Old-fashioned American stubbornness – The American Conservative
“We’ve been patient,” the President of the United States told millions of Americans unsure whether to take a vaccine for the coronavirus, “but our patience is waning.”
When Joe Biden said those words in a September speech, a political norm was jettisoned. Could it really be that the leader of the free world had decided that the best way to advance his vaccination goals was not to persuade but to scold? “Patience” is something given to a naughty preschooler, not your constituents.
Biden betrayed an ignorance of key traits of the American character. Even at this late stage, many in this country still resist being told what to do by government officials, elected or not. This has been a fundamental principle on this continent since the Colonial Rebellion.
Good old-fashioned American stubbornness is the subject of one of the greatest films produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Elia Kazan’s Depression-era drama wild river.
The 1960 20th Century Fox publication stars Montgomery Clift as Chuck Glover, a Tennessee Valley Authority official who is snatched from a comfortable desk job in Washington and dumped in rural Tennessee with one directive: push and insist when necessary , the relocation of a ironclad old woman, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), from her island in the Tennessee River to allow for the construction of a hydroelectric power plant.
A few family members and workers live on Ella’s property, including her adult sons Cal, Hamilton and Joe John; her widowed granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick); and various field workers. The land is dry and flat, but also impressive – a bit like Brigadoon in the American South. “There were some people who lived on this land for generations,” reads the opening narration, written by screenwriter Paul Osborn, who bluntly but elegantly articulates the theme. “There were some people who refused to sell, whatever their beliefs.”
Chuck knows what he’s dealing with, even partially respects it, but he’s sure he can overcome it. “Robust individualism is our heritage,” Chuck says to his skeptical TVA associates (including Kazan’s wife-to-be, actress Barbara Loden, later the author responsible for the 1970 working-class masterpiece Wanda). “We welcome this spirit, we admire it, we believe in it. But we gotta get the fuck out of there.” Translation: Don’t be also robust or individualistic.
By intentionally flooding the land and building a dam, the TVA aims to solve two problems: to ensure the river no longer claims lives and property through occasional natural flooding, and to provide power to communities that lack electricity missing. Certain that he is doing, if not the Lord’s work, then at least FDR’s, Chuck lands on Ella’s island full of confidence. “I think we often underestimate the intelligence of people,” he emphasizes to his TVA office colleagues. “We can talk to them, and they’ll listen.” Not only does he leave after failing to engage Ella, who practically marches in from her porch at the sight of him, but also burly but strong Joe John, who , without breaking a sweat, throws Chuck into the river.
There’s a certain comic quality to Chuck and Ella’s initial interaction: the man in the suit and tie fighting a bunch of jerks. But just a few scenes later, Kazan gives Ella the floor to explain her position to her assembled relatives and relatives and a Chuck who visits her. She scolds the government and its plan to “relieve” otherwise proud people. Then, in a sort of Socratic dialogue with field worker Sam, Ella declares her reluctance to give up what is rightfully hers by pretending to buy Sam’s dog, Blue. “I’ll give you, oh, I’ll give you $15 for him,” says Ella, but Sam – played by Robert Earl Jones, James Earl’s father, with somewhat of the same vocal authority – refuses. “Old Blue is mine, and I’m not even going to sell him to you.” After proving her point, Ella muses, “Sam and I, we don’t sell. Sam isn’t selling his dog and I’m not selling my land that I poured my heart’s blood into.”
Delivered by Van Fleet in her forties, with makeup, wardrobe and a stoop that makes her look much older, Ella’s argument is as heartbreaking as the famous lines from John Qualen in John Ford’s adaptation of Grapes of Wrath: “My grandfather took over this country 70 years ago. My dad was born here. We were all born to it. And some of us got killed in the process… and some of us died from it.” However, Kazan and Osborn let Chuck make his counter-arguments. Confronting Ella, he rightly calls the Tennessee River a “killer” for its constant flooding, and he rightly points to the tangible benefits of electrifying the valley.
