Wild River (Elia Kazan, 1960)

14Jul11

Montgomery Clift (Chuck Glover), Lee Remick (Carol Garth Baldwin), Jo Van Fleet (Ella Garth). Screenplay by Paul Osborn. Directed by Elia Kazan. Rating: PG. Running time: 110 minutes.

Anti-semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement, female dependence in A Streetcar, union corruption in On the Waterfront and then racism and rugged individualism in Wild River – as I slowly devour Elia Kazan’s filmography, is there a sociopolitical issue of the utmost importance I’m not going to come across? Watching this man’s films is like taking a slow and moving tour through the history of twentieth century America, every one as worthy of one’s time as the last. Here we begin with footage detailing how tragic Tennessee valley floods had been throughout the 20s, and Montgomery Clift is the man sent in to get people to agree to relocate their lives, so that certain desolate areas can be cornered off as suitable for the building of protective dams.

But there is, of course, the problem of the libertarian attitude, which disdains federal government interference as much as it reveres property rights, and one old woman championing the cause is willing to stand her ground regardless of any money that is offered her: it’s a matter of principle.

If this film were made nowadays it would probably be a poorly judged comedy – Clift’s character could so easily be the Nick Naylor of the environmental world, interested in nothing but his bank balance and willing to do anything to get the old lady out. As it is, Kazan gives his character a good dose of seriousness and soon strips away any sinister motives: Clift is able to discern the complexity of the situation, and whilst we’re probably ultimately led to judge it selfishness and slight senility on the old woman’s part to willingly risk so much flooding in the future just for her sake, Kazan still has time to show us why her view is partially reasonable: everything that’s meaningful in her long and quiet life is tied up to that piece of land.

You could probably get a deeper and quicker grasp of the issues at play here by reading a chapter of Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, but for all that philosopher’s ability to write entertainingly, his book hardly reaches the heights of art. Wild River brings the issue to life by so beautifully and carefully showing us one instance of the problem, thus opening the floodgates to human sentiment in a way abstract thought never can. There’s even time for a subplot highlighting Tennessee’s segregational prejudices, demonstrating once more that despite all claims to the contrary, it was in fact the white man who was subhuman at this moment in history.

The final major thread is the development of a romance that burns all clichés to ashes within its first ten minutes, proceeding to treat us to dialogue written and delivered in ways all too related to real life. As I’m increasingly coming to understand, though, that should come as no surprise. Kazan, it seems, never failed to connect.

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