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Director Jean Renoir's gentle, meditative The River (1951) looks at British colonial life in India through the eyes of a young girl. An idyllic portrait emerges, of life along the Ganges River, where 12-year-old Harriet (Patricia Walters) is the oldest in a brood of five siblings that includes a brother and four sisters who roam and play in their exotic family compound. Harriet's father (Esmond Knight) is the British owner of a jute factory in Bengal, her mother (Nora Swinburne) a content wife and mother, and the center of the children's lives their lively nanny Nan (Suprova Mukerjee).
It was a film, according to Renoir with "no apparent plot, but an intense, may we say, "inner action.'" That lack of plotting, as well as the lack of archetypal "Indian" accessories like tigers and elephants initially made the film a tough sell for Renoir, who finally found his backer in a Hollywood florist, Kenneth McEldownery, who had spent some time in India during the war and wanted to finance a film project that would do the country and its unique culture justice.
Mixing the ethnographic feel of Robert Flaherty's documentaries and poignant coming-of-age drama, the film is a thoughtful examination of life's flow seen through Harriet's experiences with first love as a prelude to maturity. The River is given its lush, poetic tone by its narrator Harriet who falls in love with a handsome war veteran and visitor (Thomas E. Breen) to India. Harriet is joined in her adoration by a beautiful friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and her Eurasian neighbor Melanie (Radha Shri Ram). Though Renoir described Walters as "an ugly ducking" in a letter to Clifford Odets, he was more taken with Radha "who is maybe not a good actress, but who is so nice that I would like to bring her to the States as a wife for an unmarried best friend."
The son of famed impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, the younger Renoir spent many of his own happy childhood days on rivers, often in the company of Paul Cezanne, the son of the painter, so the flow of water in The River had personal significance as a symbol for life's diurnal progress. The director even stated at one point (in Jean Renoir: Projections of Paradise by Ronald Bergan): I cannot conceive of cinema without water. There is an inescapable quality in the movement of a film which relates it to the ripple of streams and the flow of rivers."
After buying the rights to British writer Rumer Godden's novel, which documented her own time spent overseas in India, Renoir decided to tour India in preparation for filming. Jean traveled to India with his wife Dido, and even spent the night in the nursery of the house in Narayangunj, Bengal where Godden had lived. Renoir called India "one of the greatest inspirations of my life."
Forty-two year old writer Godden was initially reluctant to collaborate on the screen adaptation of her novel, deeply unhappy with the previous adaptations of her works i, Michael Powell's Black Narcissus (1946) and an adaptation of A Fugue in Time into a saccharine romance, Enchantment (1948).
But Godden changed her mind about Renoir, whose film work she was unfamiliar with, when she learned not only that Renoir had decided to lend authenticity by shooting his film in India, but that he had actually spent the night in her old home in Bengal. Godden later said of her time spent with Renoir in his Beverly Hills home collaborating on the script, "Working with Jean was the best and richest period I've spent."
Years previously in 1947, Renoir had met a young Indian artist, Satyajit Ray, whose meeting with Renoir changed the course of his life. Ray escorted Jean and Dido around his birthplace of Calcutta, where The River was to be filmed. When The River began shooting, Ray was invited on the set and later acknowledged Renoir as his principal mentor, the man who encouraged him to realize his dream of making Pather Panchali (1955). But when Ray finally saw The River in 1967 he ultimately felt it was an inadequate evocation of his native land.
The intense colors of India convinced Renoir that he must shoot his film in color. Renoir's nephew Claude Renoir went to a training course in Technicolor in London in preparation for his director of photography duties (It was his first color film). Perhaps indebted to his father, Renoir paid scrupulous attention to color, even intensifying the green of the trees in The River by painting them green to register more vividly on camera.
Many actors were considered for the role of the psychologically tortured American veteran Captain John, including James Mason, Robert Ryan, Mel Ferrer and even Marlon Brando. Renoir ultimately selected an unknown who had actually lost his leg in the war of whom the director said "he has the soul of an old man."
The production had its share of problems in a 108 day schedule: a crew suffering from typhoid and dysentery and the complications of finding a harmonious cast and crew within India's elaborate caste system. According to an article in the New York Times, "Trying to find another DC generator needed to power the huge arc lamps shipped over from England was not simple either...Cameraman Claude Renoir found that he needed more power because the Indian sun is not as bright as it is hot..Construction of sets proved another hurdle, for the Indian carpenters and bricklayers never heard of temporary sets and could only build out of teakwood and real bricks (instead of the plaster ones used in Hollywood)." The cost overrun resulted from Renoir's perfectionism, and 10 day delays in viewing rushes because the footage was shipped to Technicolor London for processing.
Despite such difficulties, The River enjoyed some success when it was released by United Artists in 1951 even if every film since Renoir's The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) tended to be compared unfavorably to those classics. It shared the International Prize in Venice with Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1950) and Billy Wilder's Ace in The Hole (1951). More mainstream critics, like Variety found the film "distinctive...but hardly commercial."
By shooting his film on location in India, Renoir performed a radical gesture for the time, and encouraged other filmmakers to follow suit, from Roberto Rossellini (India, 1958), to Louis Malle's Phantom India (1969) and even James Ivory. In an interview in Renoir on Renoir (Cambridge University Press), the filmmaker said, "India brought me many things by way of The River. India brought me a certain understanding of life. This doesn't mean I understand everything, it doesn't mean I know all the answers, it simply means that I rid myself of quite a few prejudices. India may have taught me that everyone has his reasons."
Director: Jean Renoir
Producer: Kenneth McEldownery
Screenplay: Jean Renoir and Rumer Godden, based on the novel by Godden Rodden
Cinematography: Claude Renoir and Ramananda Sen Gupta
Production Design: Bansi Chandragupta
Music: M.A. Partha Sarathy
Cast: Nora Swinburne (The Mother), Esmond Knight (The Father), Arthur Shields (Mr. John), Thomas E. Breen (Capt. John), Suprova Mukerjee (Nan), Patricia Walters (Harriet), Radha (Melanie), Adrienne Corri (Valerie), Richard Foster (Bogey).
by Felicia Feaster