An America torn between two eras, a world replaced by another one, causing a fear of the unknown and of the future, an insularity. All this sounds very modern and reminds us of the recent elections in the US. Among other things, this is what « Wild River » is about.
1933. Great Depression and New Deal. Engineer Chuck Glover (Montgommery Cliff)has to convince small landowners to sell their land to the government that intends to build a dam in order to control the murderous and devastating watercourse of the Tennessee river. Among the last people to resist, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), a surly grandmother, steadfastly refuses and clings to her piece of land. The movie tells the story of this confrontation.
In the 50's Kazan has directed quite a few films, among which some masterpieces. He introduced Marlon Brando in « A Streetcar Named Desir » in 1951, then again in "On the Waterfront" in 1954, discovered James Dean in 1955 with "East of Eden" and shot "BabyDoll" in 1956. Who could ask for more ?
With « Wild River » he undertook a fantastic and feverish trilogy, to be followed by "Splendor in the Grass" and "America America".
The film starts with archive footage showing the disastrous floods of the Tennessee river and its terrible aftermath. A man weeps about the loss of his whole family. At once, we are in a drama, which causes we know.
Chuck then thinks he is a bearer of good news for the area. Nevertheless, he is seen as the stranger, the Yankee, the white collar from the city who doesn't know the first thing about people and their costums. Kazan deals here with his favorite themes : a man rejected by the others , America and its values, capitalism, all this causing tensions and oppositions.
But, apart from a racist leader and the usual stupidity of the mob (He has just shot « A Man in the Crowd »), all the characters are interesting because they are not manichean. They have good reasons to act as they do.
Ella garth, for instance, is the last one to resist. She lives on a tiny island, a piece of land out of time, where she has always ruled and made her own laws. Of course she exploits her black workers but she likes them and mothers them as well. Yes she looks backward and refuses any change. Yes, she embodies private and individual interest against public good. But she is also admirable in her love of the land, her determination and her assertion of freedom. After all, for her, leaving is dying, whereas staying is being faithful. What a dilemma !
Chuck is totally, sincerely bewildered by this attitude. He knows his mission to be fair, he believes in progress and didn't expect any obstacle. But he is also a technocrat unaware of the hardship of southern rural life, of people's harshness. In other words he has completely disregarded the human factor.
His crossing of the river on a float-boat is a reocurring and symbolic scene. Beauty of the river, beauty of sunrise or sunset, a dense mist which permeates this country and gives it a nearly « southern gothic » charm.
Then, there is Carol (great Lee Remick), Ella's little daughter, overlooked single mother. As soon as Chuck arrives, she recognizes desire and as a determined young woman she isn't ready to compromise with desire. Chuck is the weak man who is overwhelmed by the sensuality of this woman and this country and its telluric force. He lets himself drift with the current.
Eventually, all the characters in the movie are islands of their own.
In the background, ordinary racism is shown in all its stupidity and violence.
Rivers have inspired excellent films from « River of No-return », to « Red River », and the unforgettable « Deliverance ».
This one is no exception.