“We’ve got to get those Garths off that island — with no dispossessing, no marshals, no shotguns, and no incidents that might get into the papers.”
In the 1930s, a representative of the Tennessee Valley Authority (Montgomery Clift) arrives at a small island with the task of convincing its owner (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her property. He immediately encounters resistance, yet finds himself falling in love with Van Fleet’s widowed granddaughter (Lee Remick).
This powerful historical drama about the clash between public necessity and private autonomy remains one of Elia Kazan’s finest films. The story opens with a real-life newscast depicting the devastation wrought on poor Tennessee farmers after the Mississippi River has once again flooded the area, thus establishing Clift’s TVA-sponsored presence as a necessary evil — yet it’s impossible not to side at least partially with crotchety Ella Garth (Van Fleet), whose entire identity is wrapped up in the island her family has owned for years. While it’s clear that Garth will somehow — eventually — be “convinced” to move, the story of how this happens remains compelling until the end.
Wild River is most memorable, however, for its remarkable performances — primarily by 46-year-old Van Fleet (her make-up artist deserves ample praise as well) and 25-year-old Lee Remick, who has never looked more stunning or been more affecting. This was purportedly Remick’s personal favorite of all the films she made, and it’s easy to see why: she invests her character with a lifetime of loss and hope, turning what is clearly a convenient “plot device” romance into a believable dimension of the story. Other supporting actors — and Clift himself — are fine as well, but it’s Van Fleet and Remick who really make this powerful film must-see viewing.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Jo Van Fleet as Ella Garth
- Lee Remick as Carol
- Montgomery Clift as Chuck Glover
- Barbara Loden (Kazan’s wife) in a tiny but effective supporting role as Clift’s secretary
- An honest, sensitive depiction of race relations in a bigoted southern town
- A heartfelt story of greater good versus individual choice
- Van Fleet’s provocative explanation of why it’s impossible to force someone to sell something they love
- Fine location cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks
Yes, as one of Kazan’s finest films, and for Fleet and Remick’s performances.