Wild River Runs Deep

10/21/2009 4:00 AM |

Wild River (1960)
Directed by Elia Kazan

Although it would be difficult today to take seriously the idea of American progress—the belief that, as a culture, we’re moving inexorably forward—the concept wasn’t always so easily dismissed, and in Wild River, Elia Kazan’s early-30s-set, 1960 masterpiece, progress is the watchword of the day, even as it’s subjected to a rather withering analysis. Landing with a Technicolor splash in an autumn-baked backwoods Tennessee (drenched by DP Ellsworth Fredericks in a suitably orange glow), Washington-based TVA administrator Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is charged with the task of evacuating the area in order that a dam might built. But while an introductory black-and-white docu-montage hips the viewer to the dangers the Tennessee River posed to area residents and explains how the TVA was created as a response to the threat of flooding, not everyone sees the Administration’s mission in such positive terms.

Glover’s principal goal is the removal of the town’s last holdout, the octogenarian Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) who lives with four generations of her insular clan and their black workers on an island in the middle of the river and whose defiant scowl proved too much for the TVA man’s predecessors. As Glover finally secures an audience with the woman in front of her run-down manor house (which Kazan films as something out of a hicksploitation horror flick) he outlines the potential benefits of the dam project, such as providing townspeople with electricity, and repeatedly invokes the concept of progress. Giving back as good as she gets (and one of Kazan’s achievements is to give equal weight to each antagonist, here and throughout the film) Ella scoffs at the notion, finding far greater value in living “as nature intended.”

Of course, there’s no question of Ella not leaving in the end, and Kazan surely doesn’t believe that we’re better off living in some pre-electric age, but the longer he stays in Tennessee, the more Glover comes to question the nature of this once incontestable progress. Especially when he gets to know the other townspeople. At which point it’s not clear that they deserve the benefits of the Administration’s semi-dubious advancements at all, since, while not all the locals are violent, shit-kicking racists, the vast majority seem to be. When Glover insists on paying the black workers the same as whites and when he takes up with a local woman (a bright-eyed Lee Remick), he soon finds himself even less welcome than he was at the start, the xenophobic resentment culminating in a stunning, brutal eruption of violence barely contained by the Cinemascope frame.

If there’s anyone who stands to gain from some form of actual advancement, it’s the community’s black citizens, both in terms of equal work opportunity—not surprisingly denied them in the town’s Jim Crow set-up—and technological development. (In a scene of questionable taste, a black character marvels over an electric light switch.) Still, even with Kazan outlining all these positive benefits, there’s plenty of bitter ambiguity left circling around the film’s central notion of progress. So that, in the end, there’s no way we can view Wild River’s stunning concluding shots—triumphant aerial footage of the completed dam—without registering at least the smallest hint of irony.

October 23-29 at Film Forum