Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) has been sent to Tennessee to work with the Tennessee Valley Authority, buying up land around the river to construct dams, bringing energy to the region’s homes and putting a stop to the floods that have killed many.
Chuck has a difficult task ahead of him. His predecessor was able to convince all but one landowner to sell. Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) lives on an island in the middle of the river, land that has been owned by her family for several generations.
Ella is stubborn, and it will take a lot of convincing for Chuck to win her over. Luckily, he may find an ally in Ella’s widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick).
As he and Carol try to find a solution to the problem of Ella’s stubbornness, Chuck also finds himself clashing with locals over his decision to fill the remaining $5-per-day TVA jobs with black employees.
Elia Kazan directs 1960’s Wild River. According to TCM’s introduction to the film during Summer Under the Stars, Kazan had worked a “New Deal” agricultural job in Tennessee, which later inspired him to make this film.
Wild River is one of those films that no one seems to talk about, but that deserves much more attention. I’m glad TCM decided to air it during Montgomery Clift’s SUTS day, as I probably wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise.
The film makes it easy to see both sides: the family’s attachment to the island, and the TVA’s wish to do something that will help the entire region. The Garths have lived on their land for generations, and not only that, but all of their family is buried on the island. They don’t want to see their home permanently submerged in water. But the TVA wants to prevent the floods that have killed so many of the valley’s residents, and to improve the quality of life in the area. It’s that age-old argument between tradition and progress.
In addition to the drama between Chuck and the family, the film touches on other aspects of the New Deal, as well as racism and equal rights.. As Chuck arrives in town, a food distribution program and the WPA are shown. Later in the film, he wants to pay black and white workers the same rate for their work with the TVA, and faces resistance from some of the people in town as a result
It all adds up to a very detailed portrayal of the period and setting, Tennessee in the 1930s. And though it’s easy to see Ella’s side in her dispute with the TVA, it’s even easier to side with Chuck, an idealistic man who stands by his convictions and treats others fairly (even those who test his patience, like Ella and the cruel Hank Bailey).
Jo Van Fleet gives a very convincing performance as the Garth family matriarch. I was surprised to find that Van Fleet was in her mid-40s when she made this film. I didn’t, for a single second, believe she was a day under 70 — a compliment to her efforts as an actress, and to the makeup team!
Lee Remick is wonderful to watch, too. Her performance is subtle, but full of emotion. The romance between Remick and Clift brings several moving, stand-out scenes.
Wild River moves along at a slower pace, with precisely-placed dialogue, and as a result will not appeal to every viewer. This roots the film very much in its era, compared to the break-neck pace of many films today. I didn’t find it bothersome at all, though, and instead thought the film came across more thoughtful and serious in tone as a result of the pace and scripting. It’s a fascinating portrayal of Tennessee Valley culture and conflict, a time capsule well worth opening both for fans of its cast and anyone interested in the history of the US in the 1930s.