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Film / Wild River

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Wild River is a 1960 film directed by Elia Kazan, starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet. Bruce Dern has a cameo, in his film debut.

It is sometime in the mid-1930s. Chuck Glover (Clift) has arrived in Garthville, Tennessee, to become the new supervisor of the local office of the Tennessee Valley Authority and complete final preparations for the activation of a hydroelectric dam that will flood the Tennessee River valley, creating a new lake. This requires landowners along the river to sell their land and relocate before it's flooded. Chuck's problem is that one family, the Garths, refuse to sell Garth Island in the middle of the river. Specifically, 80-year-old family matriarch Ella Garth (Van Fleet) refuses to sell it, as she's lived there all her adult life and her husband, the town's founder, is buried there.

While Chuck is trying to get Ella to cooperate and move off the island before the impending floodwaters wipe most of it off the map, he is also romancing her lovely widowed granddaughter, Carol (Remick). Additionally, Chuck soon discovers he has a more serious opponent than Ella. All the local white racists object to Chuck's plan to hire black laborers and pay them fair wages to clear land for the dam. The racists, besides objecting on grounds of simple racism, fear losing cheap black labor for their own businesses. Head racist goon R.J. Bailey (Albert Salmi) is soon prepared to take violent action against Chuck.

The movie's plot and characters were adapted from two different 1950s novels dealing with the Tennessee Valley Authority's dams and the families evicted by them: Dunbar's Cove by Borden Deal and Mud on the Stars by William Bradford Huie.


