Elia Kazan didn’t want Montgomery Clift for Wild River – even delaying in the hope of luring Brando – but the troubled star gives a moving performance in this undervalued masterwork. He’s the Tennessee official sent to procure the last piece of land required for the damming of the river, but he gets drawn into a battle of wills with a stubborn matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) while falling for her widowed daughter (Lee Remick).
Kazan’s control of the film’s emotional register is absolute, and Paul Osborn’s skillfully constructed screenplay questions the value of ‘progress’ if things of longstanding value have to be sacrificed in its name. It's an expansive work, distinguished by exceptional location photography, but, as ever, his focus is on complex interpersonal relationships. The thorny battle between Clift and the formidable Van Fleet is compelling, but Remick gradually emerges as Wild River’s greatest asset, her heartbreaking performance becoming the focus of the increasingly engrossing second half.