Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 13 September 2010
Source Restored 35mm festival print
Oh, the fortuitousness of film restoration. With a restored print of Wild River, Elia Kazan’s lost Depression-era masterpiece, now making the rounds at film festivals, we as a country find ourselves facing a similar situation as that of the film’s protagonist, a young TVA employee named Chuck Glover. Sent to rural Tennessee to finalize the federal government’s sweeping purchase of land – an act that will allow the flooding of the countryside and introduction of hydroelectricity to the largely powerless locals – Glover comes face to face with the area’s lone holdout, an ornery but steadfast old woman named Ella Garth, who resides on a large island with her children and grandchildren, as well as a small village of African-American helpers. What follows is not merely a duel between Glover and Garth but a symbolic fight between progress and conservatism, of those who wish to see American move ahead battling those who, out of either principle or fear, see little need for change.
Kazan focuses much of his film on Glover’s attempts to coexist among the Tennesseans whose lives will soon be interrupted by the coming river. Some are irreversibly cold to him, while others seem comfortable with his presence. (One of those welcoming souls is Carol, Ella Garth’s widowed daughter, who soon falls in love with Glover.) For his part, Glover wastes little time acclimating himself to the community and seems unmoved by small pleas for understanding; in one instance, three small-business owners approach Glover about his plan to pay African-American laborers the same as white laborers, implying that they are the only people standing between Glover and a visit from the Klu Klux Klan. Glover, to his credit, seems unmoved. His biggest foe is a local farmer named Hank Bailey who’s lost his hired hands to Glover’s promises of equal pay, and he delights in harassing – and, in one instance, beating – Glover when his request for compensation is not met.
Not coincidentally, it’s the African-American members of this small Tennessee town who are the most open to Glover’s presence—and, in a sense, the most inviting of change. In giving them a place to live while they help prepare the land, Glover introduces them to electricity; a scene in which the men play with light switches in their small homes is revelatory in that these men, who only weeks before were still treated as secondary citizens, are now arbiters of progress in their community. The only exception comes in the form of Sam, one of Ella Garth’s most trusted workers, who refuses to leave the old woman’s side, in essence prolonging his servitude out of a misguided sense of loyalty.
Despite Kazan’s focus on the romance between Chuck and Carol, which comes to dominate the second half of the film, Ella Garth drives the plot. Played by Jo Van Fleet, Garth is introduced to Glover as the woman who’s scared off his predecessors. On a plat map lining the wall of the local TVA office, her island is the only chunk of land not marked with an “X,” and it soon becomes clear that she’s as effective in her stubbornness as she is in her actions. In one instance, Glover is treated to an impromptu demonstration in the old woman’s ways as Garth’s attempts to buy an old dog owned by Sam; when the man refuses, she persists, pointing out how old and worn the dog is and how little it’s actually worth. Sam still refuses, claiming she has no right to buy something he owns, and as she turns to face Glover, she does so knowing her point has been proven; anything else she says only belies the awareness that she will not be leaving her home willingly, if ever.
Ella Garth could easily have become a flat, spiteful antagonist were it not for Van Fleet’s astonishingly exact grasp of the character. She is not standing in Glover’s way for the sake of being obstinate, because she wants attention, or because she doesn’t like the government; in fact, she says very little that can be construed as anti-Roosevelt or anti-New Deal. She’s not against it, per say—she just doesn’t want to be involved in it personally, that’s all. You get the sense that, if the TVA were building a dam a few miles away, she would be perfectly content to be excluded from progress. In fact, as the film goes on, we even begin to empathize with her, especially as we learn more about her own life and how she’s carried the homestead almost entirely on her old shoulders. She is a tough woman whose fierce sense of independence masks a knowledge that her home and island stand as monuments to her hard work, most of which was carried on in the face of enormous tragedy for both herself and her daughter. Should her island be submerged, she would have worked for nothing—just a flattened home unseen beneath tons of rushing water. And the fact that Glover, with the entire federal government behind him, is forcing her to sign away her life, legacy, and well-being with little care for its significance and zero input from the woman herself only makes Garth’s situation all the more heartbreaking.
Obviously, history set the outcome, though Kazan’s film is not the determined monument to Rooseveltian liberalism it could easily have been (and one would expect, given the film’s original release date). In fact, Kazan’s genius is his embrace of ambiguity, especially where the TVA is concerned: as the film ends, there is little sense that what we’d just seen, however fictionalized, was at all morally definite. Progress arrives in this small Tennessee town – there’s little question it would – but the cost is unclear. At what point, the film seems to ask, do the open hands of progress become closed fists? For us in the audience, the answer seems as unclear now as it did then.