Among the many great movies of the past that have slipped through the cracks before reaching classic status is director Elia Kazan's 1960 film "Wild River." It's hard to imagine that a film made by the director of "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" and featuring actors Montgomery Clift, Jo Van Fleet and Lee Remick isn't more readily recognized by movie buffs, but this critic would argue that the film's property rights theme alone should render it not only a cinematic but a civics class classic as well.
Film critic and Kazan biographer Richard Schickel declared that the movie "comes close to being a great film in its — yes, laconic — humanization of a large conflict, in its evocation of a lost American landscape and spirit, in the simple beauty of its imagery..., in the force of its acting, in its almost Chekhovian realization of little lives under pressure they do not entirely comprehend."
Briefly, the film concerns itself with idealistic Tennessee Valley Authority functionary Chuck Glover (Clift), who attempts to buy the island property of the Garth family, led by matriarch Ella (Van Fleet) and including widowed daughter-in-law, Carol (Remick). Once the Garth property is purchased by the government entity, dams would redirect the river and submerge the island.
What Glover discovers, however, is that the good intentions of the TVA conflict with the best interests of the Garth family. As Schickel explains in Kazan's biography:
"It could be argued that on balance TVA would eventually change their lives for the better. Except for one factor: Many of the dispossessed were members of families that had lived and farmed this acreage for more than a century. They had a tradition — a culture — that was valuable, damageable and not easily transportable. The social engineering that would undoubtedly bring the greatest good to the greatest number would not necessarily include them."
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, goes the old saying. Glover's idealism conflicts with the hard reality of the Garths, who have farmed the island for generations.
Schickel astutely recognizes that Glover is a stand-in for Kazan's own youthful embracement of central planning in general and communism in particular, and quotes Kazan's production notes: "Mighty dynamic you were ... intense ... full of a little knowledge (which is a dangerous thing), 100 times surer of everything than you are today" as well as life being "a series of limited engagements" in which Kazan/Glover act as "the instrument of history," which entails "confidently breaking eggs because he feels 'it is good for them to be part of the omelet.'"
Glover's passionate government agent shares many of the qualities exhibited by Michigan Department of Environmental Quality operatives and Smart Growth proponents. Otherwise good people in pursuit of idealistic ends refuse to see the negative impacts their goals might have on the people who live and do business there. Viewing "Wild River" might help them temper their unfettered enthusiasm to run roughshod over property rights in pursuit of utopian goals.
Bruce Edward Walker is manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network and editor of The Refuge. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.