In my opinion the word classic is used far to often and generally without just cause, so what makes a classic feature film? It needs a good story, although not enough on its own, it needs to be well told. It needs someone at the helm who has a good vision and to be honest knows what he or she is doing. Then you need experienced crew both on location and in the final editing stages. Importantly you need the people that allow both director and crew to carry out their craft: actors. Actors are the people that make us believe what we are watching, are the ones who project characters emotions, and are the ones capable of making us empathise or hate the characters that we follow up on the screen. Wild River (1960) unquestionably deserves the accolade of ‘classic movie’ because it definitely ticks all these required boxes.
Firstly there is the absorbing screenplay written by Paul Osborn, which he adapted into a screenplay from two novels, Mud on the Stars by William Bradford Huie and Dunbar’s Cove by Borden Deal, both of which studies a part of the national socio-economic progress through the Tennessee Valley Authority a federally owned corporation in the US, created in 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation and economic development in the Tennessee Valley, a region that was particularly affected by the Great Depression. The story is one of power verses the people, the power in the form of the TVA and its agent and the people in the shape of an elderly women who will not give up her land to allow the TVA to flood the island which she, her family and her African/American workers regard as home.
Turkish born Elia Kazan is well known for exploring controversial themes, directing some very well known American movies like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and of cause East of Eden (1955) which starred James Dean in his first major screen role. This directorial craftsman manages to elicit some great performances from his cast especially Jo Van Fleet who at 45 plays the 80 year old ‘rugged individualist’ Ella Garth fighting for all her worth to stop the authorities from evicting her from her beloved island. Montgomery Clift plays TVA agent Chuck Glover, a man who thinks he can get the old woman off the island without the use of force, but also man who gets into several scrapes with the local bigots over his sympathetic treatment of the black workers, and unsurprisingly one that falls for Ella Garth’s attractive granddaughter, played by Lee Remick.
It’s this developing love affair and the conflict between progress and tradition that binds the film’s excellent story line together. Set in the early 1930’s during a complex period in American history which in Kazan’s capable hands is made authentic, helped of course by the wonderful exterior locations which were filmed on Coon Denton Island on the Hiwassee River west of Cleveland Tennessee and some beautiful atmospheric interior lighting by DOP Ellsworth Fredricks. I would highly recommend this movie, which is currently available on both DVD and Blu-ray.