Cast & Crew
Jo Van Fleet
J. C. Flippen
As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Congress creates the Tennessee Valley Authority in May 1933. The mandate of the TVA is to stop the deadly flooding of the Tennessee River and bring progress to the poverty-stricken area through the construction of a series of dams. Chuck Glover, an idealistic TVA employee, arrives in a small Tennessee town to head the TVA's land purchasing office, where he will supervise relocation and land clearing operations. Chuck's first task is to convince the elderly Ella Garth, matriarch of a large family that has lived on an island in the river for generations, to sell her land to the government. Ignoring the "TVA Keep Off" signs, Chuck crosses the river to Garth Island, but Ella refuses to speak to him. Hoping Ella's three grown sons can help, Chuck approaches them, but when he clumsily suggests that Ella might be senile, Joe John Garth tosses him into the river. That evening, Joe John comes to town to apologize to Chuck and relay the message that Ella will receive him the following day. When Chuck returns to the island, he finds Ella, surrounded by her black field hands and their families, railing against Roosevelt's New Deal. To illustrate her situation, Ella pretends to attempt to force Sam Johnson, an elderly field hand, to sell her his beloved hunting dog. After making her point, Ella, who is not interested in the modern conveniences the dam will bring, declares that she cannot be forced to sell her land because to do so would be "against nature." Noticing that Ella's workers are idle and completely dependent upon her generosity for their survival, Chuck takes Sam aside and asks him to bring the men to the TVA office to discuss employment possibilities. Chuck also appeals to Ella's granddaughter, Carol Baldwin, a young and lonely widow with two small children, who moved to the island after the death of her husband. Although she is sure that Ella will die if forced to leave her land, Carol realizes that progress is inevitable and promises to help Chuck, to whom she is attracted. Carol reveals to Chuck that she is not in love with Walter Clark, the older man whom she is expected to marry, and after spending a night together in the house Carol once shared with her husband, Chuck and Carol become romantically involved. When Chuck hires local black laborers, including Ella's field hands, to work on the TVA's land-clearing operation, he arouses the anger of some of the locals. Sy Moore, a prominent businessman, urges Chuck to create segregated work crews and pay the black workers less than the whites, but Chuck flatly refuses to maintain such inequities, leading Moore to warn of retaliation by less reasonable townspeople. Ella's workers and their families pack up and leave the island, and soon even Ella's sons realize that it is time to go. Ella remains on the island alone, except for the loyal Sam, who refuses to leave her. Carol begs her grandmother to leave, but Ella, who knows that Carol is in love with Chuck, angrily rejects her pleas. Clark is alerted to Chuck's relationship with Carol by Hank Bailey, a cotton farmer who wants to take revenge on Chuck because one of his black workers left to take advantage of the higher wages offered by the TVA. Bailey enlists Clark's aid in getting Chuck away from Carol and back to his hotel room, where Bailey is waiting, but at the last minute, Clark warns Chuck. After Chuck refuses to be bullied by Bailey, who wants to be compensated for the work lost after he nearly beat his field hand to death for working for the TVA, Bailey knocks Chuck to the ground and picks his pockets. The following day, Chuck is phoned by his superiors in Washington, who tell him that time is running out and he must contact the U.S. Marshal to begin eviction proceedings against Ella. Hamilton and Cal Garth approach Chuck to propose that they sell the land themselves after having their mother declared incompetent. However, Chuck, who now understands and greatly admires Ella's pride and dignity, is disgusted with their plan and declares that he would rather have Ella removed with a gun to her head. Chuck reluctantly asks the marshal to remove Ella the next day, then goes to the island to make one last attempt to convince her to leave on her own. Even though she knows that the island will soon be under water, Ella steadfastly refuses to leave, and as Chuck heads back to the ferry, he notices that the faithful Sam continues to plow the fields. Chuck, saddened by Ella's plight and depressed by his part in it, returns to Carol's house, where Carol begs him to take her with him when he leaves, but Chuck is afraid of the emotions Carol arouses in him and is unable to give her an answer. As Carol bursts into sobs over Chuck's ambivalence, Clark arrives to warn them that the town thugs, led by Bailey, are gathering outside. As the sheriff watches from the sidelines, the crowd vandalizes Carol's home and Chuck's car. Proclaiming that he will not be run out of town, Chuck confronts Bailey, but is quickly knocked out. Carol then attacks Bailey with her fists and when Bailey knocks her down, the sheriff finally intercedes. After complimenting Carol on her fighting skills, Chuck proposes and they get married that night. The following day, Chuck and Carol accompany the marshal to Ella's island. As Ella's former workers look on, the marshal reads the eviction notice, after which the silent Ella walks to the ferry accompanied by the sounds of ax blows and falling trees. At her modern new home, Ella sits on the front porch, staring at the river and refusing to speak. A short time later, as workers finish clearing the island and prepare to burn down her farmhouse, Ella passes away. Once his work is done, Chuck and his new family fly out of the valley, first past Garth Island, now a tiny speck in a man-made lake, and then over the powerful new dam.
