It’s difficult to evaluate The River, one of Frank Borzage’s last silent films, because only a small portion of it survives: the beginning, ending, and parts of the middle are missing. What’s left details the often perverse courtship between Rosalee (Mary Duncan), an unusually cynical Borzage woman, and Allen John (Charles Farrell), a beautiful, childlike man. They meet while he is swimming naked in a river on his back, like Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy, and she is seated and stylishly clothed on some rocks. Speaking of a nearby whirlpool, he says, “I bet a fellow would feel mighty clean if he came out of there alive!” As in most of Borzage’s work, the river is seen as a metaphor for the healing, cleansing properties of love, and this naked man is at its heart, both part of it and sexily separate.
The man is the idealized sex object here, and his watery purity adds to his long-limbed, smooth-skinned appeal. Allen John has never been with a woman, and he stresses that his mother died when he was young; he’s looking for the ultimate Borzagian goal, a mother he can fuck, and he finds a doozy in the saucy-eyed, full-breasted Rosalee. Watching Duncan’s adult, openly sexual movements and Farrell’s hot sense of uncomprehending carnal possibility, we follow the couple’s slow courtship avidly, as if it were an exploratory dance.
The fragment ends with an extraordinary sequence that stands with Borzage’s best work. Allen John has chopped wood all night in the snow, trying to prove that he’s man enough for Rosalee, and he falls deathly ill. Snow is rubbed all over his bare chest in an effort to break his fever, but his heart stops beating. Desperate, realizing how much she loves him, Rosalee climbs into bed with Allen John and tries to warm him alive with her body. Borzage films their faces in close-up with a religious intensity reminiscent of Dreyer, lingering on Farrell’s beatific eyes as his soul slowly seeps back into them. The communion of bodies here is both a rebirth and a renewal, of Allen John’s life and Rosalee’s hopes. Hopefully someone will find the rest of The River someday. Until then, what’s left of it is quite haunting.