Although Elia Kazan is most well known for films such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955) that feature heightened, often hyper-masculine and definitively expressionistic performances by a variety of Method-trained actors (including, most famously, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Karl Malden and Rod Steiger), his work is also marked – or, in fact, defined – by a quieter, more interior and intimate strain that seeps into many of the same films. These moments are often focused on the fumbling and uncertain formation of the couple. In many ways the most powerful, truthful and resonant moments in a film like On the Waterfront are those that feature two characters circling around each other, a set of relationships forming through halting dialogue, probing but often digressive inquisition, a carefully articulated and embodied sense of space, and the revealing suite of gestures that come to define each character. Who can forget the truly intimate and “casually” staged moment in On the Waterfront in which Terry (Brando) picks up Edie’s (Eva Marie Saint) discarded glove and stretches it tight over his own bulging hand, wearing it throughout their subsequent stroll together? But it is in 1960’s autumnal, elegiac, moody and deeply soulful Wild River that these moments come to dominate and define the whole movie.

Wild River was a significant commercial failure on its limited original release, and also met with a mixed critical response, but is now widely regarded as one of Kazan’s two or three greatest films (I’d choose it as his peak) and has been championed since the 1970s by influential writers such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, David Thomson and Robin Wood. It is commonly considered the third instalment – after Baby Doll (1956) and A Face in the Crowd (1957) – in Kazan’s “Southern trilogy”, a group of works that foreground the director’s affinity for place, accent, behaviour, speech and the physical relationship of character to environment. But it is also one of a larger group of movies – including Pinky (1949), A Streetcar Named Desire and the brilliantly atmospheric Panic in the Streets (1950) – that explore the particularities of character, time, class, race and geography in the rural and urban southern United States. Many things distinguish Wild River from its immediate counterparts, including its feeling for the turning of the seasons, its leisurely, Chekhovian – and, at times, Fordian – sense of time and inexorable change, the subtlety of its performances, its bucolic setting and cinematography (exquisitely lensed by the largely unheralded Ellsworth Fredricks), and the oddness and concomitant strength of the core relationship that provides its dramatic and emotional backbone.

Kazan’s inspiration for the film emerged while he was working as an assistant on the documentary People of the Cumberland (directed by Sidney Meyers and Jay Leyda, working under pseudonyms) in Tennessee in 1937, an experience that exposed him to the plight of the rural South and its need for modernisations (an opportunity made possible by the New Deal and by the various projects instigated by the Tennessee Valley Authority [TVA]). The 1960 film stages a terse battle between a TVA agent (Chuck, played by Montgomery Clift) and the stubborn Garth family who occupy an island that will soon be flooded by the damming of the Tennessee River. Somewhat uncharacteristically at this phase in his career, Kazan worked on his own script for a number of years before turning it over to a series of other writers including Ben Maddow and Paul Osborn (who had written the screenplay for East of Eden). The film was shot in southern Tennessee between October 1959 and the first few days of January 1960, and communicates a remarkable sense of lived-in time and environment (in this case, the mid-1930s). The emphasis of the finished film is less upon the social, racial and political implications of the conflict between North and South, men and women, white and black, city and country, government and individual, than the developing conflicts, relationships and understandings that emerge between carefully grouped sets of characters.

The film is dominated by the performances of Jo Van Fleet and the extraordinary Lee Remick as the women who work to maintain the survival of the Garth family in the midst of a rapidly changing world (and in contrast to the largely affectless and inbred men of the family who idle their days away). In many ways, Van Fleet has the showier role as the octogenarian – though she was then only 43! – tough-as-nails matriarch who cedes little ground to Chuck despite her inevitable removal from the island and its subsequent near immersion by the dammed river’s waters. All that is left at the end of the film is the crown of a hill where her ancestors’ graves lay, and where she soon takes her place once forcibly removed from her about-to-be-submerged land. Van Fleet’s beautifully modulated performance never breaks cover as she maintains her disdain for government and its assault on individual freedom (no matter how justified and desperately needed this intervention is). But Remick’s extraordinary but deeply grounded role as her granddaughter, young mother Carol, is a much more varied, demanding, mercurial, impassioned and expressive performance. She is also required to communicate much of the surprising connection that emerges between herself and Chuck, a relationship defined by her longing, the overriding need for change and her will to survive, and Clift’s truly recessive and ambivalent central performance.