  • Adorably Precocious Child: Carol's children, Barbara Anne and Jim Jr. are very sweet little kids.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Twice from Carol, once when they first revisit her old home, then towards the end of the film when she begs Chuck to marry her and take her away.
  • Badass Boast: When Chuck expresses surprise that Bailey is alone when he came to threaten him.
    Bailey: I didn't figure I needed anyone else.
  • Bad Boss: Bailey won't let any of his black workers quit and will viciously beat them for daring to try.
  • Cigar Chomper: R.J. Bailey is puffing away on a cigar in his first scene and brings some up to Chuck's hotel room when he goes to threaten him.
  • Conversation Cut: Chuck tells the mayor that he plans to pay the local black population fair wages for working on the dam—$5 a day. The mayor, who knows how much local racist businessmen rely on a pool of cheap black labor, says "I predict your next visit will be from a Mr. Moore." Cut immediately to the next scene in which a local businessman is introducing himself as Sy Moore.
  • Cute, but Cacophonic: Jimmy's enthusiastic but awful singing in the bath earns him a smack from his big sister.
  • Death by Despair: Ella is nearly catatonic with despair after the sheriff finally removes her from her home and deposits her in a cottage in town. In the next scene Carol tells Chuck that she died.
  • Death Seeker: Hinted at with Ella, who actually tries to order some of the others off the island but wants to stay herself even though the floodwaters will kill her.
  • The Dutiful Son: While Joe John Garth does ultimately leave the island while Ella stays put, he is the only one of her sons not to take part in trying to have her declared incompetent and throws Chuck in the river for insinuating Ella is crazy.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: Betty and the other TVA officers expected someone older and after Chuck passes out drunk in front of Ella she observes that he'd looked taller before.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Sy Moore is introduced being very polite towards Chuck and offering to negotiate with him to meet some terms before drawing the line at paying blacks and whites the same wages, while RJ Bailey is introduced pumping gas for Chuck and Carol, saying that they make a nice looking couple and thanking Carol for asking about his wife even as his tone and language gets ambiguously threatening. Later, when he visits Chuck to beat him up, he makes a point to offer him a cigar and chat with him for a while before delivering his racist ultimatum.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Chuck and Carol are talking about her future, and the nature of love within an hour of meeting and kissing, and discussing the possibilities of a future together within 48 hours.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Not cops, but Sy Moore and R.J. Bailey serve as this in dealing with Chuck and trying to keep him from hiring African=American laborers for the dam (although it's left vague if the two are actually working together). Moore arrives at Chuck's house making polite requests, but warns that he and his companions deliberately excluded Bailey from the meeting because he'll be rougher, and when his overture doesn't work Bailey does show up, willing to rough up and outright threaten Chuck to keep him from offering his mistreated and underpaid black laborers the opportunity of a better job.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Although friendlier than most examples, Joe John Garth is described as "unpredictable." by his brother Hamilton and throws Chuck in the river over a perceived insult to his mother.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: Carol, when she's wearing jeans in front of Chuck in one scene, with him actually asking her not to walk around in front of him.
  • Honor Before Reason: Ella's insistence on staying on her farm could be thought of as this. A more obvious example comes when Sam, Ella's one remaining tenant farmer, is still plowing the land just days before it's going to go underwater forever. Chuck is astonished to see this.
  • Insane Troll Logic: R.J. Bailey declares that one of his workers, Ben took the offer to work for the TVA for greater pay, and Bailey threatened Ben into coming back to work for him and then beat him so viciously that he couldn't work for two days (making Bailey hire another man). He declares that this means Chuck owes him the $4 he had to pay for Ben's replacement. Chuck understandably doesn't see it that way. After Bailey beats up Chuck and takes the money though, it's implied that he was merely trying to intimidate Chuck out of hiring black workers and doesn't care about the matter, as he uses that money to buy some moonshine to send up to the battered Chuck with a smug chuckle.
  • Insecure Love Interest: Walter is implied to be one, which might contribute to how he ultimately steps aside.
  • Iris Out: The very last shot of the movie is an aerial shot of the new lake and dam, with the iris centering in on the dam itself.
  • Karma Houdini: Racist thug Bailey is ultimately forced to stop his beatdown of Chuck but isn't humiliated, arrested or really thwarted in any way and just leaves casually.
  • Lazy Bum: Hamilton and Cal Garth (and possibly Joe John, although he's absent during that conversation) are old enough to be great-uncles but openly admit that they don't do any work on the Garth farm and just mildly supervise the black farmhands, and have been that way since childhood. Knowing that the relocation would force them to get jobs causes them to resist for a while.
  • Let the Past Burn: Not wrathful or angry like this trope usually plays out. But it's still symbolic when the final cleanup before the dam gates are closed involves burning down the Garth farmhouse.
  • Liquid Courage: Chuck goes over and gives a blunt, heartfelt speech to Ella after drinking a jar of moonshine, while on the verge of passing out.
  • Malicious Misnaming: Bailey the thug calls Chuck Glover "Glower".
  • The Needs of the Many: Not spelled out in dialogue but an obvious theme of the film. The TVA will be a boon to the whole region, creating jobs, bringing electricity (one of the farmhands gapes with delight at the electric light in his cottage), and saving lives and property by ending the uncontrolled flooding of the river. But for this to happen, people like Ella Garth have to give up their river land.
  • Non-Action Guy: Chuck does not do well any time he attempts to fight Bailey, never even managing to land a punch as far as we can tell.
  • Odd Friendship: Walter and Chuck, despite their rivalry for Cora's affections. Walter is unable to lure Chuck into a trap for Bailey, and warns him about the man, twice, while also getting drunk with him once.
  • Old Retainer: Sam, Ella Garth's last tenant farmer, who stays with her after the others have gone and even after her family's turned against her.
  • Opportunistic Bastard: Cal and Hamilton Garth don't want to leave the island, but once it becomes clear that there's no other choice, they try to have Ella declared legally incompetent to speed things up, and ensure that they'll get paid for the land instead of her.
  • Perpetual Smiler: Joe John only loses his smile at the end, during Ella's funeral.
  • Police Are Useless: The local Sheriff zigzags this. He's mildly helpful and supportive to the TVA for most of the film, while also displaying some sympathy for Ella, but watches Bailey and his men wreck Chuck's house, endangering him and Carol's lives for a while before intervening, although his (mild) intervention does stop things from getting worse.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Knowing of the obstacle that she's posing to the project, Bailey says that he'll go out to the island himself and force Ella off if Chuck backs down about hiring black workers for the dam, which Chuck refuses to do.
  • Railroad Plot: A rare example of a work in which the person/entity building the "railroad" is sympathetic and well-intentioned. The TVA will do a world of good for Appalachia and Chuck Glover doesn't want to hurt anybody. Still, though, Ella Garth and her island stand in the way of his great project.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The local Mayor provides some aide and advice to Chuck, and doesn't seem personally opposed to hiring black hands, although he warns him that it might cause trouble with the local bigots.
  • Romancing the Widow: Chuck falls in love with Carol, who is alone with her two small children after the death of her husband three years before.
  • Romantic False Lead: Carol admits that she doesn't actually love Walter Clark before he ever even appears onscreen.
  • Romantic Rain: Pouring rain in the scene where Chuck first touches Carol and she makes her first Anguished Declaration of Love.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Even before Chuck shows up, some of Ella's farmhands have been quitting and leaving due to fear of being flooded out.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Chuck always has a good suit on.
  • Slave to PR: Chuck's bosses want Ella to give up her land voluntarily to avoid giving opponents of the project ammunition against them although as the deadline gets closer they ultimately decide to have her moved by force anyway.
  • Stock Footage: From a catastrophic flood of the Tennessee River that pre-dated the dam.
  • Stout Strength: Joe John Garth is not a thin man, but after Chuck calls his mother senile, is capable of picking him up head over heels, marching him several feet and throwing him in the river.
  • Together in Death: Ella shows Chuck the grave where her husband's been for decades, and the plot that's waiting for her next to him. The final scene has Ella being buried next to her husband, as the family graveyard is the only part of the old island that's still above water.
  • Tragic Dropout: Carol spent a year at college after her husband died, but her heart wasn't in it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: It's never revealed how Carol's husband Jim died, or what exactly happened to her parents.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: Ella actually admires the flooding of the valley to an extent, and feels tampering with it is unnatural.
  • Worthy Opponent: Chuck feels this way about Ella. He tells her about how he respects her fight for dignity, and he refuses to cooperate with a plot by her sons to have her declared incompetent.
  • Would Hit a Girl: RJ Bailey punches Carol almost hard enough to knock her unconscious, and ends up punching one of his own cronies for protesting to this.