Wild River

(Elia Kazan, USA, 1960)


The General Heading of Progress


Want to take three sides

Want to take two

Afraid to take one side

Afraid to be true

– Natalie Farr, “Wild Rivers”, from In Your Sleep (CD, 1993)


Imagine you are a moviegoer back in 1960, trying to settle into Wild River. This may not have been an easy task for most viewers. Within its first three-and-a-half minutes, it has already presented us with an astonishing richness of different materials.


It begins conventionally enough, with Twentieth Century Fox’s proclamation of the CinemaScope format and a Technicolor blue backdrop for the announcement (in bright yellow lettering) of the film’s title and its principal star, Montgomery Clift. But what is that sad trumpet on the soundtrack? It sails all alone until, eventually, a few guitar chords and a subdued orchestra kick in. And suddenly – before the musical theme has properly or neatly resolved itself – we are into what seems to be newsreel footage, in black and white, of the historic Tennessee River floods; a recounting of one man’s heartbreaking loss of family members; and, finally, an outline (in detached, voice-of-god narration) of the governmental response to this crisis: the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, authorised to buy up and redevelop all the land within a particular radius.


Yet this documentary passage is itself an emotionally charged fragment, as intense and melodramatic as anything to follow in the film’s fiction. And already there is some foreshadowing of the elements of that fiction: establishing images (now in colour) of the landscape of Garthville intercut with Chuck (Clift) approaching in a plane. The narration (which will not reappear in the film) cues us, as well, to the premise of the drama: the resistance of some ‘old timers’ to giving up their land for the sake of Theodore Roosevelt’s grand plan of American renewal.


The central figure of this resistance in Wild River is Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet, playing a part much older than her 45 years), stern matriarch to not only her own family but, seemingly, the entire community of Garthville. Arriving at the local TVA office, Chuck is warned by a sanguine work associate (played by Kazan’s wife, Barbara Loden, later the director of Wanda in 1970) that convincing Ella to sell will not be easy.


Kazan shot to fame through his close, collaborative association with great dramatists – Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Budd Schulberg – and his adaptation of John Steinbeck in East of Eden (1955). The screenwriter of that last film, Paul Osborn, also did the script for Wild River; however, in this case, the source material was not a single, substantial play or novel, but elements drawn together and synthesised from two quite different novels, Dunbar’s Cove (1957) by Borden Deal, which provided the basic old-versus-new premise; and Mud on the Stars (1942) by William Bradford Huie, a largely autobiographical account which gave Kazan and Osborn much rich, behavioural detail of how a Southern clan like the Garths functioned, and its resistance to the TVA initiative.


In a 1936 documentary on the work of the TVA (viewable on YouTube), the problems of the Tennessee Valley in that period are described as the “problems of America” itself. And, even in this official, informational context, such problems, as they are inventoried, run a gamut from natural phenomena (floods, soil erosion) to social issues (in particular, poverty – with the documentary footage lingering on the homes and farms abandoned by their owners).


This is doubtless what profoundly attracted Elia Kazan to the project: its fierce, tightly enmeshed mix of the personal and the political, governmental edicts and family law, progressive individuals (such as Chuck) and conservative communities. Kazan and his collaborators dramatised this mixture of small and large, intimate and social contexts, in the best and most vivid way they knew how: in a love story involving Chuck and Carol (Lee Remick in only her fifth major screen role, and her second for Kazan after A Face in the Crowd in 1957), who is Ella’s granddaughter – and, at first, merely a silent embodiment of this Southern status quo.


But there is nothing sickly sentimental or symbolically schematic about the star-crossed love match between Carol and Chuck: it registers, still today, as one of the most profoundly erotic encounters in cinema.


Many critics and scholars today speak of the distinction between fiction cinema and the essay film – a very knowing, self-conscious variant on traditional documentary. Wild River is one of those masterpieces that powerfully remind us that even the most seemingly classical Hollywood narrative is also and equally constructed as an essay: a dramatic essay, an essay unfolded in the moves and actions of the plot.


The characters embody specific bundles of social values – positions of social status, gender, race, age, position of authority (or lack of it) in their community, and so on – and enter into clashes, alliances and rapprochements that express the broader movements of society itself in history. Jacques Rivette praised the film, in his 1962 Cahiers du cinéma review, for grasping what he called “one of cinema’s master-themes: the confrontation of the old and the new” – thus leading to a surprising but perfectly apt comparison of Kazan with Eisenstein and Dovzhenko.


Kazan’s fondness for the dramatic essay form, and the creative energy he poured into it, has doubtless led to some commentators’ dismissal or downplaying of his achievement – as if he were only ever a filmmaker dedicated to large-scale or “white elephant” sociological-moral concerns. Yet Kazan’s investment in vibrant detail – or what writers in the Manny Farber tradition call termite art, the supposed opposite of white elephant grandiosity – affirms the reality that (as Jean-Pierre Gorin has recently remarked) “it’s a natural path to be, at times, white elephant. The problem is when you stay there and you don’t become termite”. Kazan was never afraid of stepping up to the plate of the Big Issues. But he was just as tenacious when it came to creating singular details that rang with an individualised truth.


