Notes on Kazan’s Wild River

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Below are some notes on Elia Kazan’s 1960 film WILD RIVER, which we open this Friday in a newly restored 35mm print.

The working titles for this film were Mud on the Stars, Time and Tide, The Swift Season and As the River Rises. When initial grosses for the film fell below Twentieth Century-Fox’s expectations, the title was temporarily changed to The Woman and the Wild River to accompany an advertising campaign emphasizing the love affair between the characters portrayed by Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick. Both of the novels on which the film was based, William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars and Borden Deal’s Dunbar’s Cove, examined the impact of progress on the rural South in the decades preceding World War II. Wild River was the first film based on a work by Huie, whose novels had earlier been deemed too controversial for the screen. In a New York Times interview dated February 1960, Huie noted that six films based on his work were currently in production, including Wild River, a situation made possible by “the recent liberalization of the industry’s self-censorship code.” The 1962 film The Outsider and the 1964 film The Americanization of Emily were also based on Huie’s works.

The film’s prologue consists of black-and-white footage of a raging flood and the devastation left in its wake, followed by a newsreel-style interview with a survivor. An offscreen narrator provides the film’s historical background, stating that on May 18, 1933, Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a massive public works program designed to end the loss of life and property caused by the overflowing of the Tennessee River. According to a modern source, the black-and-white opening footage is taken from Pare Lorenz’s 1930 documentary, The River. Although reviews for Wild River list Robert Earl Jones’s character as “Ben,” his character’s name in the film is “Sam Johnson.” Wild River marked Bruce Dern’s motion picture debut.

Daily Variety news items dated August 1957 and September and October 1958 reported that first Ben Maddow and then Calder Willingham had been signed to adapt Mud on the Stars for Elia Kazan. However, these writers are not credited onscreen and the extent of their participation in the finished film has not been determined. A modern source reports that Kazan had hoped to write the script himself, but after a number of unsuccessful drafts, worked closely with Maddow and Willingham before hiring Paul Osborn. Nine drafts of the script were written and additional working titles reportedly included God’s Valley, The Coming of Spring and New Face in the Valley. According to Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter news items dated March 1959, Marilyn Monroe was scheduled to play the female lead. In his memoirs, Kazan recounted that Twentieth Century-Fox executives urged him to hire Monroe, an idea he called “absurd.” Kazan added that he never considered anyone for the role but Lee Remick, whom he had directed in his 1956 film A Face in the Crowd.

Wild River was shot entirely on location in Tennessee, in the towns of Cleveland, where the cast and crew were lodged, and Charleston, and on Lake Chickamauga and the Hiwassee River. The large set used for the Garth farmhouse took two months to construct at a cost of $40,000 and was subsequently burnt down for one of the film’s final scenes. Eighty percent of the film’s approximately fifty speaking parts were filled by locals with no previous acting experience. According to an article published in LA Mirror-News in November 1959, Kazan sparked a controversy in Cleveland after he hired extras from a slum known as “Gum Hollow” to play Depression-era Southerners. A number of prominent townspeople were angered by Kazan’s casting choice and allegedly claimed that the “white trash” of Gum Hollow did not accurately depict the area’s Depression unemployed. Kazan reportedly had to reshoot a few scenes, this time using “respectable, legitimate unemployed” in place of the “squatters.” According to information in the production file on the film in the AMPAS Library, during filming, Remick’s husband, television producer William Colleran, was in a serious auto accident and Remick returned to Los Angeles, causing production to shut down for one week. That delay, coupled with bad weather, put the shoot one month behind schedule.

Wild River received a number of positive reviews and was voted eighth runner-up for best picture of 1960 by the National Board of Review. A number of critics, however, felt that the romantic plot distracted viewers from the film’s powerful social themes, while the Hollywood Reporter review declared that Wild River‘s exploration of racial conflict “put the real story out of focus.” Other reviewers focused their criticism on Clift, with Films in Review declaring that Clift was “no longer capable of acting” and that “his tense form and visage devitalize[d] every scene he [was] in.” In his memoirs, Kazan termed the film a commercial “disaster” and placed part of the blame for its poor showing at the box office on Twentieth Century-Fox, which, Kazan alleged, did not distribute the film widely and pulled it too quickly from the theaters. Nevertheless, the film remained one of Kazan’s favorites and has received praise from modern critics, one of whom termed it Kazan’s “finest and deepest film.”

According to a modern source, Kazan’s earliest inspiration for Wild River came after a visit to Tennessee in the mid-thirties and a stint working for the Department of Agriculture in 1941. In his autobiography, Kazan stated that he had planned for many years to make a film which would be “an homage to the New Deal,” but that by the time he began working on the script, he had developed sympathy for the anti-progress stance represented by the character of Ella Garth, making Wild River his most ambivalent film in terms of its treatment of political and moral issues. A modern source reports that Kazan wanted Marlon Brando for the male lead, but he was unavailable. Kazan, who had directed Clift in a 1942 production of the play The Skin of Our Teeth, was at first adamently opposed to hiring Clift because of the actor’s drinking problem. Clift reportedly promised Kazan that he would stay sober for the duration of the shoot and he was accompanied to Tennessee by a secretary assigned to keep an eye on him. With the exception of one brief binge near the end of production, reported Kazan, Clift kept his promise. A modern source adds Hardwick Stuart (Marshal Hogue) to the cast.

According to J Hoberman, “Kazan was not only revising his past, but also falling in love with Barbara Loden, the young actress who would be his second wife. Although this feisty “hillbilly,” as he calls her in his memoirs, has but a small role in Wild River, she likely inspired Kazan’s conception of the Remick character: The passionate mixture of confidence and vulnerability this country girl brings to her affair with a big-city intellectual crescendos in her unexpected plea that he marry her for his own good: ‘I’m smarter than you in some ways . . .'”

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