There had been a history of flooding in this part of Tennessee, so the government made up its mind to do something about it and resolved to build a series of dams to tame the river and provide power for the locals. This meant that everyone living nearby had to be displaced, but new homes were provided for them in better areas. However, there was one family who did not wish to be moved and they were situated on an island in the middle of the river. Their matriarch was Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), and when Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), the new official of the authority to clear the land, arrived he found problems on his hands...
Wild River was reputedly its director Elia Kazan's favourite of his works, and you can see why as it's a deeply felt and soulful examination of a society in transition, and not an easy transition at that. Kazan had tackled social issues before, most famously in On the Waterfront, but this was a far more liberal look at the country where the divides were not so black and white. Clift's Chuck is going to cause a lot of trouble and he knows it, but he has a job to do and ploughs ahead regardless until he finds that real life tends to throw up complications for those who believe steadfastly that they are in the right.
Yet is Chuck really so sure of himself? He's played by that master of screen self-doubt Clift, and his oft-mentioned vulnerability was well placed for a film whose sensitive hero seems no match for the community and its entrenched conventions. Take his initial confrontation with the Garth family where they either give him the silent treatment or warn him away until one member, smiling but incensed at Chuck's suggestion that Ella is senile, throws him in the water. We can hardly credit that this man will ever get anyone to change their ways.
And the problems don't end there. It's clear that Chuck is a nice guy, but as this film is set in the South during the 1930s his progressive attitudes rankle with the locals, especially his insistence on allowing black workers to operate on the clearance alongside whites, and not only that but with equal pay into the bargain. We sense that this will not end well when Chuck is paid a visit by some leaders of the community after making an agreement with Ella's black workers that they will be given better paid jobs by the authority so that they may leave the island. The bully boy tactics these powerful racists use to keep the blacks down are the only aspect intended to get the audience angry.
Yet for most of this Wild River is quiet, maybe simmering but low key nevertheless. The sole aspect that does not quite come off is Chuck's romance with Ella's widowed, single mother granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick) which seems contrived and hard to believe. In spite of this, Remick offers a rather lovely performance as a woman beaten down by life just as Chuck is about to be, and they find support in each other's frailties. There's a lot of understanding in Paul Osborn's script, and the two leads bring this out, not to mention the superb Van Fleet as one of those people whose confidence in their opinions being correct, even when evidence points to the contrary, sums up the difficulties the weaker Chuck must face. We can see there is a great change coming to this land, not only geographically but socially as well, and in its allegorical manner this film relates that it's not going to be easy, but it will be worthwhile. Music by Kenyon Hopkins.