WILD RIVER may not have been a huge hit in its day, but given that it was directed by Elia Kazan, and had a noteworthy cast (with stars Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet all receiving critical acclaim if few award nominations), it would seem to be a prime candidate for a lavish US DVD release. Up until very recently, it hadn't received any release at all, which was very strange indeed. Here's a movie selected for preservation by the Library of Congress (2002) but no American edition has been available.
Well, now I see that for cinema buffs willing to make the investment, the film is now included in a fairly expensive box set, with the Martin Scorsese imprimatur and all. That's something--but it's something for fans a bit more well heeled than yours truly. (That and the fact, that I'd be shelling out primarily to get this film and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, which also has--unaccountably-- never been released individually.) And then there's this Korean package, that claims to be playable in all formats. Why, oh why can't I get excited about such things. Call it an innate suspicion. I can't vouch for the quality of product as producct, but for those willing to take the plunge, I am more than willing to vouch for the quality of the film as a work of art.
I remember snoozing through the lessons in my high school history classes and barely skimming the textbook on the history of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the bringing of electricity to the rurual South. I mean, it was then 1968 and electricity everywhere was a given, wasn't it? Who cared about such ancient history, why that was thirty some odd years before.
Well, now more than FORTY years on, I realize how important a good understanding of history really is--and how brief a time span thirty, forty or FIFTY years really is in the course of human affairs. And I've come to realize the power of intelligent dramatic and literary treatments of historical events. In '68, I was more interested in TV than the TVA, but now when I watch a film like WILD RIVER on my TV, I appreciate how a well made film, stressing the human element, makes that history come alive. It's just possible that had my 16 year old self been exposed to a screening of WILD RIVER, it just may have helped me connect with that particular chapter of US history in a very real way. (The fact that Lee Remick was a teenage crush of mine certainly would have helped).
WILD RIVER's storyline seems chock full of readymades (if not actual cliches): there's a feisty old widow whose refusal to sell her island home is holding up progress on the TVA's efforts to develop the Valley economically and to put an end to its cycle of endless flooding. There's also a somewhat heavy handed treatment of racial issues, with the enlightened Northerner (Clift) doing his bit to bring some justice for the community's black population--and endangering himself and his new love (Remick) in the process. None of this is especially surprising or dramatically overwhelming. But it does provide a framework for some very honest scenes--mainly between Clift and Remick--in which conflicting emotions are expressed in refreshingly honest ways.
Getting at the truths of the human heart was director Elia Kazan's true forte. Yes, the history lesson is a valuable one, but what makes this film so compelling is the human story behind the story. The legitimacy of Kazan's reputation for being an actor's director was never better exemplified than in WILD RIVER. Only Jo Van Fleet is permitted to chew the (truly breathtaking) scenery--as would seem to be her (and her character's) right. Remick and Clift turn in more nuanced and tentative performances, in keeping with the tentativeness of their situation. No false notes are hit in their scenes together--or with other actors. A lesser film might have had Remick's jealous hometown beau (Frank Overton) engage in fisticuffs or worse with the newcomer, cityboy who succeeds in capturing his gal's heart. Instead an odd alliance is actually formed when the decent hometown boyfriend breaks down and warns his rival of plots against him by the racist local populace.
Lee Remick always cited her role WILD RIVER as the best of her career, which might surprise fans of DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES or ANATOMY OF A MURDER, but these days, I tend to agree with her assessment. Her character here Carol Garth Baldwin is more multi-dimensional that the alcoholic Kirsten Arnesen Clay of the former film or the wanton Laura Manion of the latter. Her scenes with Montgomery Clift have a ring of authenticity that is still quite rare in American film. You feel as though you're eavesdropping on real conversations, actual heart-to-hearts. And that's not easy to achieve. Kazan and Co. did it here and it's a downright shame that the movie is so hard to get a hold of in its native land.