Elia Kazan is one of those filmmakers that makes it damn near impossible to pick a favorite film because of such a vast number of inarguable masterpieces to choose from. I’ve had many an argument over whether A Streetcar Named Desire is superior to East of Eden, or why On The Waterfront will always best Gentlemen’s Agreement. But, at the end of the day, when looking back at such an intimidating filmography, I have to side with Kazan himself and crown Wild River as his best picture. Or, if not best, at least the most fascinating.Wild River tells the tale of Chuck Glover (played incredibly by Montgomery Clift, expertly delivering a performance that falls somewhere between the classical acting of old, and the wave of method acting that Kazan loved so dearly), a US. Marshall working for TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), with the ultimate goal of excising a stubborn old woman named Ella from her farm on an island. TVA is attempting this because the Tennessee River (as we learn in a poignant opening newsreel footage scene of a father recounting his battle with the river as it swept away his three children) has claimed countless lives and flooded the area for years. Their goal is to dam up the river and control its flow, thus bringing electricity and safety to the area.
The aforementioned stubborn old lady is brought to life by Jo Van Fleet (Cool Hand Luke, The Tenant and Kazan’s own East of Eden), who is 45, portraying an 80 year old. Ella is a proud woman who aggressively guards the farm that has been in her family for decades. Of course (we are in Hollywood) she has a widowed granddaughter that will serve as a perfect catalyst and love interest for Chuck. Chuck inevitably begins to fall in love with Carol (an entrancing Lee Remick with the most piercing blue eyes since Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas), and the two of them begin the battle of trying to create the best possible situation for Ella, whilst navigating the waters of falling in love.
Now, why should you care about this film more than any other Kazan film? Very simply, Kazan is playing by the same rules he built a career on, but has added a layer of subtlety that muddies the waters. Those familiar with him will no doubt expect some sort a tortured, tumultuous relationship at the core of the film. That expectation will certainly be met, but the romance here feels so earnest and organic that it becomes the centerpiece for the characters and the audience to latch onto as the film descends into darkness. Kazan couldn’t resist a passionate, animalistic love story and Wild River offers quite a different angle to approach what could have been a typical love affair. Rather than retreading old territory with in-your-face lovers and their quarrels, like A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan is this time placing love right beneath the thin, near-exploding surface. The entire film bubbles with sexual tension and the anticipatory tingle of promised violence. Contrary to assertions at the times of its release, Wild River is anything but a slow film. Rather than allowing what is surely one of Kazan’s most melodramatic stories to reach eye-rolling levels of convenience and contrivance, he allows the story to unfold meticulously and purposefully.
Kazan’s films were often concerned with touchy social issues of their time. Wild River wasn’t the first time Kazan tackled inequalities for African Americans (that would be Pinky), but the Depression-era setting certainly highlights the lunacy of continuing prejudice in America. Kazan holds no punches and indicts Southern culture (including the police force), the idea of progress for the sake of progress, the American dream, and the archaic ideas of segregation and inequality. Ella Garth runs a large farm predominantly with the help of African American farm hands that she pays, provides shelter for, and becomes a sort of mother to. Chuck decides that that is simply not enough. He endeavors to pay the African American men $5 a day. It’s no mistake that the rate happens to be the same that the white men in town receive. This causes a hullabaloo which results in a stand off that is most certainly a precursor to Sam Peckinpah’s nightmarish hell in Straw Dogs.
Kazan is far too complicated as a filmmaker to set up what seems to be inevitable; the progressive new comer in town proves that his new ideas and technologies are the obvious way to advance society and the locals enact violence to hold onto their way of life tooth and nail. The film certainly seems as if that is the direction we are headed, but Kazan gives both Chuck and Ella a fair shake at presenting their side. In Kazan’s world, they are both right. The film makes no attempts at an easy out. We are not given a comfortable conclusion that awards the characters (and audience) for wading through this complicated world of grey. Instead, the film attempts to best represent the way the world actually works. A resolution must be met, but it most certainly won’t be the one that everyone hoped for.
Wild River was also the last film on which Montgomery Clift seemed to maintain a certain level of self-control. He was on his way down battling an addiction to pills and alcohol. This addiction following a brutal car crash, resulting in an intensive rebuild of the actor’s face. His next endeavor was John Huston’s The Misfits with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe (battling many addictions of her own) notoriously mentioned on set that Clift was the only person in worse shape than her. Perhaps this explains some of the undeniable desperation we get in Clift’s eyes and body language. If you ask this reviewer, he never turned in a bad performance (especially excelling in Hitchcock’s I Confess), but Wild River remains his most fascinating and quite possibly best. Clift’s famous method acting never seemed so raw and exposed as in Wild River. Considering Clift only lasted six years after Wild River was made, I think it is safe to consider this performance as a straw headed for the camel’s back: a story so firmly rooted in the grey area; a story that begins with a man so certain of what he believes and fights for, but ultimately ending in confusion, frustration and bitter acceptance. You can find all of these complications increasingly present in Clift’s eyes throughout the film.
At its core, Wild River remains a fierce deconstruction of the American dream - the fierce individualism versus the “progress” of the future. Is it all for the greater good or is the future simply an unstoppable train? Kazan and his incredible team wrestle with these ideals with a melancholic urgency that pulls the viewer in and forces us to think. Wild River places a messy portrait of America right in our laps and refuses to be ignored. But, as with most Kazan films, it’s a quiet desperation cursed with the knowledge of the past and the dread of the future. Kazan hopes with all of his heart that things will change, but remains skeptical until proven otherwise.
“If Wild River is a clear-eyed examination of the difficulty in balancing the greater good with individual rights, it's also a swan song to a disappearing way of life.” - Casey Broadwater