The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Raintree County

The conversation about the best Civil War epic will typically always begin and end with one movie, 1939's Gone With the Wind, a classic film and one of the best movies ever made in Hollywood history.  In general though, Hollywood hasn't gone to the Civil War well too often, and I've never been able to figure out why.  Movies like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals were made because Ted Turner has lots of money and is a Civil War buff. Glory is a classic true story that I think is the best depiction of the war around. Well, there's another epic, 1957's Raintree County.

The main problem with this MGM epic is that it tries to be Gone With the Wind 2 too much instead of blazing its own trail.  I was surprised though to read the hate this movie gets whether it be the cast being miscast, the story being too simple, or just overall, it's a boring movie. I think two of those three are legitimate issues to have with the movie, but there's something appealing about Raintree County that will take more than that to ruin the movie. The 1950s and early 1960s were the time of the epic in Hollywood, 3-hour movies where no expense was spared. Gigantic budgets, big-time directors, all-star casts, they just don't make them like this anymore.  It's a time capsule of a different era in Hollywood, and an interesting one at that.

It's 1859 in Freehaven, Indiana in Raintree County and young John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift) is about to graduate from the local college. He's ready for the future with his longtime sweetheart, Nell (Eva Marie Saint), when he meets Susanna (Elizabeth Taylor), a Southern belle visiting Freehaven from Louisiana. John falls for her immediately as does she for him. It doesn't take long before Susanna tells him that she's pregnant with his child so they marry and move to the South. With a conflict brewing about states' rights and the ability to own slaves though, John insists they move back to Raintree County. As the Civil War breaks out though with the attack on Fort Sumter, he finds out that his young wife has a secret that could tear them apart. His life thrown on its side, John must now make a huge decision, all the while the North fighting the South around them.

The biggest surprise I found reading reviews here was about the casting and acting of Clift and Taylor.  Montgomery Clift was involved in a horrific car accident during filming that caused production to shut down for two months while waiting for him to heal so there is already a stigma attached to the part and the movie as unlucky, and in some circles, just plain bad.  I don't know if Clift was the right choice for the lead role, but it's the rare movie he's not very watchable in that lead role. It's not his best performance, but it's still good.  More surprising is that Elizabeth Taylor earned a nomination for her performance.  No disrespect to the recently passed Miss Taylor, but this was just too hammy of a performance. She's Scarlet O'Hara on steroids, chewing the scenery left and right, a fragile woman screaming and crying at every turn because of her past. She treads that fine line between highly dramatic and soap opera, but too often it leans toward the soap opera acting, loud, confrontational and overbearing.

Say what you will about the two leads, but one thing that's untouchable is the rest of the cast.  That's always one of the best things to come out of these Hollywood epics, casts that feature a who's who list of stars playing supporting roles.  For this particular epic we've got Marie Saint as the innocent, incredibly sweet Nell, Nigel Patrick as Professor Stiles, a fast-talking, intelligent, philanderer of a man, Lee Marvin as Orville 'Flash' Perkins, John's drinking buddy and a brawler of a man, Rod Taylor as Garwood Jones, a Northern politician who leans toward Southern rights, Agnes Morehead and Walter Abel as John's parents, and DeForest Kelley as a Confederate officer John comes across in Georgia. Of all the performances, Patrick and Marvin especially shine.  Patrick's Professor is that good sort of scenery chewing, verbose and expressive, a man who loves life and everything about it. Marvin's Flash is a similar character if from a little lower class.  He loves to fight and compete, loves women, and loves to drink.

Director Edward Dmytryk was given a $5,000,000 budget to make this movie, a huge sum at the times. While the film struggled with audiences, it wasn't for lack of effort.  It was nominated for best costumes and best art direction and deservedly so.  Raintree County is a stunningly beautiful movie with beautiful locations (Kentucky and Mississippi mostly), huge sets filled with hundreds of extras, and a screen so full of action, details, and vivid colors that you can overlook the somewhat stilted dialogue or slow-moving story (it clocks in at just under 3 hours). This is an EPIC, a type of movie they just don't make anymore. The story -- based off a novel -- tries to tackle a lot of topics because honestly, the Civil War had a lot of topics worth covering.  It's too much at different points and not enough, focusing on the same thing over and over instead of focusing on the more interesting aspects, Abolitionism, slavery, the actual fighting. Like any movie, it is good and bad. You just hope the good outweighs the bad, and for me it did.

One reason I've assumed the Civil War has never been made into many feature films is the expense of creating huge battle scenes. The actual combat of the war is the second half of the movie after a brief intermission.  The sequences are large-scale but don't linger, and were even re-used five years later in How the West Was Won.  Clift's John ends up with General Sherman's army in Georgia, and for me this was the movie at its best. Battle sequences are handled with an effective, well-done montage, and Dmytryk paints a picture of what 1864-5 Georgia must have been like, war-torn, terrifying, and a host for all sorts of evil.  Working off a novel and trying to stay true to the source, I understand you have to go with what is in front of you.  Dmytryk's epic is solid and I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It could have been better, but it's the rare movie that couldn't be better. There are only so many Hollywood epics like this so enjoy them for what they are.

Raintree County <---trailer (1957): ***/****   

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