Water on Film: Wild River (1960)
Theatrical Trailer for Wild River (1960) — Courtesy of FoxInternationalHEGB
Film Analysis by Leah Pridoehl
Wild River is a dramatic film released in May of 1960. Using popular actors if the time, Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick, director Elia Kazan turned a historic event from 30-years prior into an event for the big screen. The film had many underlying water themes, but ran a bit dry when it came to the story line. Throughout the course of the movie, a romantic script easily caused the movie to stray away from its point, and never truly hit a climax. To add the story, layers of love, family, and grit were mixed in with the main focus: The Tennessee Valley Authority and their moves to get the river dam underway. People in the area were living at the mercy of the Tennessee River, and the government decided it was time to make changes for the intended aim of progress. Throughout these series of events, many water themes were made evident in the film including destruction, disturbance of land rights, and modernization for the public good.
The movie’s prologue consists of actual footage from the infamous Tennessee River flood which took many lives and caused vast destruction. It was this flood that prompted the start of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, and started the viewer off with a sense of shock and an understanding of why the dam was built. The government built the dam up river, and the TVA was responsible for evacuating the residents and having them sell their property further upstream that would be flooded out once the gates of the dam closed. Every parcel of land along the banks had been sold off, but there was one hold out. 80-year-old Ella Garth lived on an island in the river, and refused to leave and sell off her land that was her heart and soul. Main character Chuck Glover was the new TVA employee appointed with the task of removing this stubborn old woman from her land. The movie continues on with arguments and a new formed love relationship with Chuck and Ella’s granddaughter, Carol. The pair go through twists and turns of a complicated relationship while still trying to get Mrs. Garth off her land. The movie nears the conclusion of Mrs. Garth finally being persuaded into leaving her property and symbolically so, dying shortly after. Her family home is put up in flames, the trees cut down, and the gates of the dam are closed. The film resolves with the two main characters taking an airplane ride over the enacted dam, ending on the image of human control over the river.
It seems quite possible that the trials Mr. Glover of the TVA went through with Ella Garth and her land would actually happen during those times. While I couldn’t find any historical stories that this story was specifically based off of, its main plot is possible because of the Tennessee River turmoil and the TVA’s actions. Wild River dramatizes the actions that had to be taken by TVA members of the time who most likely ran into some backlash. A main source of accomplishment that came from the uprising of this dam was the electricity that would be supplied to so many without it. While this was a large selling point to people selling their land rights, it was a point that was mostly overlooked in the film itself. Many people that were moved out of their homes lived on land that their families owned for centuries down in the south, and felt the government was taking advantage and abusing land rights. Just as in real life, the actions and conflicts the TVA faced all resulted in a positive outcome in their eyes and the land was sold, cleared, and the gates to the dam were closed. For most, this taming of the river was a great accomplishment for the common good and the people of Tennessee were saved and protected from the raging Tennessee River.
The fact that residents felt the need to control nature, brings light to the first water theme intertwined into the film. Destruction is a common water theme among stories located in major cities. From hurricanes to floods, water has always been a force of nature to be reckoned with, and is the driving force behind this whole story. If it had not been for the fear that the flood in the early 1930s instilled into the people of Tennessee, the TVA would never have been formed and the dam of the Tennessee River never built. Even proceeding the flood, the main argument to get people to leave their land was the imagery the TVA employees would give them of their land drowning under tons and tons of water. This shocking image was enough to get people to give way to the government pressures and leave, for most. The theme that Ella Garth brought to light was land rights. This water crisis that the government was taking serious action on served colonization, but took advantage of the old-time residents of the region. What grounds did the government have for kicking people off their land? What kind of compensation were these people entitled to? More than a few times it was made clear to Tennessee Valley Authority that no force was to be used on the people to get them to leave their land behind. Mrs. Garth saw this loophole and took advantage of it. She saw plea as unnecessary and dramatic and refused to sell or give up any rights to her land. She made many convincing speeches throughout the film that almost forced the viewer to route for her, but the story came full circle when the next theme came to be. A sole reason for the dam being built and the TVA being formed was for the overall public good. The government saw it as absolutely necessary to use modern technology to control the river in a way that benefited the vast majority of the population in the area. Fortunately for them, Ella’s granddaughter and Mr. Glover (Montgomery Clift) were able to wear her down and get her to see the other side of the story. In a way, it was “selfish” for her to keep her land when so many people and communities were at risk of being destroyed by another inevitable flood. The people of Tennessee felt it was imperative to change the course of the river and harness its energy to save the thousands of people affected by the banks that were so often breached; they were willing to deal with any possible repercussions of this water modernization for the public good.
This movie was laced with many themes related and unrelated to water. With the help of high profile actors Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick, the behind the scenes efforts of the TVA and government organizations were brought to light 30 years later. It is important for society to see more than one side of the story when it comes to modernization and controlling nature. While it may have been for the common good, taming the wild river did not come easy.