The great screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière advises, in his book The Secret Language of Film (1995), that one good way to guarantee such moments of truth – and to break the initial schematism of any given thematic structure – is to ensure that each character has a moment on screen where they “go the end of themselves”: where they do something unexpected, perhaps even completely contrary to their psychology as we have hitherto grasped it as viewers. Wild River, despite its ample gallery of secondary stock characters, is full of these moments – which it refers to, in a marvellous line, as “getting awfully human”.


A striking example is provided by the scene in which Ella “demonstrates” to Chuck what her way of life is all about: she saunters over to one of her most trusted black workers, Sam (Robert Earl Jones), and demands that he sell her his beloved dog. At the start of this scene, we assume that Ella is showing off her personal power – and her capacity to abuse it, in the most terrible way. But Ella, it turns out, has made a calculation that we have not made; she knows that Sam, despite his status as Ella’s employee, will not agree to her demand – and that he will calmly protest that she “don’t have the right” to ask such a thing.


This then becomes the substance of her demonstration to Chuck: “You see, young man, Sam and me, we don’t sell. Sam don’t sell his dog and I don’t sell my land, that I poured my heart’s blood into”. Going to the end of oneself gets another twist, much later, when we see that all the workers do eventually leave Ella’s farm for the sake of the financial relief offered by the government – all, that is, except for Sam.


For me, Wild River and its successor, Splendor in the Grass (1961), mark the zenith of Kazan’s career as a film director. This was a transitional moment in his career and Wild River is, on many levels, a transitional work in American cinema as a whole. Kazan was soon to hurl himself out of the comfort zone of the Hollywood system by embarking on the autobiographical drama America, America (1963), followed by other sorts of experiments in creative independence (including writing novels).


It is clear that, by the beginning of the 1960s, he craved a type of artistic modernism that mainstream US cinema was, at first, reluctant to embrace. Wild River reflects this desire in its opening collage of documentary and fiction materials, its frankness in relation to sexual matters, and in certain nuances of performance that break the Hollywood mould and reach a level of both immediacy and complexity that resembles what John Cassavetes had begun to depict in his work as a director.


Kazan, however was closer in his method and style to Nicholas Ray, another key transitional figure of US cinema: he wanted to retain the solid, base structure of the classical storytelling model, while demanding the freedom to intensify and complicate the details, creating (via editing) unusual, alternating rhythms of passion and contemplation. This is no doubt why Rivette saw Kazan’s work of the early 1960s as, akin to serial music, a “decisive step toward the definitively atonal cinema that all the great works of today announce”.


But there are also classical coups of disarming simplicity in Wild River: such as the decisive action – filmed in a single, unadorned shot, without any stylistic underlining whatsoever – of Carol making the leap to join Chuck on a makeshift river barge.


In the dialectics of his vision, Kazan looked both backward and forward for inspiration – and for a way to remain existentially true to his own experience. Both Wild River and Splendor in the Grass return to and work over a period of US history that Kazan, again like Ray, had experienced as a young man, and which left an indelible mark on his sensibility: the boom-and-bust transition that led from the Wall St crisis of the 1920s into the long Great Depression.


Where Splendor in the Grass seizes the interplay of financial problems and intimate blockages under the sign of (as Rivette noted) a generalised state of crisis – in which neurotic, aggressive and self-destructive energies rule – Wild River is, for all its sound and fury, a calmer film. It marks a rare moment in Kazan’s cinema where love, despite every obstacle placed in its way by the social environment, actually does win the day.


There are times during the unfolding of Wild River when no viewer, casual or erudite, can possibly imagine that such a conclusion is on the cards. In one of the film’s finest and richest scenes, Carol searches for a sign of affirmation, of commitment, from the increasingly silent and evasive Chuck. Is he about to utter some crushing banality about their affair being good while it lasted – but that it cannot survive the glare of harsh reality? Carol intuits this dialogue before he can even say it: she reads her lover as if she were the finest, most delicately piece of radiographic equipment in the world: “Why did you say that, that way?”


But Carol’s bluntness, the shameless confession of her need, has an unexpected (albeit agonisingly delayed) effect on Chuck: it turns him around. The elusive realm of existential authenticity that so marked American drama (both on stage and screen) during the 1950s – so easily sidetracked into the worst kinds of ideological double-talk and rationalisation – seizes this couple in its grip. And they prove themselves equal to it, worthy of it.


The old and the new: the movement or uneasy transition between them is itself a complex, dramatic essay. Kazan spins the situation around many times in the course of the film, to keep viewing it from a fresh angle. Is the new necessarily superior, is the old necessarily bad? When the political collides with the personal, a new set of prismatic reflections is struck: Carol tells Chuck that he is “not easy to love” – a backwardness or resistance (captured so well in Clift’s performance) in his deepest nature, contradicting his surface beliefs and liberal values, which is ironically close to Ella’s own unrepentant staunchness.


If Wild River is an essay, its central topic is what Chuck drolly describes as everything that falls under “the general heading of progress”. But there is no such thing (the film shows us) as progress in general: there is only, in each case and circumstance, the particular problem, the isolated breakthrough, and the irretrievable loss. Kazan’s particular genius in Wild River was his dynamic ability weigh up all these dizzying factors and yet still guide us to a satisfying point of equilibrium.

© Adrian Martin January 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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