Wild River is the kind of film I would never have watched if it weren't for Cinema Stripped Down. Not because it has a negative reputation, but because it's reputation is practically absent. The film was released in 1960, making it one of Elia Kazan's later films. Wild River stars Montgomery Clift and I want say it was a terrible performance but I would be offending a man who went through a terrible accident. In the late 1950s Clift was a victim of a very dangerous car crash that he never healed from - emotionally or physically. He went on to make films for another ten or so years. However he never delivered another good performance after his accident (no that he was too good an actor to begin with, see: I, Confess). Also starring in Wild River is Lee Remick who claimed Wild River was her personal favourite of her own films. She wasn't the only one who was awfully fond of Wild River, Kazan considered it to be his greatest of his own films as well. In fact, at one point in the 1970s, Elia Kazan attempted to buy the film's rights so it could be re-released to the public. However, the studio would only sell the rights to Wild River at too high a price for Kazan to purchase.
Bruce Dern made his film debut in a minimal part is Wild River. However, it was still a long time before he became a big name. Speaking of big names, June Carter Cash (Johnny Cash's wife) auditioned for the lead role. However, as you know the part was given to Lee Remick. Lee Remick selected the two actors to play her two children. The fact was selected since it looked like her at the age of seven. The other, the boy, was selected since he loved hugging and kissing Lee Remick. One final thought on big names, Marlon Brandon was Kazan's first choice for the role of Chuck. Marlon Brandon would have been beneficial for the film as he would have delivered a superior performance and being a larger name, a larger quantity of people would have seen Wild River.
Today, Wild River is Elia Kazan's second highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes with 100% of critic's appreciation. As well, it receives a 7.6 on IMDb.
Wild River takes place around the Tennessee Valley in the early 1930s. For too long islands have been flooded by the overflowing river. TVA is a program that plans to build a dam so that the water will no longer cause havoc. However, in order for this dam to be built everyone living on a small island will need to vacate.
An agent named Chuck is sent to help evacuate the island. When he arrives he notices that they're giving him the cold shoulder. It seems nobody wants to leave. The island is run by an old woman named Ella. She has lived on the island her entire life. Her family was buried there and she will not leave. Chuck then meets Carol, Ella's granddaughter who is burdened with two children and no father. For a short time, Chuck becomes father to those two children as he falls in love with Carol.
And still Ella will not budge. It is not long before everyone has been convinced to leave by Chuck. In fact, everyone is ready to turn their backs to Ella and leave. However, Ella will not allow this.
Wild River seems like that environmental film from before everyone was running around screaming about the environment. Of course, that does not last. Wild River has absolutely nothing not say about the world's environmental state, it is about the humanity's state. What I mean by that is rather than commenting on the environment on comments on anti-progress. It is never a question of whether destroying the island to build a dam is the right thing. It discuss if giving into the demands of those who wish to relocate their life and build the dam is the right thing. It was an interesting perspective, but the film would have been superior to it's current state should it have tackled more important issues.
As I quickly mentioned earlier, Montgomery Clift is terrible in this. I'll come right out and say it. He never shows emotion and ever line he reads sounds unnatural. Both truth be told, how can you blame a man who is slowly decaying for delivering a bad performance? Still, if you compare Wild River to I, Confess one could make a statement such as "Montgomery Clift's accident improved his acting skills." This is not the worst performance given by Montgomery Clift. It's one of them. This is also not the worst performance given by someone in a Kazan film. It is one of them. Montgomery Clift wasn't alone in bad acting. Lee Remick was close behind him. I felt like I was watching a sop opera every time the camera zoomed into to her large eyes. The character was not well written, nor was it well played. Finally, to top things off, Jo Van Fleet was fabulous as the elderly woman who runs the island and refuses to see it be taken away from her. At times her acting allows us to look at her as a senile woman who is in the way of progress. But by the end of the film we see everything through her eyes and want everyone to leave her alone.
As I have been working on this site I have began to notice that Elia Kazan's films are much more melodramatic than I expected. So far, if I had to choose one of Kazan's films to best represent melodrama, Wild River is at the top. From the ridiculous and cliche love story between Chuck and Carol to the over dramatic and predictable ending, I felt as if I spent a long time watching Wild River with my head in my hand. By the end of the film you are wondering how many more times Carol will burst into tears and embraces Chuck as she whines about how bad her life is. How many more times will you have to sit through Chuck's emotionless yelling as he tries to convince people to leave the island? Melodrama can be done well, and it can be done poorly. It has been done poorly in Wild River.
If there's one thing I hate in classic films it is when Technicolor is used... but only because the film has a big budget. Not because it would enhance the film or anything. For example, Rear Window would have worked just as well should it have been in black and white. Don't get me wrong though, I love Rear Window. However, how can you compare it's use of Technicolor to how colour was used in Lawrence of Arabia. I will tell you this, Wild River uses Technicolor beautifully to illustrate the island's beauty and lush. Kazan's first Technicolor picture, East of Eden (which I have been working on my review for a while now) uses Technicolor uselessly as well. It is a story of characters and emotion. In the 50s and early to mid 60s, Technicolor made their films look too unnatural. To this day, I swear, Cary Grant's face looked orange in North by Northwest. However Kazan proved to be master of using colour in film with Wild River as he was able to present both dull and beautiful shades of colour.
As you have probably guessed, I did not like Wild River very much. But I can certainly understand how it would appeal to others. I will suggest it, as it was the kind of film that did not work for me personally.
Directed by Elia Kazan
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet
1. Baby Doll
2. Panic in the Streets
3. Splendor in the Grass
4. The Last Tycoon
7. Wild River
8. The Arrangement