Still, it’s almost ridiculous when Chuck promises Carol that in her new government-issued home, Ella will have a radio and “a modern kitchen” to look forward to. The sad thing is that Chuck means business. 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 set on her new porch for effect.
Born in Constantinople in 1909, Kazan was a leftist youth whose fleeting membership of the American Communist Party in the 1930s was followed by a sincere renunciation of communism, culminating in his 1952 testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Kazan’s truthfulness led to lost friendships, but sometimes it pays to be despised: his best, clearest films — inclusive On the waterfront, splendor in the grass, and wild river– emerged after he didn’t care what the left thought of him.
Liberated, Kazan changed his approach to the film, which became wild river, which in its previous incarnations was intended to be told from the perspective of the character Chuck Glover. “My first idea was a loving throwback to our youth,” Kazan wrote in a 1959 letter to screenwriter Osborn, who based his screenplay on two novels, that of William Bradford Huie mud on the stars and Borden Deals Dunbar’s Cove. “I remember the New Deal days with a special feeling. I’ve been in a few of them and I’ve put a lot of effort into everything. It was the best time of my life when I liked my American compatriot and my fellow man best.”
But this was no longer the story Kazan wanted Osborn to tell. Instead, Kazan saw wild river, as he put it, “a love story between two opposites”: Kazan clearly saw Chuck’s gentle, leisurely courtship of Carol as a metaphor for the way he understood Ella’s perspective. “You could oversimplify the story by doing that,” Kazan wrote to Osborn. “A man is hired to kill someone. He falls in love with her. And then can’t [sic] kill her. Instead, he joins them.” In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan summed it up: “While my Washington husband had the ‘social’ right on his side, the picture I took was in sympathy with the old woman who hinders progress.”
And so we return to our current pandemic moment. Those who support mask and vaccination mandates may or may not have, in Kazan’s phrase, “social rights” on their side. Whether they do it or not, we should follow Kazan’s lead in showing sympathy for these ordinary people whose instinct tells them that such things are unjust, unfair and just plain wrong. Like Ella Garth, these people genuinely feel they have the right to direct life as they see fit, and that includes living during a pandemic. Like Ella, they could ultimately lose the fight. “It won’t take a lot of strength, but it will take quite a bit,” says Ella Glover of her transfer from her island.
but wild river refuses to portray Ella’s defeat as a TVA victory. The ending, in which Ella is removed, her house set on fire, and the dam built, is far from triumphant – not because the TVA’s mission was inherently undignified or unreasonable, but because its human toll was unacceptably high. It is the inclusion of such ambiguities that makes the difference wild river Great. As Kazan knew, the best films defy simplicity and invite complexity. Therefore, if a future Kazan Hollywood director is brave enough to make an honest film about the pandemic, instead of repeating Anthony Fauci’s talking points, he will try to understand the Americans who are being shaken by this whole affair – these normal people who exhausted, tired, and rightly skeptical of public health interventions and regulations.
Such courage is rare in Hollywood. Sixty-two years after the publication of wild river, it remains remarkable that Elia Kazan — former Communist Party member, Broadway legend, Oscar-winning director — found the common Tennessees worthy of his affection, their stubborn objections to what is called progress worthy of his attention. But Kazan really seemed to love these characters. There’s a sweetness to this film that’s unlike anything else in his career, not unlike the anthem “In the Garden,” which Lee Remick sings softly at one point: “And the joy we share while we dwell there…” In his autobiography, Kazan suggests that his relationship with Loden, whom he describes as a “hillbilly” from upstate North Carolina, awakened him to the beauty of wild things and wild people. “Barbara was as wild as the river I was making a movie about.”
There is a lesson to be learned from all of this: if Elia Kazan can love people who once seemed 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 don’t have to give up your own belief in “science” – like Chuck Glover’s belief in “progress” – to respect those of your fellow Americans who quietly but defiantly disagree.
peter tongue is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Washington Examiner,and National Review.