Elia Kazan directed some of Hollywood's most renowned and beloved pictures, winning Oscars for 'Gentleman's Agreement' and 'On the Waterfront,' and earning Academy Award nominations for 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' 'East of Eden,' and 'America, America.' Yet surprisingly, of the 21 films in Kazan's rich canon, the one the director regarded most fondly during his lifetime is one of his least successful and most obscure. 'Wild River' registered barely a blip on the cinema radar when it was released in 1960, but like almost all Kazan works, it brims with authenticity, brandishes a passionate spirit, and transmits a depth of understanding of the human condition. Though the methodical (some might say slow) presentation and dreary subject matter might put off some viewers, treasures abound in almost every frame of this fine film, thanks to the nuanced performances of a first-rate cast and keen eye of a supremely committed director.
A study of the toll progress exacts on the people of rural America, 'Wild River' tells the simple tale of a stubborn old woman's valiant effort to keep her house and land after she's informed by the fledgling Tennessee Valley Authority she must vacate the premises so a dam can be built to stem the raging tide of the Tennessee River and protect the state from the ravages of incessant flooding that for decades has destroyed property and taken countless lives. As Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) digs in her heels, exasperated officials call on TVA agent Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) to forcibly evict her, but as the initially detached bureaucrat begins to relate to the community and connect with Ella's shy, widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), he gains a greater understanding of the impact of the government's actions and an affinity for the people effected by them.
Socially conscious films, especially those with deep human elements and complex characters fighting inner demons and struggling to achieve a degree of peace, were Kazan's specialties, and 'Wild River' fits snugly into this niche. Ever since he visited Tennessee in the mid-1930s, Kazan tossed around the idea of a New Deal film, but it took 25 years for it to come to fruition. Though by 1960 its topicality had passed, the themes of 'Wild River' - a lone soldier taking a stand against the establishment, resistance to change, tolerance and acceptance, and the redemptive power of love - remain relevant, and, as a result, the movie seems far less dated than other pictures from the period.
'Wild River' opens unconventionally, with an extended, gut-wrenching clip from a 1930s newsreel in which a grieving father recounts how his three young children were swept away by the river's turbulent current. We see a house ripped from its foundation, submerged cars, and rapids more intense than those rushing through the Western wilderness. The stark documentation puts us squarely in the government's corner, but leaves us unprepared for Ella's steely resolve. Hers is a heartbreaking story, too, and the likelihood of a happy ending is dubious at best. "Rugged individualism is our heritage," Glover says. "We applaud that spirit, we admire it, we believe in it, but we've got to get her the hell out of there!" And, in a nutshell, that's the conflict.
Yet more than a tug-of-war over land, rights, and an uncertain future, 'Wild River' is a tender love story between two vulnerable, emotionally crippled people. Glover reawakens Carol's spirit, while she helps him reclaim the tenderness and compassion his by-the-book profession has quashed. Kazan has always been a master at depicting such fragile relationships, from Blanche and Mitch in 'Streetcar' and Terry and Edie in 'On the Waterfront' to Cal and Abra in 'East of Eden' and Bud and Wilma in 'Splendor in the Grass,' and though this union is far less famous, it's equally affecting and underplayed to perfection by Clift and Remick. A few sensuous scenes add an extra layer of urgency to the plot, as well as an ironic twist: Glover comes to Tennessee to try and tame the wild river and vanquish Ella's intractability, but neither he nor Carol can tame their mutual passion for each other. Which begs the question: When we subdue something wild, are we performing a benevolent act or simply sucking the life out of a living organism? Progress is necessary, but does the cost outweigh the benefit?
Along with Brando and Dean, Clift is regarded as one of the finest actors of the 1950s (when oh when will 'A Place in the Sun' and 'From Here to Eternity' be released on Blu-ray?), and here he turns in the kind of natural, sensitive, exquisitely detailed performance for which he is best known. His slightly stooped posture, intent gaze, and hesitant speech pattern all work to his advantage as he crafts a portrait of a resolute man who, much to his dismay, becomes conflicted and indecisive. Watching Clift disappear inside a character is always a fascinating and rewarding experience, and 'Wild River' provides the tortured star with one of his last great roles.
The always lovely Remick is a strong presence, too, and she exudes a striking luminosity that enhances her character's soft-spoken nature and fiery spirit. An internal ache for human contact drives Carol into Glover's arms, and Remick beautifully projects the longing and hopelessness that consume her. Her scenes with Clift bubble over with a gentle warmth that never belies the desire simmering beneath the surface. 'Wild River' isn't classified as a great love story, but the script's palpable romantic elements add substance and complexity to what otherwise would be a rather dry, depressing tale.