Jo Van Fleet
J. C. Flippen
Robert Earl Jones
Big Jeff Bess
Alfred E. Smith
C. C. L. Wray
Herman A. Blumenthal
Anna Hill Johnstone
Walter M. Scott
Lyle R. Wheeler
Over the years, Kazan worked at creating his own screenplay for the anticipated film, but was not pleased by the results and asked for help from his friend, playwright/screenwriter Paul Osborn (author of the screenplay for Kazan's 1955 East of Eden). Osborn declined to work on the project but apparently continued to think about it. Kazan enlisted two other screenwriters, Ben Maddow and Calder Willingham, to try their hand at the material. Several drafts later, they too had failed to come up with a script that Kazan liked.
During this process, 20th Century-Fox acquired the rights to two novels covering much of the same ground: Borden Deal's Dunbar's Cove, about a battle of wills between TVA authorities and generations-old land owners; and William Bradford Huie's Mud on the Stars, which tells of a rural matriarchal family and their reaction to the destruction of their land. Finally, Osborn returned to work with Kazan, blending the original idea with those in the two books. He succeeded in at last pleasing the director and was given sole credit for the screenplay for Wild River, with appropriate nods to Deal and Huie. The film marked a breakthrough in films for Huie, whose novels had previously been considered too controversial for the screen. Subsequent movies made from his books would include The Outsider (1961) and The Americanization of Emily (1964).
Kazan's original idea for a central figure in Wild River was an older, idealistic Department of Agriculture functionary, much like one he had worked for years before. His thought was to cast Burl Ives in the role. But as he and Osborn developed the script, they realized that a younger and sexier character at the center of the story would give their movie more energy and commercial appeal. As eventually written, the screenplay follows Chuck Glover, a youngish New Dealer of the 1930s who is sent from Washington to buy land that would be inundated when the TVA changes the course of the Tennessee River, and to resettle its occupants. Among these is the Garth family, which farms an island in the river and are led by the fierce matriarch Ella Garth, who is in her 80s and refuses to budge from her land. Adding further tension to the situation, Chuck falls in love with Ella's widowed granddaughter, Carol.
Kazan originally wanted Marlon Brando for the leading role, but eventually settled on Montgomery Clift despite reservations about his dependability. Clift had become dependent upon drugs and alcohol after a horrific automobile accident that had marred his handsome face and wrecked his body. It was common knowledge that he had had a difficult time getting through his previous movie, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Kazan recognized Clift's talent, having directed him onstage in his 1942 production The Skin of Our Teeth. He had offered the actor choice leading roles in his films On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden (1955), although Clift turned down both. Now Kazan said bluntly, "I can't work with a drunk," and made Clift promise that he "would not take a drink from the first day of work to the last." Clift, who had tremendous respect for his director, did his best to comply and from all reports was largely successful, delivering a performance that is focused and intense.
