There are not many Hollywood movies that can be called openly libertarian. There are occasional movies that might be called closet libertarian. Think of this review as outing one of them.
Wild River was a financial flop, unlike most of Kazan’s other films in the 1950’s: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and East of Eden. It received little attention at the time, and it has not been revived as a cult classic, unlike Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957). I think this is because the film’s theme is too foreign for modern film reviewers.
It is the story of the building of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s system of dams. It takes place in the mid-1930’s. It begins with newsreel footage of a flood on the Tennessee River.
Montgomery Clift plays a TVA bureaucrat whose job is to persuade an 80-year-old matriarch to sell her island in the middle of the river. She had refused so far, despite the arguments of previous bureaucrats. The TVA is running out of time to clear the land of trees. It does not want to evict her by force . . . yet. It would be bad publicity. Ethics has nothing to do with the TVA’s reticence to foreclose and evict.
The matriarch is played by Jo Van Fleet, who made a career of playing women decades her senior. Her scene as the dying mother of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke is memorable. Her less known scene as an Italian matriarch in The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight has this classic line: “If it’s not in the Daily News, there wasn’t no murder.” But nothing she did matches her role as Ella Garth.
In one scene in the film, the bureaucrat tries to persuade her that the dams will bring progress, including electricity. She is buying none of it. She sees this as the destruction of her way of life. Finally, she challenges him: “You can get me off by force, I reckon. It won’t take much force, but it will take some.” The scene is here.
Later in the film, she stages a scene for the bureaucrat. It is not clear to him or the viewer at first exactly what is going on. She has a confrontation with a black man, one of dozens who do all the work on her island, which is a low-income plantation.
She confronts the man. She says she wants to buy his dog. He refuses to sell. She offers him $15, which in the rural South in the Great Depression was a lot of money. He refuses. She asks him if the price is fair. He says the dog is not worth much, but he refuses to sell.
Then she ups the ante. She tells him that she is going to take his dog, so he might as well take her money. He still refuses.
She then tells the bureaucrat that this is what ownership is all about. She walks away, having made her point.
I have never seen property rights defended any more clearly on screen. She initially comes off as a die-hard remnant of the ante-bellum South. But it is clear at the end of this staged confrontation that race is not the issue for her, nor is power. It is the right to say “no” when someone says he is going to buy your property.
The uncredited actor who plays the dog’s owner was Robert Earl Jones, James Earl Jones’ father. Also uncredited is Bruce Dern, in his first movie role. He plays the familiar Bruce Dern character: a sniveling slimeball bully. He was typecast early in his career.
It is worth noting that a quarter century later, Mel Gibson starred in The River (1984), a movie about a family farmer trying to make a living at the edge of a Tennessee river, which periodically floods the region. You mean the TVA had not solved the flooding problem after all? You mean that farmers buy low-priced land that occasionally floods, because that is all they can afford? You mean that people take risks if the price is right? At least everyone had electricity. It makes declaring bankruptcy more comfortable.