Completing the trifecta of “Save the Farm” movies of 1984 is this Mark Rydell film starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. Like Country, the Jessica Lange starring film earlier in the project, “The River” was set in contemporary times and featured a story about the economic hardships faced by family farmers. The 1980s were a crises point for middle level farmers in the U.S., a combination of easy credit in the 1970s combined with expanding markets had encouraged heavy borrowing. The good times however could not last. The Farm Crisis became a political hot potato and the policies of the Reagan Administration to address it were seen as harsh,and the farmers make effective political hay out of those solutions. While there are elements of the debt issue included in this film, most of the hardship the family in this story endures is a result of natural and man made water issues.
The film is book-ended with two dramatic moments where the Garvey family farm is being flooded. At one point, evil corporate type Scott Glenn says that sooner or later the River is going to get them. He may be right but the inspiration behind this story is that the farmers will continue to struggle for the life that they see as their legacy. The river however is only one of the many challenges the family in this story faces.
For years, this film has grown in stature after being a passing failure in 1984. The reason is simple, the version that played in the U.S. was a butchered cut of the original vision of Director Sergio Leone. The widely hailed original cut that played in Cannes that year was also a truncated version since Leone had originally seen this as being two films of nearly three hours each. Very much like “Blade Runner”, “Once Upon a Time in America” actually has several variations that people have seen and commented on. There is apparently a version that was assembled and released in Italy two years ago that includes at least one scene with Louise Fletcher who is nowhere to be seen in any of the versions publicly shown prior to 2012.
In 1984, for some reason, I never saw the 139 minute version that the American studio distributed. It was originally released June 1 in the U.S. , and I would be preoccupied by Star Trek, Streets of Fire and the next week, Ghostbusters and Gremlins. I was also in the process of applying for a teaching position and interviewing [I did not get the job until the second time I applied the next year], so I was pretty busy. By the fall however, things were more calm and I saw in my hometown paper that the acclaimed version of this movie that had received rapturous reviews at Cannes before the disastrous opening in the U.S. , would be playing at the Century City Fox Theater for two weeks. I can’t remember all of the people who went but I had a distinct memory of my pal Steve Holland and a guy who had been on the USC Speech team when Steve and I were coaching as graduate students, Matt Chappa, both being there. I also know that it was the original version because the only way I have ever seen this film is in the non-sequential manner in which Leone had planned it.