Kazan wrote in his memoirs that, as he worked on Wild River, "I discovered an astonishing thing. I'd switched sides... My hero was to be a resolute New Dealer engaged in the difficult task of convincing 'reactionary' country people, for the public good, for them to move off the land... Now I found my sympathies were with the obdurate old lady who refused to be patriotic." He also found the dynamics of the film changing because of the casting of Clift: "He'd be no match for the country people whom he'd have to convince of the 'greater good,' and certainly no physical match for any of them if it came to violence. Pictorially, the story would pit the weak against the strong-- in reverse."
Kazan readily accepted these changes, "and reinforced the pattern with every bit of my casting." Forty-four-year-old Jo Van Fleet, who specialized in characters much older than herself and had won an Oscar playing an aged woman in Kazan's East of Eden, was cast as Ella Garth. Kazan wrote that he knew she "would eat Clift alive" in their scenes together, and proceeded to let her do just that. As the gentle but strong-willed Carol, Kazan cast Lee Remick, whom he had directed in A Face in the Crowd (1957) and considered to be "one of the finest younger actresses" of the period as well as "an exceptional person." First he had to fend off an "absurd" casting idea by producer Buddy Adler that Carol should be played by Marilyn Monroe. In the film, Kazan takes full advantage of the fact that Remick would be dominant while Clift was "sexually uncertain." This uneven match of personalities lends an unusual and delicious tension to their love scenes.
Wild River was the first major motion picture to be shot in its entirety in Tennessee. Filming took place in Bradley County--in the towns of Cleveland and Charleston, at Lake Chickamauga and along the banks of the Hiwassee River--over a period of two and a half months beginning in November 1959. It was estimated that locals with no previous acting experience filled 80 percent of the film's approximately 50 speaking parts. A large set representing the Garth farmhouse, which took two months to build at a cost of $40,000, was burnt to the ground for a climactic scene.
A long list of working titles had been created for the movie including Mud on the Stars, Time and Tide, The Swift Season, As the River Rises, God's Valley, The Coming of Spring and New Face in the Valley. Kazan spent six months cutting his film, which was released in July 1960. A black-and-white prologue shows actual footage from the infamous Tennessee River flood which caused great destruction and took many lives, followed by an interview with a real-life survivor. An offscreen narrator provides historical background about the formation of the TVA.
Kazan felt that Fox never gave the movie a fair chance in its distribution, booking it "thinly" in the U.S. and not bothering with exhibition in Europe until Kazan "staged a stormy scene" in the office of studio head Spyros Skouras. "Money makes the rules of the market," Kazan wrote in his memoir, "and by this rule, the film was a disaster." It remained, however, a personal favorite of the director's. Critical reaction at the time was mixed, although Wild River was voted eighth runner-up for Best Picture of 1960 by the National Board of Review. The film has found champions among modern-day critics, with Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader calling it "probably Elia Kazan's finest and deepest film, a meditation on how the past both inhibits and enriches the present."
Sources: A Life by Elia Kazan, 1988
Elia Kazan: A Biography by Richard Schickel, 2005
Monty: A Biography of Montgomery Clift by Robert LaGuardia, 1977
Montgomery Clift: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth, 1978
By Roger Fristoe
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
Kazan was born Elias Kazanjoglou in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) on September 7, 1909. In 1913, he immigrated with his parents to New York City, where his father sold rugs for a living. At age 17, Kazan enrolled in Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. After graduation, he went to Yale University's School of Drama, where he studied musical theater and began acting and directing plays.
In 1932, Kazan joined New York's socialist minded Group Theatre as an actor and assistant manager. At the time, the Group Theatre was the epicenter for radical thought and activity in the arts. Kazan befriended such notable theater personalities as Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Stella Adler and Clifford Odets. Kazan even joined the Communist party for two years (1934-36), before resigning because of his disillusionment with its leadership.
After his stint in New York, Kazan went to Hollywood, where he found work as an actor in two Warner Brothers films: City for Conquest (1940) and Blues in the Night (1941). He made his Broadway debut in 1942, directing Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth with Tallulah Bankhead; Fredric March and Montgomery Clift. It was a huge hit. After that success, it was back to Hollywood, this time as a director for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Kazan's directorial film debut was the poignant A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on Betty Smith's bestseller about tenement life. From the beginning, Kazan proved his talent for enticing natural performances from his actors; James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner both won deserved Oscars for their work in this film.
