Watershed: Elia Kazan’s Wild River

Watershed: Elia Kazan’s Wild River – 1960 film

Donald Chase

ELIA KAZAN’S Wild River (1960) is an anomaly – a social-issue film from a major Hollywood studio that refuses to take sides. As well, it virtually avoids the ideological and psychological oversimplification and melodramatically overheated storytelling that generally go with sidetaking. Stylistically, it’s something of a Kazan anomaly, avoiding the hyperrealist/Expressionist overheating of the director’s work in the preceding decade, which was a plus in A Streetcar Named Desire and a minus in the nonetheless seminal On the Waterfront and the nonetheless haunting East of Eden. Kazan returns here to the (semi-paradoxically) plain, almost Fordian style of two of his early, side-taking social-issue films: Gentleman’s Agreement, which (necessarily) attacked anti-Semitism, and Pinky, which (again necessarily) hit racism (and was in fact taken over from Ford).

Wild River’s odd, sober evenhandedness and even odder meditative elegiacism in treating the themes of individualism vs. community and tradition vs. progress surely contributed to its box-office washout in ’60. So, probably, did the odd sexual-role reversals of its love story as protagonized by Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick. Never mind that the movie got decent reviews overall, and that Clift and Remick were hot off Suddenly, Last Summer and Anatomy of a Murder, respectively. But Wild River’s oddities-viewable regularly this past year on AMC, which has altered the movie’s status as Kazan’s least-known work – are what I like most about it. They’re what make it truer, deeper, and more timeless than most social-issue movies, from major studio sources or anywhere.

The basic story conflict is swiftly set up. A black-and-white prologue adroitly combining actual newsreel and staged-documentary footage indicates the enormous loss of property and human life caused each spring by the flooding of the Tennessee River. A narrator’s voice tells us that to prevent further such devastation and provide the added benefit of rural electrification, in 1993 the federally mandated Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) began building a system of dams along the river. After a switch to color and time jump to 1934, the film proper begins with the arrival in Tennessee of Washington-based TVA agent Chuck Glover (Clift). As his plane descends, he looks down on one of the islands in the river, the site of Ella Garth’s homestead. His mission is to persuade intransigent, last-holdout, 80-year-old Ella (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her property to the government so that the river can be diverted over it for the welfare of the community.

In the screenplay that Paul Osborn culled from two novels (William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars and Borden Deal’s Dunbar’s Cove), Chuck and Ella are evenly matched.

Chuck is backed up by the legal force of the government and the moral force of the general good. He’s a smart, reasonable guy; before meeting the old lady he acknowledges her “rugged individualism” as archetypically “American.” He also has an optimistic-idealistic faith in the reasonableness of others, noting, “I do think we often underestimate the Intelligence of people.” Having delivered himself of these abstract generalizations, he leans back too far in his undersprung swivel office chair and almost falls to the floor. The little mishap is both Kazan’s first gently comic deromanticization of his crusading New Dealer and nifty prefiguration of the crusader’s later, bigger physical and psychological mishaps as he deals with the concrete specifics of his task.

In her first full-tilt confrontatation with Chuck, Ella makes it clear she has her own way of reasoning. It’s based on a romantic refusal to go “against nature,” as, in her view, taming the “wild” river would do; on a long, less dubious heritage of self-reliance, as in “I ain’t crawlin’ for no damn government”; and, perhaps most importantly, on the simple fact and right of ownership. Ella also has her own kind of craftily illustrative intelligence, which she puts at the service of the last point. She insists that Sam (Robert Earl Jones), a middle-aged black retainer, sell her his dog for the fair price of $15, sure that his attachment to the animal is so strong that he’ll say. “You ain’t got no right.” “Come to think of it,” she responds, feigned enlightenment masking satisfaction at completing the analogy to TVA’s position with her, “I don’t have the right.”

