Toward the beginning of Gone with the Wind, Gerald O’Hara remarks to Scarlett about the importance of their land and how she’s tied to Tara in her very blood. A great deal of the fiery drama and tragedy that befalls Scarlett is due to that obsession with that land which is inarguably hers, and much of the same can be said of Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), the elderly woman at the center of Elia Kazan’s riveting Wild River. And though its set some 70-odd years after the Civil War, this rambunctious 1960 melodrama deftly and reverently handles the subject of integration in ways that further shame the laughably false vision of integration peddled in Victor Fleming’s absurdly whitewashed antebellum classic.
Ravaged by the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley’s failing economy brings forth the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which pays off and relocates landowners and employs hundreds to clear the land and help bring electricity to the region. As the TVA gets to work, Ella remains the singular holdout before the valley is to be purposefully flooded, and it’s now the job of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed administrator Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) to convince her to relinquish, a task at which his predecessors have failed.
The river that divides Ella’s island, which also serves as a home to many of the region’s disenfranchised African-Americans, from the mainland is a metaphor that lands with a deafening thud, but Kazan’s film unfolds with a tough and unexpectedly bold design. Slapped around by nearly every member of Ella’s family, both figuratively and literally, Chuck sparks an unlikely romance with her widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), a mother of two being courted by a local pushover. Their attraction is immediate and Kazan smartly plays up their sexual desire for one another over lilting, sentimental romanticism.
Especially in Kazan’s salad years, sexuality, both repressed and unbridled, was always the controversial director’s ace in the hole, particularly in the scandalous Baby Doll and Splendor in the Grass, and the fiery wanting between Carol and Chuck saves Wild River from its progressive preaching in more than one instance. Eventually, the fight to convince Ella to give up the land becomes secondary to the issue of race, as Chuck promises black workers the same pay as whites for local labor, riling up an unsettlingly large contingency of local racists led by malevolent cotton baron Hank Bailey (Albert Salmi). Bailey’s coy racism is seemingly dispassionate, offering minimal guise for greed, but this familiar brand of cordial bigotry is upended at the spectacular climax, in which Chuck and Carol are bullied and beat up by an angry mob that’s quietly supported by the local police.
Written by Paul Osborn, who had adapted East of Eden for Kazan as well, Wild River offers a conflation of ideas in its very design, as it’s adapted both from Mud on the Stars, William Bradford Huie’s novel based on his boyhood in Tennessee in the early 20th century, and Dunbar’s Cove, Borden Deal’s fictional account of the TVA’s tumultuous campaign. Despite this, Kazan’s film acts distinctly as repellence against nostalgia. Ella and Bailey aren’t condescended to as characters, nor are they rendered one-dimensional in performance, but Kazan clearly and rightly depicts their obsessions with the past and personal ownership as ugly, if not foolish. And the play-off between this near-despicable behavior and the passions of Chuck and Carol is balanced remarkably well by the filmmaker, giving the narrative a breadth of drama and invention to match DP Ellsworth Fredericks’s stunning Cinemascope landscapes. Indeed, Kazan, perhaps better than any other director at the time, knew that land wasn’t everything.
20th Century Fox's treatment of the Blu-ray transfer of Wild River, like their recent release of How Green Was My Valley, sets a standard for how older titles should be preserved and updated for new formats. The color and clarity of the film is beyond reproach, from the interiors of the TVA offices and Chuck's hotel room to the varying wardrobes of Bailey and his mob. Textures are incredibly well-defined, especially in the rickety lumber-built homes that exist on Ella's island, and black levels are solid and inky. Visually, the film is a revelation, and the audio has similarly been handled with admirable care. Osborne's hearty dialogue is crisply out front, with sound effects and Kenyon Hopkins's sensational score filling out the back beautifully.
The package only includes one major extra, but it's a gem. The great film historian and critic Richard Schickel offers a hugely informative and totally engaged commentary track, filled with a bounty of details involving Elia Kazan, the actors, the film's place in Kazan's oeuvre, and the events that inspired the film. It's a fantastic listen, though sadly it's the only extra that gives any context to this incredibly discussable film. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Wild River rages on Blu-ray, thanks to Fox's magnificent audio-visual treatment of Kazan's long-overlooked political melodrama and a strong commentary track from Richard Schickel.