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Old-Fashioned American Obstinacy

Elia Kazan’s Wild River celebrates a virtue needed more than ever under the Covid regime.
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“We’ve been patient,” the president of the United States told the millions of Americans unsure about taking a vaccine for the coronavirus, “but our patience is wearing thin.” 

When Joe Biden said those words in an address in September, a political norm was cast aside. Could it really be that the leader of the free world had decided the best way to advance his vaccination goals was not to persuade but to scold? “Patience” is something given to a naughty kindergartner, not your constituents. 

Biden betrayed an ignorance of key features of the American character. Even at this late date, many in this country still object to being told what to do by government officials, elected or otherwise. That’s been a bedrock principle on this continent since the colonies rebelled. 

Good, old-fashioned American obstinacy is the subject of one of the greatest films produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Elia Kazan’s Depression-era drama Wild River

The 20th Century Fox release from 1960 stars Montgomery Clift as Chuck Glover, an official with the Tennessee Valley Authority, who is plucked from a comfy desk job in Washington and deposited in rural Tennessee with a single instruction: urge, and if necessary insist upon, the relocation of an iron-willed old woman, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), from her island on the Tennessee River to enable the construction of a hydroelectric dam. 

Lazily residing on Ella’s property is a smattering of family members and workers, including her grown sons, Cal, Hamilton, and Joe John; her widowed granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick); and assorted field hands. The land is parched and plain, but evocative too—a little like Brigadoon in the American South. “There were some people who had lived on this land for generations,” says the opening narration, written by screenwriter Paul Osborn, which states the theme baldly but elegantly. “There were some people who refused to sell, under any persuasion whatsoever.”

Chuck knows what he is up against, even respects it some, but he is certain he can overcome it. “Rugged individualism is our heritage,” Chuck says to his skeptical, seen-it-all TVA staff (including Kazan’s future spouse, actress Barbara Loden, later the auteur responsible for the 1970 working-class masterpiece Wanda). “We applaud that spirit, we admire it, we believe in it. But we got to get her the hell out of there.” Translation: Don’t be too rugged or individualistic.

The TVA aims to solve two problems by intentionally flooding the land and constructing a dam: to assure that the river no longer claims life and property through occasional natural flooding, and to bring electric power to communities that lack it. Certain that he is doing, if not the Lord’s work then at least FDR’s, Chuck lands on Ella’s island brimming with confidence. “I do think we often underestimate the intelligence of people,” he insists to his TVA officemates. “We can talk to them, and they will listen.” He leaves not only having failed to engage Ella, who marches inside from her front porch virtually upon sight of him, but also roughed up by the portly but strong Joe John, who, without breaking a sweat, lobs Chuck into the river.

The initial interaction between Chuck and Ella has a certain comic quality: the man in the suit and tie contending with a bunch of bumpkins. But, just a few scenes later, Kazan gives Ella the floor to explain her position to her assembled kith and kin and a visiting Chuck. She rails against the government and its plan to put otherwise proud people on “relief.” Then, in a kind of Socratic dialogue with the field hand Sam, Ella explains her unwillingness to give up that which is rightfully hers by acting as though she intends to buy Sam’s dog, Blue. “I’m going to give you, oh, I’ll give you 15 dollars for him,” Ella says, but Sam—played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl, with something of the same vocal authority—refuses. “Old Blue is mine, and I ain’t going to sell him, even to you.” Having proven her point, Ella reflects: “Sam and me, we don’t sell. Sam don’t sell his dog, and I don’t sell my land that I poured my heart’s blood into.”

As delivered by fortysomething Van Fleet, with makeup, wardrobe, and a stoop to make her look far older, Ella’s argument is as heart-rending as the famous lines spoken by John Qualen in John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath: “My grandpa took up this land 70 years ago. My pa was born here. We was all born on it. And some of us was killed on it… and some of us died on it.” To be sure, Kazan and Osborn let Chuck make his counterarguments. Confronting Ella, he rightly refers to the Tennessee River as a “killer” for its perpetual flooding, and he properly points out the tangible benefits of electrifying the valley. 

