Monday, 16 February 2015

wild river

wild river is a kind of epic, political, romantic drama from 1960, directed by elia kazan and starring montgomery clift and lee remick. it's one of the most thematically complex films i've seen in a long time and it asks some pretty big questions.

clift plays chuck glover, a bureaucrat from the tennessee valley authority. the tva are tasked with controlling the tennessee river, which floods regularly causing mass destruction and devastating loss of life. in order to harness the river and stop the flooding they have to build dams along the river, but in doing so they will cause other areas to flood. people live in these areas and they have to be moved out. one person, an 80-year-old woman named ella garth, doesn't want to move and it's up to glover to convince her to move before her land is flooded. however, what he doesn't count on is falling in love with ella garth's granddaughter, carol, played by lee remick.

the film opens with some fairly shocking documentary footage of a particularly devastating flood, followed by a heart-wrenching eyewitness account from a survivor who lost his family in the disaster. this sets the scale of what is at stake perfectly and introduces the first of several interesting themes that the film deals with, man vs. nature. water is an ever-present antagonist in the film, from the water that surrounds the island where ella garth lives to the rainwater that pummels carol's house in later scenes. there is a real sense that maybe human beings weren’t meant to live in places like this, but there they are anyway.

perhaps the most prevalent theme in the film is that of progress, and whether it can be considered good or bad. ella garth has spent a lifetime maintaining her land and doing just fine without help from anyone else, and yet the government are insisting she moves because the country needs to progress, so it also becomes a story about government vs. the individual. then there’s social progress. glover tries to convince ella to leave by hiring her workforce for his land clearing project, but he runs into trouble with the townsfolk when they discover he’ll be paying black workers the same wage as white workers. trouble is perhaps an understatement as the situation soon escalates out of control, but glover will not be forced to change his mind. when it comes to social change and a moral standpoint he is as stubborn as ella garth, and that’s where things become complicated.

this isn’t a film that provides any answers. what glover does for the workers is clearly right, but there is a hypocrisy there, because when he turns up to ella garth’s house with the sheriff in tow it’s hard not to compare this scene to an earlier one where the townsfolk come to him to force him to leave town. glover changes from someone who thinks he’s doing the right thing by ella garth to someone who maybe isn’t sure anymore but can’t do anything about it.

it's glover's impossible dilemma and the journey to that dilemma that really made the film work for me. montgomery clift was part of a movement in hollywood towards a different kind of leading man, most memorably played out in red river in which he starred opposite john wayne. the rugged western star was on his way out and in his place came a more sensitive, introspective kind of screen icon. here, clift is so far to the left of the traditional male star he’s rendered completely ineffective. kazan shoots clift in a way that always shows him as being dwarfed by his surroundings, a righteous man shouting into the wind. he is beaten up several times in the film and fights back by simply standing up to take another beating, rather than causing any violence himself. to see such a passive and ultimately ineffective ‘hero’ on screen seems groundbreaking even by today’s standards, and clift plays it beautifully.

on a side note, i did a bit of research on montgomery clift before watching the film and his wikipedia entry almost brought me to tears. he was a complicated, misunderstood man who was perhaps born into the wrong era and suffered a terrible tragedy.

the real contrast to clift’s character is lee remick’s carol who has no hesitation in telling glover exactly what she wants from him. their relationship acts as a microcosm for the bigger situation of the dam vs. the old lady who won’t move; two powerful forces coming together each trying to force change on the other.  but even in the face of love, glover is paralysed into inaction and it’s carol who really has to fight for him.

i've been talking and protesting a lot about female characters in films recently, and in this, a film made 55 years ago, i had no issues. both ella and carol are fantastic, well-drawn characters who are given equal screen time to the men and really make their stories their own. remick plays carol as a woman on an emotional rollercoaster, going from accepting glover into her life to realising she has maybe made a mistake to then fighting to hold onto the man she loves. it’s breathtaking and really refreshing, which is surprising considering the age of the film.

it is worth pointing out that as a film from 1960, wild river does take it’s time and has a slow pace even for films of this era. in fact, it’s deliberately slow and makes a point about slow change being the only kind that works. and that’s what makes this film worth checking out; that behind every scene, every line of dialogue and every actors’ choice there are layers upon layers of meaning and intention. this is a tough film to unpack and i’ve barely scratched the surface, but there is much to discover here if you take the time to look for it.

wild river is released on 23 february 2015 on blu-ray and dvd.

for further details check out the eureka website.

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