Wild River is an important motion picture. In studying a slice of national socio-economic progress (the Tennessee Valley Authority of the early 1930s) in terms of people (those who enforced vs those who resisted), it catches something timeless and essential in the human spirit and shapes it in the American image.
Sturdy foundation for director Elia Kazan’s artistic indulgences and a number of exceptional performances is Paul Osborn’s thought-provoking screenplay, erected out of two novels, Mud on the Stars by William Bradford Huie, and Dunbar’s Cove by Borden Deal. It is the tragic tale of an 80-year-old ‘rugged individualist’ (Jo Van Fleet) who refuses to give ground (a small island on the Tennessee River smack dab in TVA’s dambuilding path) to an understanding, but equally firm, TV agent (Montgomery Clift).
In the process of successfully separating the grand old lady from her precious, but doomed, slice of real estate, Clift gets into several scrapes with the local Tennessee bigots over his decent treatment of Negroes and squeezes sufficient romance into his tight schedule to wind up the spouse of the old woman’s pretty granddaughter (Lee Remick).
Where the film soars is in its clean, objective approach to the basic conflict between progress and tradition (‘electricity and souls,’ as Osborn puts it). Through this gentle veil of objectivity, a point-of-view unmistakably stirs, but never emerges to the point where it takes sides just to be taking sides. The result is that rare element of tragedy, in the truly classical sense of the word, where an indomitable individual eventually must fall helpless prey to an irresistible, but impersonal edict designed for universal good.