The River

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.

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In the early eighties, Jessica Lange became the darling of the film community. She was nominated for two Oscars in the same year in 1982, winning for Best Supporting Actress in “Tootsie”. Within three more years she had two more nominations for Best Actress, including this lachrymose piece of save the farm themed drama. She is also a producer on the film which makes it a little surprising that it did not get a Best Picture nomination, that is until you see the movie. Then you will understand why she is the only person given any kudos for the film, and also why the far superior Sally Field performance was the winner this year.

country This is the second of the three farm based prestige pictures of the year. It is also perhaps the dullest, with a plot driven by accounting rather than action, and a pace that sometimes feel glacial. It is a sincere effort to examine the impact of financial pressures on rural families, but the result is depressing and takes down one rising career to advance another. Continue reading

Places in the Heart

The first of three films in a three month span that all featured a “Save the Farm” theme. This is the picture that resulted in a thousand Sally Field jokes for her Academy Award acceptance speech and it introduced us to John Malkovich who has been a welcome presence in films now for the last thirty years. This was the only one of the three to get a best picture nomination although the lead actress in all three of the farm movies was nominated for her performance. Politics may have played a part since economic issues concerning the farm industry were widely discussed in the election year, and just a couple of years later, John Mellancamp and Willie Nelson started the “Farm Aid” project.


There are a dozen other supporting players in the film who will also become familiar or were already well known in supporting roles as well. The movie is a loosely structured series of tableau focusing on the lives of two sisters in rural Texas in 1935. The leading characters could all be representations of some of my own family members since my wife’s parents grew up in just such places. Her folks would have been about the age of Sally Fields two children in the movie. Like my belief that “Racing with the Moon” was probably a pretty accurate depiction of my parents as teens, this film feels very true to the depression dominated times in rural America.

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