Clift looks on, flames reflected in his eyes.
‘Wild River’ is available on Blu-ray now.