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.
Mel Gibson is in his second film on this project, having played Fletcher Christian in “The Bounty” several months earlier in the year. This was his breakout period and he had sought this role out and had to work on changing his Australian accent to to Tennessee based form of speaking. He later believed he may have been too young for the part but his hardy farmer was effectively shown in scenes on the farm His best work in the movie however is in a long sequence where he has left the farm while the crop is growing, to take work in a foundry in a big city. His conflicted eyes and guilty conscience at having become a scab during a labor dispute are indications of Gibson’s talents. It is however his self righteous farmer that will be worth remembering from the movie.
There are a great number of cliches in the film, and the string of bad luck that the Garvey family faces might seem a bit overwrought. First there is a flood that wipes out his crop, then he struggles with the bank to get the credit he needs to buy more seed. After securing the funds he needs, the prices of the crop that he grows have tumbled. As he finally starts planting, the tractor he depends on breaks down. Then the family cow dies because Mom was trying to save money on the vet. We are really just getting started on all of the bad things that can happen on this farm.
Making it a bit easier on Tom is his wife Mae, a country girl played by a well known country girl, Sissy Spacek. It is a trope of these movies to have the put upon woman burning the midnight oil, looking at the bottom line and trying to figure out how the family can survive. It appears to be an effective dramatic device because it was used by all three women in the save the farm films of 1984 and Sally Field, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek were all nominated as Best Actress in the Academy Awards this year.
Spacek is not just standing behind her man however, she is running things while he is away. She tries to maintain a cordial relationship with ex-boyfriend Joe Wade, the previously mentioned Scott Glenn, in spite of the fact that he has machinations in the works to take over their farm.
Although Gibson is the lead, Spacek seems to have a bigger role in the film. Her domestic scenes with the young daughter of the family illustrate some of the reasons that people fought so hard to keep this way of life. There are several nice moments between them that have some simple charm.
Spacek and Gibson also feel like they could be a real couple. When they fight it is not a screaming match but voices do get raised. When they express love for one another it seems authentic rather than manipulative or vulgar. Tom is always looking for a way to get the kids out of the house for a few moments. Even when the whole family visits him in the city, he finds a way to be alone with her. The two of them sell the idea that these are real partners in this enterprise. Mae is not a withering flower but a vibrant woman who when a tractor needs fixing, is willing to get under it with a tool box. Of course that will introduce another wrinkle as her arm gets trapped in the drive chain and she is bleeding and unable to move the drive without some help. The solution she comes up with is innovative, I’m not really sure it would work but it made for a pretty effective scene.
As I said before, the start of the film features a flood that the family combats by themselves. Joe Wade and the Senator he is trying to convince to support his plan for a dam in the area, fly over in a helicopter and Wade comments on what a good man Tom is. They were rivals on the baseball field and in wooing Mae, and now Joe is planning a project that will wipe out the Garvey farm. He does not seem particularly evil, but he is a hard businessman set on his plans. It is never quite clear why that gives him the right to show up as the family and their friends are fighting a second flood, and then try to tear down the levy they have all just built. It does however allow Tom to display his stubbornness and show how resilient a farmer can be. There are two earlier scenes where conflicting economic forces produce some volubility. A nearby farm has been foreclosed on and the families personal goods are being auctioned. The farmers at the auction begin to resist and chant back at the auctioneer their displeasure. It is only after the farmer effected speaks up and explains that the proceeds are for his family and the foreclosure is a separate issue, that the crowd calms down. When the strike conveniently ends at harvest time, the scabs are forced to walk out through the strikers waiting at the gate. The idea that this is a condition of the settlement seems a bit contrived but it allows a second conflict between desperate people. When Wade hires a bunch of unemployed transients to take down the levy, they too are confronted with what the economic conditions are doing to them.
The final scene allows there to be some catharsis for the frustrations of all the economically depressed people, although Wade’s plans might still be better for everyone in the long run. The film shows a lot of the trouble that people face but seems to recognize that there are no easy solutions. In addition to Spacek’s nomination, the movie was honored with a nomination for Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography.
Mr. Zsigmond died at the start of this year and he was well known for his work with a variety of directors. I found this brief tribute that I thought would be appropriate to include in this post.
“The River” was a solid film but it is largely forgotten because it was so conventional. The actors were excellent and the technical work including John Williams score were fine, but the story is simple and the themes not very controversial. If you are a fan of the two leads than by all means seek it out. Otherwise it is simply a relic of the time period, interesting in the way reading a newspaper article forty years after the reported events might be interesting.