In his autobiography A Life. Kazan writes that in the course of Wild River’s five-year gestation his sympathies shifted from the G-man to the old lady. (The shift may parallel in some way his longer personal journey from the idealistic Communist Party member who had his first filmmaking experience on the crew of People of the Cumberlands, Ralph Steiners ’33 documentary on Tennessee strip miners, to the HUAC testifier in ’52.) But the director doesn’t romanticize Ella any more than he does Chuck. The film admires her pride, but always sees it as a little stiffnecked and selfish. When she perorates, “Taking away people’s souls and giving them electricity ain’t my idea of progress,” the TVA operative rebuts, “We’re giving them a chance to have a soul.” We believe him because this exchange, near the end of the long initial faceoff, is set in Dogpatch chatelaine Ella’s own private black shantytown, before an audience of dependents that look like Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans photographs come to life. The sequence, intricately but unshowily staged for the CinemaScope frame, never takes us inside one of their unelectrified shacks. But the exteriors aren’t bathed in the beautiful, misty-autumnal, poverty-softening light cinematographer Ellsworth Fredricks uses elsewhere in the movie; it’s understood that the life lived within can’t be other than soul-tattering.

Still, from some mixture of loyalty, affection, and fear of change, Sam chooses to remain on the island with Ella after all her other black dependents have opted for relocation by the government. Her ruefulness in accepting his fealty saves her from cheap patronization and the scene from cheap pathos.

With admirable restraint, the film doesn’t hop the track of its storyline to mount a jeremiad against racism. Rather, it sees racism as a regrettable fact of Southern life, specifically as an essential cog in Southern economic life. Seventy years after the abolition of slavery, the local economic ecosystem is still functioning through the exploitation of blacks by whites and the unquestioned dependency of blacks on whites for the small, bitter fruits of exploitation; and the exploitation is still masquerading as benign paternalism.

Accordingly, race becomes a volatile issue only after Chuck upsets the ecosystem by paying black laborers on the TVA project $5 a day, the same wage as whites. (The Federal government, Chuck’s dialogue suggests, was even then an equal-wage employer, though Chuck acquiesces, however sardonically, to local usage by separating blacks and whites into separate crews.) A cotton farmer (Albert Salmi) demands that Chuck reimburse him the $4 he had to pay the black fieldhand he hired to replace, for two days, the one who’d run off to join the dam builders. Chuck refuses. Finally beating the $4 out of him-off camera, in a typical avoidance of melodrama by Kazan-the farmer, gallant now that his “principle”, had been upheld, spends the money on a bottle of white lightning that he sends to Chuck so he can nurse his wounds.

A little later, and somewhat unaccountably, the cotton farmer organizes a vicious, white-vigilante “farewell party” for Chuck. This night raid comes while Chuck is visiting the home of Carol (Remick), Ella’s 22-year-old granddaughter and a widow with two preschool-aged kids. It is, at least at the outset, untypically and unsettlingly melodramatic, though, happily, it’s presented without any music from Kenyon Hopkins (whose virtually monothematic mournful-bluesy score is one of the movie’s greatest assets). Was the farmers earlier gallantry for show? Was his wrath, deeper and uglier than even he knew, restoked by drink? Or did someone feel that the movie’s narrative motor, always low-humming but to my mind sufficiently fueled by Kazan’s steady, clear-eyed, yet passionate and compassionate curiosity about the characters and their lives, needed revving? Needed, specifically, an event to spur a change in the Chuck-Carol relationship.

Chuck and Carol have been intimate for several weeks at this point, and seconds before the raiders arrive he refuses by his silence a marriage proposal from her. He then refuses to be goaded into a fistfight with the farmer, upsetting our melodramatic expectations of a pacifist-become-pugilist Straw Dogs/Quiet Man moment (or in more Cliftian terms, a From Here to Eternity/Young Lions moment). The farmer decks Chuck anyway and Carol takes a swing at the farmer, who decks her, too. This last brings a strong objection from a college-boy raider (Bruce Dern, in his screen debut) and the belated intervention of the local sheriff-Southern womanhood must be respected. Chuck, lying in the mud alongside Carol as the raiders disperse, salutes her “wonderful”, physical courage – and then makes his own marriage proposal.

Wild River’s sexual politics remain wonderfully screwy today-in fact they give the film a decided modernity. Throughout, Chuck is diffident to the point of passivity and Carol is assertive to the point of aggression. She’s also notably independent – “That’s the answer to everything, having a fella?”, she responds to Chuck’s early assumption that because she has a local suitor, her emotional and physical needs are, or soon will be, fulfilled.