Yet it is almost ridiculous when Chuck promises Carol that Ella, in her new government-issued house, will have a radio and “a modern kitchen” to look forward to. The sad thing is that Chuck means it. When Ella finally gives up the fight and is dropped off at her new home, it’s every bit as cheesy as he promised—a simulacrum of her actual homestead, with a rocking chair placed on her new front porch for effect. 

Born in Constantinople in 1909, Kazan was a youthful leftist whose fleeting membership in the Communist Party of America in the 1930s was followed by a sincere renunciation of communism that climaxed with the testimony he gave to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. Kazan’s truth-telling resulted in lost friendships, but sometimes it pays to be despised: His best, most clear-headed films—including On the Waterfront, Splendor in the Grass, and Wild River—were made after he no longer cared what the left thought of him.

Liberated, Kazan altered his approach to the film that became Wild River, which, in its earlier incarnations, was meant to be told from the perspective of the Chuck Glover character. “My first idea was an affectionate look back on our youth,” Kazan wrote in a 1959 letter to screenwriter Osborn, who based his script on two novels, William Bradford Huie’s Mud on the Stars and Borden Deal’s Dunbar’s Cove. “I remember the days of the New Deal with a special feeling. I was in some of it, and very much enlisted in all of it. It was the best period of my life when I liked my fellow American and my fellow human best.”

Yet this was no longer the story Kazan wanted Osborn to help him tell. Instead, Kazan saw Wild River, as he put it, as “a love story between two opposites”: Kazan clearly saw Chuck’s gentle, unhurried courtship of Carol as a metaphor for the way he comes to comprehend Ella’s perspective. “You might oversimplify the story thus,” Kazan wrote to Osborn. “A man is assigned to kill someone. He falls in love with them. And then cant [sic] kill them. Instead he joins them.” In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan got to the heart of the matter: “While my man from Washington had the ‘social’ right on his side, the picture I made was in sympathy with the old woman obstructing progress.” 

And so we return to our present pandemic moment. Those who support mask and vaccine mandates may or may not have, in Kazan’s formulation, the “social right” on their side. Whether they do or they don’t, we ought to follow Kazan’s example in extending sympathy for those ordinary people whose instincts tell them such things are unjust, unfair, and just plain wrong. Like Ella Garth, these people earnestly feel they are within their rights to navigate life as they see fit, and that includes life during a pandemic. Like Ella, they may ultimately lose the fight. “It won’t take much force, but it will take some,” Ella tells Glover of being moved off her island. 

But Wild River declines to present Ella’s defeat as the TVA’s victory. The ending, in which Ella is removed, her house torched, and the dam built, is far from triumphant—not because the TVA’s mission was inherently unworthy or unreasonable but because its human toll was unacceptably high. The inclusion of such ambiguities is what makes Wild River great. As Kazan knew, the best films resist simplicity and invite complexity. That’s why, if a future Kazan-like Hollywood director is bold enough to make an honest movie about the pandemic, it won’t reiterate Anthony Fauci’s talking points but seek to understand Americans battered by this whole affair—those regular people exhausted, weary, and rightly skeptical of public-health interventions and edicts.  

Such courage in Hollywood is rare. Sixty-two years after the release of Wild River, it remains remarkable that Elia Kazan—one-time Communist Party member, Broadway legend, Oscar-winning director—found common Tennesseans worthy of his affection, their mulish objection to what is called progress deserving of his attention. Yet Kazan really did seem to love these characters. There’s a sweetness in this film unlike anything else in his career, not unlike the hymn “In the Garden” that Lee Remick softly sings at one point: “And the joy we share as we tarry there…” In his autobiography, Kazan suggested that his relationship with Loden, whom he describes as “a ‘hillbilly’ from the backcountry of North Carolina,” awakened him to the beauty of wild things and wild people. “Barbara was as wild as the river I was making a film about.” 

There’s a lesson in all this: If Elia Kazan can love people who once seemed to him his adversaries, so can Joe Biden. So, Mr. President, please consider watching Wild River if you haven’t seen it lately. The film will tell you that you needn’t concede your own belief in “the science”—like Chuck Glover’s belief in “progress”—to respect those of your fellow Americans who quietly but defiantly dissent.

Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner, and National Review




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