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Rare screening of Kazan's 'Wild River'

Critic Richard Schickel will discuss why he has championed the 1960 drama.

November 10, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

'WILD River' is considered Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan's "lost" film. Released with little fanfare in 1960, the unjustly neglected drama has gained in reputation over the years. It's also gained more than a few champions, including director Martin Scorsese, who spearheaded its recent restoration, and film critic, author and documentarian Richard Schickel.

At 4 p.m. today, "Wild River" will have a rare theatrical screening at the ArcLight theater as part of the AFI Fest 2005. Schickel will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A after the movie.

Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick and Jo Van Fleet star in "Wild River," a stirring drama set during Depression-era Tennessee. The film revolves around true events -- the controlled flooding of the Tennessee River by the newly formed Tennessee Valley Authority. In order to flood the river, though, the residents need to be relocated, but one woman (Van Fleet) refuses to leave her homestead. Enter Clift as the TVA agent sent out from Washington, D.C., to persuade her to leave the area where they have resided for generations.

Schickel, author of the new book "Elia Kazan: A Biography," said Kazan was inspired by the time he spent in the Tennessee Valley in the late 1930s working on a movie. "One of his first movies jobs was a kind of assistant on a short documentary called 'The People of the Cumberland.' So he knew the people, he knew the territory and he liked the people." Schickel said the director thought the conflict between the traditionalists and "this force of modernity, the TVA," would make an interesting drama.

"He could sort of see both sides [of the conflict]. The notion that you were defending a way of life -- that you literally have been in a place for centuries -- and this greater good of harnessing that river. It would bring electricity to a region that had zero and it flooded annually with terrible costs to lives and good farmland."

After working on the script through several drafts, he enlisted three screenwriters on the project -- Paul Osborn, who had penned Kazan's 1955 version of "East of Eden," received screen credit. Kazan then took the script to 20th Century Fox. The studio was intrigued, and he set off to make the film.

Then the studio saw the finished product. "The studio thought, 'The TVA? Who cares anymore?,' " Schickel said. "They gave it a little art house release, but they didn't really do much with it. Kazan was so angry at one point he tried to buy back the print from Fox and take it out on his own."

Kazan, who was a former actor, had an uncanny ability to bring out the best in actors. Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Vivien Leigh, Celeste Holm, Van Fleet and Eva Marie Saint all won Oscars for their work in his movies. And he worked his magic with the performers in "Wild River."

Clift, who was struggling with an alcohol problem at the time, manages to give one of his finest performances. But the real star is Van Fleet, who captures the nobility, strength and stubbornness of the elderly traditionalist.

"That is really a great performance," Schickel said. "She was a difficult actress, but she liked Kazan and Kazan liked her. He was never afraid of someone who was difficult if they were right for the part."

*

'Wild River'

Were: ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood

When: 4 p.m. today

Info: (866) AFI-FEST, www.afi.com

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