Could an obscure 51-year-old movie be one of the most contemporarily relevant screen stories for our turbulent political times?
The magnificently restored print of Elia Kazan's little seen "Wild River" shown at the LA Film Festival this weekend raised some thought-provoking questions, as well as it demonstrated how refreshing it is to see a film whose characters and relationships and narrative arc are so far from today's contemporary storytelling norms, which tend to eschew nuance and complexity and dispense with social, political or even psychological concerns as fitting subject matter for the multiplex.
An odd film that was almost as hard to sell at the time of it's release as it would be today, Montgomery Clift plays a government agent of the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority sent to a rural community with the task of convincing a stubborn tenant refusing to sell out her property (a fantastic performance from Jo Van Fleet) even in the face of the coming opening of the newly built damn on the river which will flood the valley and soon put her and her family and her black workers and field hands underwater.
Clift is a barely sympathetic and certainly unconventional hero, and there is little in the way of traditional rooting interest in seeing him accomplish his unpleasant task, finally having to resort to the threat of force from the local Marshall to forcibly take the proud old woman off her property, an act that breaks her heart and leads to the hauntingly beautiful and desolate final image of her funeral held at her family's burial ground, the one small patch of high ground that remains above the water level of the now-flooded island property.
The love story between Clift and Lee Remick, who plays the widowed-with-children granddaughter of the feared island matriarch Van Fleet, is equally unconventional and pleasantly devoid of cliché. The script supplies little information about Clift's past and, rather than eloquent and convincing, his character is often tongue-tied and unimpressive. But as Remick falls in love with him and in one surprising scene risks everything to declare her true fears and feelings, it is this lack of polish and the contradictory behavior of these characters that feels so fresh and convincing.
What is progress? How does our obligation to community and society weigh against our rights as individuals? What is the proper role of government to serve the greater good and our common interests and responsibilities to each other? What right does the federal government have to interfere with the market, with property rights, with our own most deeply held personal choices or convictions? Can we legislate against selfishness?
These are some of the timely questions Kazan and his screenwriters raise in "Wild River".
With its ripped-from-the-headlines depression era story, its compelling and authentic widescreen location photography, and most of all the towering performance of Van Fleet (how did she not win an Oscar for this role?), "Wild River" is a film to revisit.
And as we all feel a bit underwater, financially and culturally these days, perhaps a forgotten film whose time has finely come?