Title: Wild River
Genre: Drama, History, Romance
Director: Elia Kazan
Screenwriter: Paul Osborn
based on novels by William Bradford Huie and Borden Deal
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Jo Van Fleet
Jay C. Flippen
Robert Earl Jones
Employing black-and-white footage playing up to the momentum and fallout of inundation to open this ‘30s Tennessee Valley holdout drama, Kazan’s WILD RIVER implicitly conforms to the popular belief that building hydroelectric dams is a great deed to the welfare of mankind, not just to steer clear of natural disaster, but also brings electricity and its modern trimmings to umpteen households, and presently, we are all fairly aware that, there are consequences too, it is really a curate’s egg.
But back in that time, the crux between the holdout, exemplified by an electrifying Jo Van Fleet (under the unflattering octogenarian slap, Ms. Fleet was merely 45 years old) as the small island’s matriarch Ella Garth, and Montgomery Clift’s Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) agent, Chuck Glover, is an old woman’s dignity and her family’s heritage, of course, it pales in comparison with a governmental ordinance, supposedly will benefit husbands of thousands, not to mention, the island is going to be completely flooded when the dam is actuated, therefore, clear as day, Ella Garth is on a hiding to nothing.
Still, Kazan painstakingly hammers home her point of a free will in the buying-and-selling business by giving Ella a stage to harangue Chuck with an intelligible analogy in front of all her dark-skinned helpers, and Ms. Van Fleet commands the scene with precision and compassion nonpareil. However, afterwards her character has few to contribute and takes a back seat, when Chuck and her widowed granddaughter Carol (Remick) begin to embark on a push-pull romantic entanglement, which would have become totally trite if it had fallen into lesser hands, with Carol’s damsel-in-distress passive-aggression starts to irk not just a footloose and fancy-free Chuck but audience as well, what is on her plate is the fear that Chuck will leave her marooned when his task is finished, from putting on a strong face of faux-disinterest, to her final desperate plead, on paper, the character is to needy and uninteresting (to say the least) by half, however, under the embodiment of a high-octane Lee Remick, who incessantly transmits spasms of vicarious vulnerability and anguish through pensive expressiveness that internalizes Carol’s dilemma and accentuates her inner goodness that, when combined with her feisty instinct to protect her beloved one, at the end of the day, miraculously validates her victory of luring a bachelor into wedlock.
Clift, looks swarthy and still dapper (under his thick brows, artificial or otherwise), can barely hold a candle in front of his two top-of-the-fame female co-stars, but retains his own tenacity in getting his job done on time, especially when racial discrimination and wage differential extrude half-way through to ginger up Chuck’s politically correct four-squareness, and Albert Salmi leaves a memorable impression in his rough-housing braggadocio as a bullying villain R.J. Bailey, but when the dust settles, this byplay simply fizzles out.
On the shoulder of Kazan’s realistic representation, which bestows WILD RIVER an extraordinary take on its locality, ultimately, it is his deep humanism saves the day, in the form of a final homage to the Garths, to Ella, who doesn’t want to own nobody nothing, that symbolic piece of land becomes a testimony of their spirit, their legacy and the impermanence that befalls every breathing soul.