Montgomery Clift’s Chuck Glover, a modern man, finds himself in the midst of a dated landscape with a forward-thinking mind-set, making him a very commendable cinematic character at the centre of this wonderful 1960 modernity drama from Hollywood master director Elia Kazan.
With a great change sweeping through America by the late 1950’s, Wild River came at a time where some doubted the Government’s initiatives, and racial injustice took over headlines. The 1930s setting that Elia Kazan’s film takes place in is an archaic, bigoted one, prone to debate. The depiction of such morals thirty years after 1930 – and now eighty-five years after – shocked and enraged; Kazan’s power is to realistically portray these events, attempting a timeless, non-biased approach to them.
Wild River has had such a great influence on the country-folk vs the Government storyline that its blood still pumps through modern day cinema. Take Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, about Matt Damon’s fracking salesman trying to persuade a local town to sell some of their land. This, compared to Clift’s Tennessee Valley Authority buying people off their land in order to flood it and build a dam, is along the same lines decades down the line. Not only does the story allow for contemporary audiences to and enjoy it without jarring context, but it is shot and acted in a very modern manner. Many older films have the tint of age over their aesthetic, the notion that this is from a long time ago and difficult to engage with, but Wild River is consistently absorbing.
There are a few drags in the plot though, with a love story that feels forced, yet Kazan has a very meticulous handling of narrative. The 110 minute run-time passes by in a flash for the most part, with a satisfying ending that neatly ties everything up. Coming from the director of On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden, there shouldn’t be much doubt as to the tactful handling of humanity. Chuck is, on paper, a wooden product of the “system”, trying to take the land off of rural innocents. However, Clift, Kazan and writer Paul Osborn present him as a humble state employee. We watch him on tender-hooks, hopeful that he will succeed, especially as he loses so many battles. The abject realism, akin to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, draws you in, largely thanks to Clift’s performance.
Perhaps forgotten over time by wider audiences (despite its selection for preservation in the United States National Film Registry), the newly restored and released version of Wild River should hopefully elevate its status yet again. There is a lot of beauty and heart in the film, perfect for a Sunday afternoon watch. We often take for granted these studio films of old, but Wild River has never really had its due – do yourself a favour as a film fan and seek it out.