Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Wild River" - An American Classic

This past February, the Gene Siskel Film Center in my hometown of Chicago offered a retrospective of the films of Elia Kazan. I have seen most of his films, but had only heard about his 1960 work, Wild River. I looked up the critical reponse and learned that many of the country's top film analysts, including Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum had celebrated this as perhaps Kazan's finest film - high praise indeed for the artist that gave us such works as East of Eden, On the Waterfront, Baby Doll and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Armed with prior critical admiration, I went to see the film. I was moved by this work, but decided to view it again before writing about it, so I could separate my view point from the previously mentioned critics. I saw it a few days ago and now offer my thoughts.

Wild River is about a specific place at a specific time; the setting is along the Tennessee River in the mid-1930s. Kazan opens the film with black and white newsreel footage of houses being washed away by the floods; a local farmer tells us about his loved ones who were killed in the destruction. A narrator tells us that dams have to be built in several spots along the river to save the land. By so doing, a few small islands in the river will be lost, engulfed by the water from the dams' construction.

It is on one of these small islands that most of the film takes place. An elderly woman named Ella Garth (magnificently played by Jo Van Fleet) stubbornly refuses to leave her home, despite being told that the waters will soon envelop the island. A Tennessee Valley Authority official named Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is sent to the island to evict her; he is not the first government man to attempt this duty.

Garth lives on the island with a few dozen poor black laborers, who farm the land using their mules. In an early scene, Kazan uses a tracking shot (one of the few on the film) to show Garth walking among these people, who have put their trust in her. She tells them that President Roosevelt is planning on putting "her" island underwater, as this is his decision to make things better. Kazan cuts to the faces of these workers; they clearly respect and at the same time, fear this woman and they are under her spell.

Glover comes to change her mind, but she tells him that she does not agree with the decision, as she believes that moving the residents from the island just to provide electricity for the local towns is akin to "talking away people's souls." She fiercely proclaims her independence and loyalty to her homestead. "I like things running wild," she declares in one of the film's most memorable lines.

Glover realizes he will not be able to change Garth's mind with simple logic, so he enlists the help of the blacks by offering them government jobs in town for a good wage. They are more than happy to embark on this new life, so most of them soon leave the island, although this will later create a problem for Glover with the prejudiced town officials.

Also living on the island is a woman in her early 20s, Carol (Lee Remick), who is Garth's granddaughter. Carol married very early in life, but when her husband passed away suddenly three years prior, she moved back to the island with her two young children to be with her grandmother.

At first, Carol does not want to leave the island either, but Glover believes she thinks this way as she is afraid of her grandmother. Slowly, he convinces her that leaving is the only decision for her and she soon comes to trust and then become enamored of Glover. He has similar feelings for her, yet both initially believe that nothing can come of their friendship, as Carol has a fiancé and Glover knows that he has to leave this land soon after his work is finished - thus he does not see a future for them.

The screenplay by Paul Osborn (based on novels by William Bradford Huie and Borden Deal) elegantly weaves these plot lines together. One of the many strong elements of the screenplay is the emotional depth of the love story between Glover and Carol. This is a mature relationship based more on security and hope rather than simple physical attraction. Both need to escape the boundaries that have been set up for them; Glover with the everyday workings of his job, Carol with the devotion to her grandmother. By becoming closer as they grasp the immediate situation, they see that they will each be able to better deal with the dramatic changes in their lives.

No matter the major theme of his films, from unfair labor practices (Waterfront) to peasant revolt (VIva Zapata!), Kazan always focused on the everyday troubles and pleasures of his main characters. Who can forget the scene of Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in Waterfront, walking along the dock, as Brando confesses his part in her brother's death? Or the scene in East of Eden between Julie Harris and James Dean in the field, as she tells him about her father? These were touching scenes that gave the audience great insight into the character's motives and at the same time, brought us closer to them.

But in no other film of Kazan (with the possible exception of his autobiographical 1963 epic, America, America) did he succeed so brilliantly in humanizing his characters. Kazan's camera pans over the faces of Garth, Glover, Carol and the black workers with the utmost respect. He paints an unforgettable scenario where the dignity of life is celebrated, no matter how poor or downtrodden anyone is. We come to know these people and care about their immediate future, be it finding a new home or a new partner in life.

Kazan had been criticized in the past for not being a director of great compositions; certainly in his training as a theater director, his work was shaped by the proscenium arch, as evidenced by Streetcar. But for me, beginning with Eden, Kazan beautifully opened up his lens and carved out a world in the vast expanses of America. In Wild River, his visuals are the strongest he ever put on screen; he handles the widescreen beautifully (the films was shot in the Cinemascope process) and the depth of field is an important part of telling this story visually. There is a lovely shot of the small barge used by the characters to cross the tiny inlet of river that separates the island from the mainland; filmed at dawn with the early morning mist enshrouding the vessel, it is a haunting image. Likewise for the shot of Garth's house after she has been evicted. (The dark, earthy tones of the photography are the work of the director of photography, Ellsworth Fredericks. Interestingly, Haskell Wexler, one of Hollywood's greatest cinematographers, worked on this film, though he was uncredited.)

Kazan always brought out the best in his actors and there are three superb performances in Wild River. Clift emphasizes the uncertainty as well as the humility of his character; he is in almost every scene and he never has a false moment. This is one of his least known, yet most honest, sincere and complex performances. Remick, who had previously done a fine job emphasizing her sexiness (she had worked with Kazan on A Face in the Crowd and had just finished her part in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder), here delivers a quiet, reflective performance. Her character is often emotionally confused and Remick is up to the challenge of this role. She is better known for her showier roles (especially in 1962's The Days of Wine and Roses), but she delivers what is arguably her finest performance in this film.

As for Jo Van Fleet, this was the greatest moment in her brief film career, in my opinion. She had previously won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as James Dean's mother in Eden, so Kazan must have relished the opportunity to work with her again. Yet I wonder if even he knew how remarkable her performance in Wild River would be. She brings a wearied, yet eloquent quality to her character and at the same time a rugged fierceness. She is unwavering in her intensity about her land, yet it is her decency and humanity that are at the core of her words and deeds. In a documentary on Kazan, the director commented how Van Fleet (who was 46 at the time) would have the makeup artist apply age spots to her hands, despite Kazan's word to her that he would not shoot any closeups of her hands. Kazan was amazed at her preparation and devotion to her work and it is on display here in a performance that I think rivals the greatest in American films. (A separate note of gratitude for the bluesy, soulful trumpet theme composed by Kenyon Hopkins that opens the picture; it instantly sets the proper tone for this film.)

Wild River is a singular work by Elia Kazan and it is a masterpiece. In a career filled with many memorable films, this is his most lasting and unquestionably, his most heartfelt and beautifully told. The human spirit is on display here - we may die, but the passion of our souls will never perish.