Wild River (film)

Wild River is a 1960 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet, Albert Salmi and Jay C. Flippen. The film was shot on location in the Tennessee Valley, and was adapted by Paul Osborn from two novels: Borden Deal's Dunbar's Cove and William Bradford Huie's Mud on the Stars, drawing for plot from Deal's story of a battle of wills between the nascent Tennessee Valley Authority and generations-old land owners, and from Huie's study of a rural Southern matriarchal family for characters and their reaction to destruction of their land. It marked Bruce Dern's film debut.

See also:U.S. National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Not to be confused with The River Wild.
Wild River
Theatrical release poster
Directed byElia Kazan
Produced byElia Kazan
Screenplay byPaul Osborn
Based onDunbar's Cove by Borden Deal
Mud on the Stars by William Bradford Huie
StarringMontgomery Clift
Lee Remick
Jo Van Fleet
Music byKenyon Hopkins
CinematographyEllsworth Fredricks
Edited byWilliam H. Reynolds
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • May 26, 1960 (1960-05-26)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,500,000 (US/ Canada)[2]

In 2002, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


In the early 1930s, Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) arrives in Garthville, Tennessee, upstream from a new hydroelectric dam of the Tennessee Valley Authority, to head the TVA's land purchasing office after its previous supervisor quit. He is responsible for supervising the clearing of land to be flooded but must first acquire Garth Island on the Tennessee River, the last piece of property yet to be sold to the government. The previous supervisor was unable to convince elderly Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), matriarch of a large family that has lived on the island for decades, to sell her land to the government, which to avoid bad publicity the TVA wants to acquire without using force. The clearing of the land for the coming lake is also proceeding behind schedule because the mayor, the town's barber, uses only white labor. Chuck goes to Garth Island but Ella and the other Garth women, including Ella's granddaughter Carol Baldwin (Lee Remick), refuse to listen to him. He tries to reason with Ella's three grown sons, Hamilton (Jay C. Flippen), Cal (James Westerfield), and Joe John, but being relocated means working for a living and they have never worked in their lives. Joe John tosses Chuck into the river. Hamilton comes to Chuck's room soon after to invite him to the island for a formal apology and to speak with Ella.

Chuck arrives the next day to find Ella castigating President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal to her black farm hands and their families. To make her point to Chuck, she feigns attempting to compel Sam Johnson (Robert Earl Jones), a field hand, to sell her his beloved hunting dog against his will. Chuck tries to reason with Ella, passionately laying out the benefits the dam will bring, but Ella denounces dams and the taming of the river as going "against nature." When he asks Ella what's going to happen to her, she takes him to the family cemetery plot on the highest point of the island. There he learns from Carol that she is a widow with two small children who moved back to the island when her husband died three years before. She is also expected to marry Walter Clark (Frank Overton), a businessman in town, but Chuck urges her not to if she doesn't love him. She walks Chuck back to the ferry where the anxious field hands are also waiting. Chuck invites them to come to his office to discuss working for the TVA, reasoning that when they leave the island, Ella will have no choice except to sell. On an impulse, Carol invites Chuck to see her former home above the landing on the opposite shore. Her loneliness and attraction to Chuck combine to make her beg him to spend the night with her there. The next morning, saying goodbye, it is apparent to both that they are falling in love.

Back in town Chuck apprises the mayor, who is sympathetic, of his plan but is warned that hiring "colored labor" will cause the white workers to quit and bring out other elements to oppose him. When Chuck hires Ella's field hands, three prominent businessmen urge Chuck to create segregated work gangs and pay the black workers less than the whites, which Chuck refuses to do despite insinuations that "less responsible" opponents will use harsher tactics. Carol and Chuck are confused by their passion for each other but spend another night together again at her house, unaware that Walter Clark has seen them. The next morning Ella's workers and their families pack up and leave, and Ella remains alone except for Sam, who loyally refuses to go. Ella knows what Carol and Chuck have done and when Carol begs her grandmother to join her at her own house, orders her off the island.

The "less responsible" element is led by R.J. Bailey (Albert Salmi), a bully who farms cotton using black workers who are leaving him to work for the TVA. To scare Chuck from seeing Carol, Walter agrees to lure him back that night to his hotel room, where Bailey is waiting, but experiencing a change of heart when Chuck treats him decently about their rivalry for Carol, Walter warns him at the last second. Bailey demands to be compensated by the government for a worker who quit and when Chuck refuses, literally shakes him down for the money. Bailey gives it to Walter to purchase some moonshine for Chuck to console himself with. The two men get drunk together and go out to the island to talk with Ella, to whom Chuck admits his understanding of her fight to protect her dignity. The following day, Chuck learns that the dam's flood gates will be closed in a few days and Ella must be evicted immediately. Hamilton and Cal tell Chuck that they are going to have Ella declared legally incompetent to permit them to sell the land themselves, which Chuck rejects. He reluctantly asks the U.S. marshal to have Ella removed the next day, then goes to the island to use the machinations of her sons in a final attempt to persuade her to leave on her own. She calls her sons worthless and refuses to talk to him further.

Carol knows that Chuck will be moving on to a new assignment within a few days and pleads with him to take her with him, telling him she would make a "damned good wife" for him. Chuck is still trying to cope with his new feelings and does not know what to say. Walter rushes to Carol's house to warn them that Bailey and his men are coming to terrorize them. While the local sheriff stands aside, telling his deputy, "They're just having some fun," the thugs shoot out a window with a rifle, overturn Chuck's car, and drive Walter's truck into the side of the house. Refusing to be run out of town, Chuck confronts Bailey but is knocked out with one punch. Carol leaps on Bailey, who hits her too, finally forcing the sheriff to run off the crowd. Chuck proposes to Carol and they are married that night by a justice of the peace. The next day, with Chuck and Carol present, Ella is read the eviction notice and leaves her island as her former workers fell the trees. At her new home, Ella sits on the porch, dispiritedly refusing to speak. Soon after, while Chuck is supervising the burning of the Garth house, Carol tells him that Ella just died. Before leaving the valley, Chuck and Carol join her family and former workers in burying Ella in the family plot, now the only part of Garth Island above water in the new lake.



Coon Denton Island on the Hiwassee River, in northern Bradley County, Tennessee, upriver from Charleston, served as the fictional Garth Island, and the city of Charleston's old business district served as the fictional city of Garthville. A peninsula northwest of Cleveland, Tennessee, on Chickamauga Lake, was also used, and a studio for interior shooting was created in the Cleveland armory. A few other locations in rural Bradley County near Charleston were also used.[3]


  1. Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p. 252
  2. "Rental Potentials of 1960", Variety, 4 January 1961 p 47. Please note figures are rentals as opposed to total gross.
  3. TED STRONGINCHARLESTON, TENN.. "CHARTING A 'WILD RIVER,' TENNESSEE-STYLE :Real Sites, Citizens Add to Flavor Of T.V.A. Drama Now Being Made. " New York Times (1923–current file) 29 Nov. 1959,ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851–2007), ProQuest. Web. 5 Nov. 2010.
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