1947 would prove to be a breakthrough year for Kazan. He notched two huge hits on Broadway: Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller's All My Sons; co-founded the Actors Studio with Lee Strasburg, a leading proponent of "Method" acting that is still widely practiced today; and two potent treatise on anti-Semitism Boomerang and Gentleman's Agreement, the latter earning Kazan his first Oscar. Kazan's next few films were not among his best, but they were well crafted and interesting: Pinky (1949), the story of a light-skinned black woman who passes for white (hampered by Jeanne Crain in the lead); and Panic in the Streets (1950), a taut thriller about efforts to contain a burgeoning epidemic which was shot entirely on the streets of New Orleans.
It wasn't until he brought Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen that Kazan had a major impact on American cinema. Featuring an explosive Marlon Brando in the role of Stanley Kowalski, the films' raw sensuality brought a stark and galvanizing realism to cinema that simply hadn't happened before. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) not only earned Kazan another Oscar nod for Best Director, but it made a star out of Brando and earned best acting honors for the rest of the cast: Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter.
It was around this time that Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). On April 10, 1952, he informed on former associates from the Group Theater, including Clifford Odets, Lillian Hellman, John Garfield, and Lee and Paula Strasberg. Despite formal protests from many acquaintances from his past, including Odets and Arthur Miller, Kazan remained unapologetic to the end for his actions, and he would remain questioned by social critics for the remainder of his life.
Kazan continued his association with Brando in Viva Zapata! (1952), and then in the powerful On the Waterfront (1954), which took eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and a second Best Director Oscar for Kazan. Budd Schulberg's incisive drama about the corruption of longshoremen's unions was the perfect subject matter for Kazan's ever trenchant approach to social consciousness and cinematic naturalism.
Kazan's next effort, based on John Steinbeck's East of Eden (1955) featured James Dean in his first major role. Kazan's continued ability to draw such raw, vulnerable performances out of his actors (as exemplified by Dean) drew critical praise from all quarters, and the film still stands today as one of the most searing looks of a family in conflict.
After East of Eden, Kazan would never quite scale the artistic heights of his previous movies, yet he still came up with some first-rate cinema: the steamy, boldly suggestive Baby Doll (1956), with a thumb sucking Carol Baker as a provocative child bride; an early, superior look at populist demagoguery A Face in the Crowd (1957) with Andy Griffith giving the performance of his career as a corrupt media darling; the moving coming-of-age drama Splendor in the Grass (1961) starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty; the evocative America, America (1963), based on the experiences of Kazan's own uncle's immigration experience; and his final film The Last Tycoon (1976) an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished final novel, which starred Robert De Niro.
Kazan was in retirement for several years, but he made a notorious return to the limelight when in 1999, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decided to give Kazan an honorary Oscar® for lifetime achievement. It was a decision met with vocal protests from aging blacklisted artists as well as younger activists. At the time of the presentation, several audience members would not stand up as a form of protest. Still, Kazan attended the ceremonies, thanked friends and family, avoided political discussion, and went home, a most dignified handling of a very controversial moment. Besides his widow, Frances Rudge, Kazan is survived by his sons, Leo, Marco, and Nicholas, a screenwriter who was nominated for an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune (1990); daughters Judy and Katharine; and several grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
ELIA KAZAN, 1909-2003
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.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1960 National Board of Review.
Released in United States 1996
Released in United States 2011
Released in United States March 1976
Released in United States November 2005
Released in United States Summer June 1960
Kazan first started work on "Wild River" in 1955. After completing the first version of the script entitled "Garth's Island", he asked screenwriters Ben Maddow and Calder Willingham for their contributions. The film went through nine script versions.
Bruce Dern makes his screen debut.
Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Kazan" November 22 - December 26, 1996.)
Released in United States 2011 (Retro)
Released in United States March 1976 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Americas: A National Portrait) March 18-31, 1976.)
Released in United States Summer June 1960
Released in United States November 2005 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (Special Screening) November 3-13, 2005.)