Wild River (Blu-ray)
Directed by Elia Kazan
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 110 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono English; Dolby Digital 2.0 mono Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 24.99
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Review Date: February 1, 2013
When Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal institutes the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 in order to harness the mighty power of the Tennessee River to provide jobs programs and electric power for a relatively backward region of the country, several residents of the valley whose families had been there for generations refuse to budge despite the fact that once the dams are in use, the land they occupy would be under water. One such stubborn matriarch is Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) who will not leave her plot of land on an island in the river destined for flooding. Young TVA agent Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is sent to reason with the lady, the idea being that a young and good looking agent might succeed where older and less attractive men had not. Instead, a relationship begins to develop between Chuck and Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick), a widow with two young children and granddaughter to Ella. The entire area is split on the idea. Many do decide to leave making those who choose to remain all the angrier at Glover for tempting them with new houses and decent paying jobs.
Paul Osborn’s screenplay was based on novels by William Bradford Huie and Borden Deal, and while the two stars occupy center stage for much of the movie, it’s the stubborn yet proud resistance by the elderly Ella Garth that will remain in your memory. Jo Van Fleet gives a speech a quarter of the way through the film that denotes all her reasons for staying refusing to part with a particle of land that generations of her family had lived on and worked. Director Elia Kazan manages to capture the still-existent racial bias present in the South of the period as well as showing plainly the result of generations of indolence and ignorance by the white inhabitants as well as the accepted segregationist beliefs rampant at the time. The reluctant romance between Chuck and Carol is one of the odder ones you’ll ever see in a mainstream film. She’s virtually begging to be freed from the loneliness of widowhood while he’s torn between desire and duty to the TVA wondering if his desperation in trying to get Ella to leave is what’s motivating him to pursue Carol.
Montgomery Clift is much steadier on his feet and more focused with his lines here than he was in the films immediately preceding (Suddenly Last Summer) and following (The Misfits) this one. Still, he’s not the most felicitous casting choice (Kazan wanted Brando, but who didn’t during this period?) and doesn’t make the most forceful presence when it’s needed. He’s completely ineffectual in fight scenes with the bruising Albert Salmi playing one of the overlords who resents his black field hands leaving the area. Neither Salmi nor any of the other top-billed stars who play Tennessee residents have the accent down (you’ll hear the real thing from a couple of locally cast extras who get a few lines here or there). Jo Van Fleet’s magnetic presence triumphs despite the occasional slip with her regional accent, and Lee Remick, whose desperation is palpable throughout the film, also has lapses with the Tennessee twang. As the most decent man in the territory and the one-time fiancé to Carol, Frank Overton gives an excellent, heart-wrenching performance.
The film’s Cinemascope 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is usually excellent except in an occasional shot (and in the rough looking black and white vintage footage of actual Tennessee Valley flooding). Color is nicely consistent and well saturated even if flesh tones occasionally seem a bit pink. Black levels are good but not great. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track does a very good job reproducing the merging of the dialogue, music, and effects tracks into a typical mono track of its era. The dialogue is never drowned out by Kenyon Hopkins’ music or sound effects especially in a climactic home invasion of Carol’s house by a band of thugs bent on driving Chuck away.
The audio commentary is by film critic Richard Schickel. As an enthusiastic admirer of this neglected movie, he does a good job for the first third of the film offering information about the cast, director, writer, and crew while analyzing aspects of the story worthy of discussion. As the film runs, however, his comments become few and far between as he runs out of things to say.
The theatrical trailer is presented in 480i and runs for 3 minutes.
4/5 (not an average)
Unfairly ignored by critics and the public in its day, Wild River makes a good case for itself on Blu-ray. The transfer is excellent in both video and audio, and while the bonus feature array is rather lean, it’s the movie that counts, and this one is definitely recommended.