Wild River (1960) is drama directed by Elia Kazan and stars Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet.
This is a powerful historical drama about the clash between public necessity and private autonomy, racial prejudice, intrusion of the government and remains one of Elia Kazan’s finest films.
As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Congress creates the Tennessee Valley Authority in May 1933. The mandate of the TVA is to stop the deadly flooding of the Tennessee River and bring progress to the poverty-stricken area through the construction of a series of dams.
Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is an idealistic Tennessee Valley Authority administrator who comes to a small town in Tennessee to enforce the clearing of the land to be flooded by a new dam on the Tennessee River in the early 1930s.
Chuck’s first task is to convince the elderly Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) the matriarch of a large family that has lived on an island in the river for generations, to sell her land to the government.
Ignoring the "TVA Keep Off" signs, Chuck crosses the river to Garth Island, but Ella refuses to speak to him. Hoping Ella’s three grown sons can help, Chuck approaches them, but when he suggests that Ella might be senile, Joe John Garth (Big Jeff Bess) tosses him into the river.
When Chuck returns to the island, he finds Ella, surrounded by her black field hands and their families, railing against Roosevelt’s New Deal. To illustrate her situation, Ella pretends to attempt to force Sam Johnson (Robert Earl Jones), an elderly field hand, to sell her his beloved hunting dog. After making her point that she has no right to ask Sam to sell his dog, Ella proceeds to tell Glover that she is not interested in the modern conveniences the dam will bring, declares that she cannot be forced to sell her land because to do so would be "against nature."
Ella Garth entire identity is wrapped up in the island her family has owned for years. While it’s clear that Glover will somehow eventually convince her to move, the story of how this happens remains compelling until the end.
Meanwhile, Glover falls in love with the matriarch's granddaughter, Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick). The scenes between them are remarkable for their erotic tension with no explicitness whatsoever.
The film also portrays some of the racial issues in the South during the Great Depression.
Chuck Glover takes Sam aside and asks him to bring the men to the TVA office to discuss employment possibilities. Glover plans to pay the African Americans five dollars a day clearing land for the dam, the same amount that is paid to white workers.
Sy Moore (Malcolm Atterbury), a prominent businessman, urges Chuck to create segregated work crews and pay the black workers less than the whites, but Chuck flatly refuses to maintain such inequities, leading Moore to warn of retaliation by less reasonable townspeople.
The anger of the locals is aroused. First, Hank Bailey (Albert Salmi), a cotton farmer takes revenge on Chuck in his hotel room because one of his black workers left to take advantage of the higher wages offered by the TVA. Later, Hank Bailey and several town's people arrive at Carol's new home and attack Chuck Glover. As the sheriff watches from the sidelines, the crowd vandalizes Carol’s home and Chuck’s car.
This multi layered film also focuses on loyality. Everyone eventually leaves the island but loyal Sam, who refuses to leave Ella. In a moving scene, Glover makes one last attempt to convince Ella to leave the island before calling in the US Marshal, as he heads back to the ferry, he notices that the faithful Sam continues to plow the fields.
Another layer of this film is the good side of people. The whole town views Glover as an outsider and a representative of the evil government. Carol's intended Walter Clark (Frank Overton)is alerted to Glover's relationship with Carol by Bailey. Clark is to lure Glover back to his hotel room to a waiting Bailey. At the last minute, Clark cannot do it and warns warns Glover. Later Clark arrives to warn Glover of the gathering angry towns people coming to teach Glover a lesson. Clark who has lost his girlfriend to Glover, still knows Glover has a job to do and it is wrong to attack him.
During the film, Chuck Glover grows and comes to respect Ella. Hamilton (Jay C. Flippen) and Cal (James Westerfield) Garth approach Chuck to propose that they sell the land themselves after having their mother declared incompetent. However, Chuck, who now understands and greatly admires Ella’s pride and dignity, is disgusted with their plan and declares that he would rather have Ella removed with a gun to her head.
Wild River anticipates much of the environmental debates concerning the artificial control of rivers. The film shows a deep understanding of the relationship of Nature and the Land with the individual in the United States.
Other minor conflicts are evident in the film, such as the hostility the fairly liberal Glover has to deal with when he hires blacks to work alongside the local whites at the site.
The beautiful cinematography and atmospheric settings which are vivid and lends much to the story.
The film ends with very powerful scences. Chuck and Carol accompany the marshal to Ella’s island. As Ella’s former workers look on, the marshal reads the eviction notice, after which the silent Ella walks to the ferry accompanied by the sounds of ax blows and falling trees. At her modern new home, Ella sits on the front porch, staring at the river and refusing to speak. A short time later, as workers finish clearing the island and prepare to burn down her farmhouse, Ella passes away.
Once his work is done, Chuck and his new family fly out of the valley, first past Garth Island Cemetery, now a tiny speck in a man-made lake, and then over the powerful new dam.