Wild River (1960)

The story takes place in 1934. The Tennessee Valley Authority and FDR's 'new deal' is building a dam on the Tennessee River, which will flood the surrounding land. The TVA buys all the land in the flood zone, except that of an elderly woman who refuses to sell. Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) has spent her life as matriarch of a clan of impoverished farmers, who live in isolation of societal and technological changes.

Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is the new TVA man sent from Washington to dislodge Garth. But he is more successful at romancing her lovely granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick), a widow who shamelessly throws herself at him. She knows that there is a better life outside of the Tennessee Valley, and sees Chuck as her ticket out.

Clift gives a good performance, but betrays the lack of range that he had throughout his career. Clift was an excellent judge of scripts, but he seems incapable of expressing humor beyond gently ironical observations. He is once again cast as the earnest romantic lead who must stand up to bullies, a role for which practice has made perfect. Remick has a more demanding role, but isn't quite up to making convincing her character's conflicting emotions and loyalties.

For Hollywood, the 1960s was a decade of acknowledging discrimination against blacks. Wild River returns to this theme repeatedly with increasing tension, with Clift's character eventually risking life and property to do the right thing. Southern white men are depicted as hateful racists, while blacks are portrayed as passive and deferential. Wild River may be guilty of its own stereotyping.

Wild River was filmed on location in Tennessee. Director Elia Kazan is very effective at recreating the Depression era of the mid-1930s, with its accompanying widespread poverty and unemployment. Kazan clearly sympathizes with the TVA, the jobs it provides, and its mission to prevent floods and generate electricity. But he is aware that progress still has its price, as represented by the losses suffered by Ella Garth.

Wild River marks the film debut of Bruce Dern, who is easily recognized in a small role as a yokel. Kazan's wife, Barbara Loden, also has a supporting role. The film wasn't a box office success, and it didn't receive any Academy Award nominations. Still, it is Clift's best film from the 1960s, better than his more popular movies The Misfits and Judgment at Nuremberg.

Van Fleet was only 45 at the time of filming, but looks much older due to makeup and the quality of her performance. She deserved a supporting actress Oscar nomination, but then she had earlier won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Kazan's East of Eden (1955).

Meanwhile, Kazan would continue to make exemplary films, including Splendor in the Grass (1961) and America, America (1963). One of the greatest living film directors, Kazan's body of work is much less extensive than that of Ford or Hitchcock, but there are far more classics than clunkers among his films. Although Kazan received an honorary Oscar in 1999, his reputation (and career) was eventually derailed due to his 1950s testimony before the Congressional communist 'witch hunt' committee.

You can't buy a copy of Wild River, as it is currently unavailable on either video or DVD. Which is a shame, since despite its awkward romance and heroism, it is one of the more interesting American films from the early 1960s. (71/100)