Van Fleet was only 45 when she played the octagenarian Ella, and she fully and wondrously inhabits the role. Though it would be easy to portray Ella as a stereotypical cantankerous biddy, Van Fleet goes several steps further, imbuing her with both a formidable toughness born of loss, labor, and hard knocks, and an exhausted sense of resignation and futility. 'Wild River' is also notable for marking the film debut of Bruce Dern in a bit part, and joining the ranks of the National Film Registry in 2002 for its compassionate treatment of a key period in American history.
Shot entirely on location, 'Wild River' captures the downtrodden atmosphere of Depression-era Tennessee and the hopelessness and fear that gripped its residents. Kazan's flawless direction and the nuanced performances of the top-flight cast (many of whom were area natives) offset the leisurely pacing and allow small moments to resonate. Though it may not possess the pedigree of Kazan's better-known classics, 'Wild River' has grown in stature over the years, and stands as one of the director's most personal and understated works. It deserved an audience back in 1960 and it deserves an audience today.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Wild River' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The 25-GB single-layer disc features a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video transfer and a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack. Once the disc is inserted into the player, he static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Although I learned 'Wild River' had been restored by the Film Foundation in 2010, I was unprepared for the degree of clarity, depth of color, and pristine image quality that distinguish this impeccable transfer from Fox. Without question, this neglected film has never looked better on home video, and its natural presentation honors the beautiful Tennessee locations that frame the drama. Faint grain lends the picture just the right amount of texture, grit, and warmth, depending on the requirements of the scene, and perfectly pitched, well-balanced contrast heightens the impact of both close-ups and sweeping vistas.
I've never been much of a fan of "Color by DeLuxe," but the film's restorers have brought the palette of 'Wild River' back to brilliant life. Previous prints looked wan and faded, but the source material here bursts with newfound vibrancy. Hues exude a marvelous richness, yet maintain a vital natural quality that's essential to the story's success. Interiors still appear appropriately drab, but landscapes exhibit a lazy lushness that connects us to the setting and immerses us in the film's unique backwoods atmosphere. Silky blacks add weight to the picture, while fleshtones remain stable and true throughout.
Close-ups are crystal clear, highlighting Clift's hollow cheeks and bruised, sunken eyes, as well as Remick's unadorned, fresh-faced loveliness. Shadow delineation is strong (though a couple of instances of crush creep in), background elements are easy to discern, and no print marks of any kind sully the spotless image. Best of all, no banding, noise, pixelation, or edge enhancement could be detected.
According to the Blu-ray packaging, director Martin Scorsese spearheaded the restoration of 'Wild River,' and his efforts deserve commendation. Kazan's underrated drama looks like a brand new film, one that gains immeasurable power and strength from its refurbishment. You haven't really seen 'Wild River' until you see it like this.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track pumps out good quality sound full of richness and nuance. The solo horn that graces the solemn music score possesses a pleasing purity of tone, and the atmospherics of the rural Tennessee setting provide some subtle accents. 'Wild River' is a very sedate film, with only a few raucous moments, so the clean nature of the recording is a blessing. Thankfully, no hiss or age-related surface noise clutter the track or distract from the tender moments of personal interaction. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease.
Bass frequencies understandably err toward the weak end of the spectrum, but distortion is absent and the smoothness of the track mirrors the film's quiet elegance. Subtleties, such as gentle rain, are well rendered, and the shattering of a window is startlingly crisp. This track won't test the limits of your system, but it beautifully complements this lyrical movie.
Just a couple of extras adorn this classic release. A retrospective featurette chronicling the history behind 'Wild River' and its production, legacy, and restoration would have been a wonderful addition, but will have to wait for a subsequent release.
'Wild River' may have been a box office disappointment upon its initial release, but this resonant, beautifully filmed tale of personal growth, tolerance, and the pros and cons of progress has grown in stature over the years and now stands as one of director Elia Kazan's most affecting and realistic works. Excellent performances from Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet enhance this quietly powerful picture that captures a pivotal moment in time with grace and sensitivity. Fox's gorgeous restoration breathes new life into 'Wild River' and makes it feel far more contemporary than other films from the same period. Solid audio complements the stunning video, but supplements are maddeningly thin. Though the appeal of this movie may be limited, those with discriminating taste and an affinity for nuance and understatement should definitely give it a spin. Recommended.