The film begins with actual footage of the Tennessee river flooding and an emotional story from a man who was caught in it and possibly lost several of his children. Then a voice over comes on telling us that in order to stop the devastation and harness the power of the river, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has been created to dam the river. Things have been going according to plan except for a small island whose owner refuses to sell. Enter Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) whose job it is to get that last piece of the puzzle.

Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift)

Before Glover can make it to the island he gets a reminder that Tennessee is in the South when he is told why he can’t speed up the work by hiring blacks. Then Glover goes to the island which requires him to cross on a small ferry and pass by a sign that says “TVA KEEP OFF”.

On the island he meets a stubborn old woman named Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) who has a home and a shanty town filled with virtual slaves. Of course in the grand tradition of Mary Pickford, in every backwater or downtrodden part of America is a beautiful woman in-waiting. In this film, it’s Carol Garth Baldwin played by Lee Remick.

Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet)

Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick)

What follows can be interpreted as inevitability with a love story tied in, but you can also view the whole film as a deliberate manipulation. From the moment Glover shows up to the when he looks down from a plane to see the river dammed, he shows little to no real emotion and carefully pulls the people who surround Ella Garth away until she is as isolated as the island she refuses to leave. Montgomery Clift being a closet homosexual works to his advantage with this semi-detached performance, especially in terms of his relationship with Remick.

The film really doesn’t give you any easy positions to take. If you want to take Glover’s place, then what about all these people you are forcing off their land. If you take Ella’s place, then what about all the people who die and lose their homes when the river floods again. Ultimately, the dam is a civilizing force that will make this place gone with the water. It’s not the greatest movie I have ever seen, but it’s worth a look.