Carol’s emotional needs are apparent in her first, autobiographical/expositional conversation with Chuck, the loquacity of which both she and the movie have the good sense to apologize for with the touching line, “I haven’t talked to anyone in so long.” Her physical needs are wordlessly communicated when, accompanied by Chuck, she returns to the house she shared with her husband for the first time since his death, three years earlier. In a masterfully composed shot, Carol is seen at a discreet distance, framed by the curtain-bordered entrance to the marital chamber, brushing debris off the bed, tenderly tracing her husband’s form on it, almost overcome by sad yearning, tearing off the bedspread. Gliding associatively between the present quotidian moment and a past erotic one, then wining herself back again, Lee Remick astonishes with a screen-acting approximation of Woolfian/Joycean/Proustian “consciousness.” Carol’s yearning revives moments later after Chuck asks if she loved her husband, when Chuck, embarrassed, moves to leave, she says, “Don’t go.”

Carol instigates their second tryst as well, at the end of an encounter that includes a tentative declaration of love from her and yet another move for the door by Chuck. Later, threatened by his imminent return to Washington, she provokes him into a display of physical ardor, during which she tantalizes, “You can’t get enough of me – tell me!” “I can’t get enough of you,” he answers, through the kind of moan that, in movies at least, is usually reserved for women.

Yet, amazingly, Wild River never makes Carol out to be a domineering lustpot and never condescends to Chuck’s passivity or suggests he’s sexually dysfunctional. He’s just a timid, commitment-fearing thinking man who’s too fuddled to know what’s best for him even when it’s staring him in the face, and she’s just a candid, risk-taking, self-knowing woman who’s not afraid to keep on staring or pleading, or slugging-until the obvious occurs to him. Clift and Remick make comic-poignant and, finally, satisfyingly romantic capital out of the stumbling, antiromantic mating dance of Chuck and Carol. In fact, Kazan says that the dance’s choreography was largely dictated by the casting of Clift and Remick in the roles.

THE ACCEPTED wisdom on Clift splits his career into two parts. The split is marked by his May 1956 auto accident, often described as body-and spirit-breaking as well as facially disfiguring, following a dinner party chez Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he was then filming Edward Dmytryk’s Raintree County. This wisdom rightly regards Part I of his career, which includes Red River (’48) The Heiress (’49), and Best Actor Oscar-nominated work in The Search (’48), A Place in the Sun (’51) and From Here to Eternity (’53), as brilliant. And it sees diminished capacity, due to some combination of the accident and the escalation of Clift’s longtime abuse of alcohol and drugs, everywhere in Part II, from Raintree County to The Defector, finished just before his death in 1966. Maybe not entirely rightly.

Whatever Clift’s post-accident limitations were, the devolution of his once-vaunted spontaneity and sensitivity into mannered fragility and even brokenness was surely also a function of his roles. In The Young Lions (’58) his first post-Raintree job, again for Dmytryk, he was a frail, persecuted Jewish soldier. Dmytryk’s autobio It’s a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living reports that Clift dieted down to a gaunt 135 pounds for his character (and also claims little damage was done to Clift’s face by the car crash). In The Misfits (’61) Clift was a beat-up rodeo rider. And emotional and physical brokenness was pushed to the point of embarrassment in his role as a Holocaust survivor in ’61’s Judgment at Nuremberg (though the unembarrassed Academy gave him a fourth and final Oscar nod, as supporting actor).

But unlike most of Clifts Part II movies, Wild River, as reconceived for the actor by screenwriter Osborn and executed by Kazan, manages to accomodate his limitations as Kazan saw them, and then either ignores them or makes them dramatically valid. And Clift, who, per Kazan, fell off the wagon only on the final day of shooting, responds with a vigorous, alert portrait of a chronically tentative man. A man so tentative that – in one of the most affecting and economical bits in the movie and, indeed, in Clifts entire career – he stops himself midway in the act of blowing a kiss to his beloved. What’s missing in Clift’s Wild River characterization is missing in the script: a sense of what Chuck’s life is like in his natural habitat. The movie would have gained from allowing Chuck to sketch his life in Washington for Carol, in the way that Norma Rae union organizer Ron Leibman sketches the lovely lassitude of Sunday in New York for Sally Fields eponymous smalltown Southern heroine.