This is, of course, one of the key films that Clift made after the disfiguring car accident he suffered in 1956 while filming Raintree County (Edward Dmytryk, 1957). A sense of damage, physical uncertainty, ambivalent masculinity and even queer sexuality is characteristic of many of Clift’s roles before and after this incident, but it is in Wild River that the full impact and import of this peculiar sensibility or way of being is felt. Although the film stages the dialectical conflicts between individual and government, South and North, water and land – as outlined above – its true preoccupation and fascination is with the profoundly curious relationship that emerges between Chuck and Carol. As in the rest of the narrative, this emerging connection does lead to losses elsewhere, including to the beloved memory of Carol’s first husband (the moment where she traces the outline of where his body once lay on the couple’s long-abandoned bed, and then furiously shakes the covers of their ubiquitous dead leaves, fuses Ford and Kazan), the decent and perhaps more appropriate competitor for Carol’s love (Walter, played by Frank Overton), and the trust and full affection of her grandmother. This is a movie in which each action has a reaction, each gain an equivalent loss.

The romantic coupling of Carol and Chuck is full of halting moments and gestures, a push-pull relationship that is defined as much by uncertainty and reticence as it is by full-blown passion (much of which is elided by Kazan, partly necessitated by Clift’s reserve and physical frailty). This is also a result of the qualities of the two actors. Remick is able to brilliantly imply the deep sexual longing of a young woman only partly inspired by Clift’s limpid, uncertain, watchful and often seemingly asexual incarnation. The balance in his character between youth and maturity, adolescence and encroaching middle age is one of the most fascinating things about his performance – bent, thinning and visibly pained or even haggard, he also comes across as an inexperienced boy to many in the community (for example, his co-workers in the TVA office say they “were expecting an older man”). Although Kazan wanted Brando for the central role – as he routinely did – it is hard to imagine another actor bringing the same fascinating combination of commitment and weakness to this character.

The strength of Clift’s performance lies in the combination of deep uncertainty and possibility. This is illustrated by his matter-of-fact marriage proposal to Carol late in the film, as both characters groggily awaken in the mud after having been knocked unconscious by the local bully: “Marry me. I know I’ll … I’ll probably regret it. I’m sure you’ll regret it. Get your hat. Get a coat. Wash up. Alright?” The following scene in the registry office, as Carol visibly exhales with a complicated mixture of relief and the uncertain weight of what she has just committed to, is a perfectly inexact expression of the uncertainties of progress, commitment, marriage and friendship that run through Wild River. Kazan was often uncomfortable working with established stars – beyond Brando, who was “his” discovery – but Clift manages to transcend, bury or even reverse the gravitational pull of his stardom through his brilliantly mannered and self-effacing performance. The greatness of Clift in this moment, as elsewhere in the film, lies in the ways in which he sits or stands (literally) behind Remick’s performance; a figure of ambiguous, tremulous masculinity and stardom.

Wild River (1960 USA 110 mins)

Prod Co: Twentieth Century Fox Prod: Elia Kazan Dir: Elia Kazan Scr: Paul Osborn, based on the novels Mud on the Stars by William Bradford Huie and Dunbar’s Cove by Borden Deal Phot: Ellsworth Fredricks Ed: William Reynolds Art Dir: Herman A. Blumenthal, Lyle R. Wheeler Mus: Kenyon Hopkins

Cast: Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Salmi, Jay C. Flippen, James Westerfield, Barbara Loden, Frank Overton

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).