Wild River

Individuals are the source of the innovative change and the "going against the grain" attitude that are vital for progress. But what happens when it's the individual who stands in the way of change?

The 1960 movie Wild River by Elia Kazan is kind of The Fountainhead in reverse: The government is presented as the source of progress, while the individual provides the impediments. To paraphrase Ellsworth Toohey, all the wrong people are on the wrong sides. Despite this flawed premise, if understood correctly, Wild River hints at some valuable lessons on human rights.

The movie begins with black-and-white newsreel footage of a flood: a house washed into the river, a man recounting how his family was drowned. The implication: If forces of nature threaten property and life — and if private enterprise does not dam up the river — is it not the right and the responsibility of the government to do it?

The evasion, of course, is that governments are instituted to protect man from the initiation of force by men — not by nature.

Cut to color film. The time is the Roosevelt Depression. TVA troubleshooter Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) swoops into small, backward Garthville. The project to build a local dam — which will redirect water, causing many properties to be flooded — is stalled. Everybody has sold out, except old Ella Garth (Jo van Fleet). Glover is the third man to try to get Ella Garth off her river island. Despite the government's power of eminent domain, he has been told not to use force. To the TVA bosses, it would be a PR nightmare to have an old lady dragged from her land. A further consideration is the senators who are against eminent domain: They would love to use such an incident to kill the TVA.

Glover states the government viewpoint: They admire the American Way, the unyielding individualism as evidenced by Ella. Yet they believe independence of such unbroken integrity is suicide. However, in his own flawed way, Glover respects reason. He thinks he can do better than his predecessors by appealing to Ella's intelligence.

When Glover gets to Garth Island, he finds the mother of backwardness: a hand-operated ferry, a horse and carriage, an unpainted old house. Predictably, Ella roundly refuses to sell out, whatever he may offer or say.

When Ella tells Glover that she has a good reason to stay, that the soil on her island is the best in the county, too good to be inundated, he hints in true collectivist fashion that she is selfish. After all, how much soil gets washed away every year? You love only your soil, he accuses her, not the soil in general. Besides, doesn't the river have to be tamed?

Ella replies she doesn't want the river to be tamed. She loves everything wild. She is against any kind of dams — no matter what they are for. This must be understood not only literally, that she is a naturalist; much more important is the implied metaphorical meaning: She is against all dams constituted by laws — laws to tame and harness man. Ella will only be driven away by force. They will not need much force, but they will have to use some force. She doesn't bow to any government.

When Ella tells Glover that her husband came down the river and cleared the land on the island, the simple fact that the town is named Garthville concretizes the whole theme of the movie, even the whole zeitgeist of the Roosevelt Depression. If the town is named for her husband, his farm must have been quite a plantation; it’s the cause for the town’s growth. In other words, the individual built America — but now the time for individualism is over. Supposedly, the grand dams of the twentieth century can only be built by collective effort directed by the government.

However, Ella too makes dependents of people. The black farmhands completely depend on her judgment. They ask Glover who will take care of them when the water comes. Glover wonders who takes care of them now. When they answer: Ella, he asks if they wouldn't rather take care of themselves. Sadly, they never get to care for themselves: When they accept jobs and housing from the TVA, they only trade dependence on Ella for dependence on the government.

In the romantic subplot of the movie, Glover convinces Ella's granddaughter Carol Baldwin (Lee Remick), a young widow, of the value of romantic love. She too has relied on Ella's care after her husband died and has become her dependent. Now she is ready to marry a nice but dull guy whom she will never love, just to get a stepfather for her kids. Of course, she falls in love with Glover. His "living in sin" with her does nothing to endear him to the townsfolk.

Eventually, the story ends as it must end: Ella can only be removed by force. The dam is finished, the water is rising, and the PR nightmare would be even worse if she were drowned. Glover finds her a tiny whitewashed house with a porch for her to sit on.

Here one can observe how this work of art concretizes abstractions. Walking towards her new home, Ella is enveloped in clouds of steam from the asphalt the highway is being paved with. Watching these clouds lets you nearly smell the asphalt. This is the scent of progress — a scent Ella cannot enjoy. The set has been built to look modern, but dreary. Instead of a picket fence there's a steel fence. Instead of a stone walk there's a concrete walk. Instead of her big, old ramshackle farmhouse, Ella gets a tiny, whitewashed suburban home only yards from a highway. One cannot but sense that Ella will never be able to live there.

The last words we hear Ella say before she dies direct Carol to settle Ella's debt of sixteen cents for two pounds of sugar. Otherwise, she states, she owes nothing to no man. This carries shades of Howard Roark, who declares: "I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need."

Viewed casually, Wild River is a monument to the false dichotomy of progress versus individualism. The director Elia Kazan — a liberal despite his heroic HUAC testimony — may have had in mind apparently was: The deplorable but inevitable tragedy that for collective safety and progress individuals must be sacrificed. But of course progress doesn't come at the price of individual sacrifice — rather, it is the individual who makes all progress.

The whole problem is only caused by the TVA's own stupidity. They should have assembled their lot before building the dam. If someone refused to sell, they would have to build the dam elsewhere. But what if there is only one possible site? Even that is no excuse for eminent domain. Besides, with all the expenses for moving Ella, they might as well have built a levee around her island.

Now, someone might defend eminent domain by claiming reason only goes so far — or that Ella is insane to oppose the values of progress. That Glover was unable to reason with Ella doesn't mean reason is limited. It doesn't even mean she's insane. It is only that she values other things than Glover, me, and most of us. Instead of dams, electric power, and flood control, she values her farm. Some of her reasons are purely sentimental, like her wish to get buried on the island next to her husband. Other reasons, like not wanting the good soil submerged, are perfectly reasonable.

In the long run, however, progress is only possible through the work of the individual. The preconditions for his work are his absolute, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. That means in the short run we pay a price for our rights: The price is that we have to respect the rights of every other peaceable citizen — no matter what he values. If we cannot get a dam, a skyscraper, or a job without looting — then we cannot have that specific dam, skyscraper, or job.

Or as Ayn Rand wrote:

The next time you encounter one of those "public-spirited" dreamers who tells you rancorously that "some very desirable goals cannot be achieved without everybody's participation,'' tell him that if he cannot obtain everybody's voluntary participation, his goals had jolly well better remain un-achieved — and that men's lives are not his to dispose of. (The Virtue of Selfishness, 98)

Alexander Butziger studied American Studies and Business Administration. Phantom Train and Other Stories, the first volume of his adventure and detective stories, is forthcoming, while his novel on minarchy versus anarchy, Magic Triangle, and several more volumes of stories, are in progress. A skyscraper enthusiast, he is a member of the World Trade Center Restoration Movement advocating taller, stronger, safer WTC Twin Towers instead of the Libeskind scheme.

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To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.