Already more dimensional than Chuck on the page, Carol is augmented by Remick’s performance. At once piercingly direct and extraordinarily delicate as an actress here, Remick makes palpable a widow’s bereftness, a mothers capable tenderness; a granddaughter’s loyal devotion in conflict with a lover’s surging emotions; and an intuitive country-woman’s skepticism of her cerebral cityman (which amusingly, bubbles up to the surface a split-second after their wedding ceremony is over). Directness and delicacy also combine potently in Remick’s sexual affect. Giving shades of wit, vulnerability, and natural elegance to the bold teases she played in Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (’57), Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer (’58) and Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (’59), she was a terrific dirty-wholesome turn-on, was even dubbed a “thinking man’s sex symbol.” (Preposterously, Fox production chief Buddy Adler suggested Kazan cast the working-man’s sex symbol Marilyn Monroe as Carol). Drably costumed in Wild River, Remick still gives off an erotic charge. Assertive here from needs more primal than delight or titillation, she’s still finegrained, and in a way appropriate to Carol’s social-regional context. (After Remick’s 1991 cancer death, at age 55, a newspaper eulogizer suggested she was personally too fine-grained to cultivate the killer instinct essential to long-term bigscreen leading-ladydom; she spent most of her last fifteen working years in TV miniseries and MOWs).

The Wild River performance touted as Oscar bait (though ignored by the Academy) was Jo Van Fleet’s. The actress, who died last year, was just under 40 when she played the octogenarian Ella, but she brings off the role without a whisper of stunt. Kazan, who directed a 34-year-old Van Fleet to a 1995 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her film debut as James Dean’s 45-ish brothelkeeper mother in East of Eden, called her Wild River performance “proof of the advantage of having a fine character actress much younger than the role she plays. Jo’s emotion had the intensity that generally passes as youth passes.”

Yet Van Fleets intensity never overpowers. Carefully channeling it, she cleanly nails Ella’s rigidity and indomitability, her cunning and her sly humor, without audience-courting orneriness or cuteness; her regional specificity without cornpone; and, aided by Ben Nye’s subtle, suggestive makeup, her great age without fussy overdetailing. It’s a pure-blue-flame performance that gives Ella an enormous dignity. Van Fleet maintains that dignity even when she sits scrunched and small on a porch rocker holding a rope-tied suitcase, in the scene where Ella waits for the federal marshals to escort her off her island.

Of course, Ella would sniff at hearing the “D” word applied to her in this circumstance. She certainly does when a soused Chuck pays her an impromptu nocturnal call to announce that he’s finally grasped that what she’s fighting for is her “dignity,” her everlasting, everloving dignity.” Osborn and/or Kazan, as if anticipating how banal the word would become, then have Chuck lose all his dignity in a spill to the ground.

Chuck is accompanied on this expedition by Carols equally soused, doughy but unexpectedly decent local beau (Frank Overton)-like Jean Renoir, Kazan has the strangest people finding common cause with one another. In fact, after first declaring himself to be in sympathy with Ella in A Life, Kazan admits to the film’s actual “social ambivalence” by invoking Renoir’s Rules of the Game phrase, “Everyone has his reasons.”

Renoir found something inherently tragic in that simple fact. Chuck’s understanding standing of Ella’s inimical reasons, however sententiously stated, gives tragic largeness to her progress-dictated removal from her primitive island to a neat bungalow on a street that’s just being paved, and to her consequent death from failure of will. So certainly, does the inevitability of these events: “There was nothin’ you could have done different,” Carol assures Chuck. So, finally, does Kazan’s reversal of the macro-to-micro movement of Wild River’s closing: From their ascending Washington-bound plane, Chuck, Carol, and her kids look down on Ella’s island, flooded except for the upland graveyard where she reposes, and then, for the first time in the film, they see and we see the dam that changed Ella’s destiny, their destiny, the communal destiny. The camera irises in on the dam at screen right as THE END comes up screen left.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group