This weekend we attended a screening of The Great Flood (2011) as part of the Ellinora Guitar Festival at the Krannert Center in Champaign Urbana and were reminded of two earlier films that draw on the floods of the 1920s and 30s, The River (1938) and Wild River (1960). Pare Lorentz’s The River describes the work mankind has done to keep the river’s waters in its banks, flooding needing control because of humans’ exploitation of the land, damage only humans can repair, according to The River. Elia Kazan’s Wild River, on the other hand, focuses on the consequences of the damming The River promotes. While The River accurately highlights the environmental problems of the Tennessee Valley and offers a definitive solution, it depends on recent historical memory for the force of its argument. The catastrophic floods of 1927, ’36, and ’37 were still fresh in the nation’s memory. But this film only provides a generalized portrait of the human hardships before the TVA project and can only speculate about the future benefits the dams and they would produce would create.
Elia Kazan’s 1960 Wild River, a narrative film deriving its plot from the TVA’s work in Tennessee, lacks the recent historic memory reflected by Lorentz’s film but tells a more human, although fictionalized, story about the repercussions of the TVA project—racism associated witht the TVA and the displacement of individuals by the “controlled” flooding caused by the dams themselves.
Elia Kazan’s 1960 film Wild River shares valorizes TVA and its successes. After providing the documentary shots of homeowners standing on their rooftops to avoid flood waters, the film switches perspective to a color view of the landscape from the window of the plane carrying Chuck down south to take over the local TVA office. Such a contrast suggests that the technologically advanced North must rescue Southerners from not only Tennessee River flooding but also from the stagnant rural life that stifles progress.
Because Wild River looks back on the devastation caused by the flooding of the Tennessee River from a perspective influenced by post-World War II prosperity that has seemingly transformed the Tennessee River Valley, the film establishes several binary oppositions in which Chuck, who represents the TVA and all it stands for, acts as the superior end of each, especially those in which nature and the environment play a role. Ella, Carole’s mother-in-law and the owner of an island that will soon be flooded by waters from a dam, seems most to represent nature and the natural, since she argues that taming the river goes against nature. She refuses to leave her land and clear the way for the river’s dammed waters, an act she sees as unnatural and soul-wrenching. The TVA, on the other hand, is seen as a civilizing influence, giving Southerners the chance for a soul by providing them with electricity, jobs, and economic freedom.
The film also bifurcates characters by race, beginning to illustrate the racism associated with flooding and flood relief from 1927 forward. For example, John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America and Nancy L. Grant’s TVA and Black Americans: Planning for the Status Quo illustrate not only the results of such flooding but also some of the human causes of ideological changes that prompted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election and the New Deal policies his administration implemented. Although The River and, to a certain extent, Wild River, acknowledge the great flooding of the Mississippi and its tributaries from 1903 until 1937, when The River was filmed, neither focuses particular attention on the greatest of those floods—the 1927 flood that changed voting patterns of African Americans and helped, in part, fuel the Democratic Party’s rise to power in 1932.
Barry’s research reveals some startling statistics about this devastating flood. According to Barry, during this flood year, the Mississippi River expanded to 125 miles across and covered 127,000 miles of what was arable land in the South. As a result of the flood, more than one million people’s homes were washed away, which, at the time, accounted for almost one percent of the population of the United States, and almost 700,000 of these people were forced to subsist on rations from the Red Cross for months. Most of those affected were African Americans, over 300,000 of whom fled to refugee camps where the National Guard ensured that no one could enter or leave without a pass and all were forced to work for no wages (285-86).
Barry argues that those African Americans served as slave labor to maintain the economy of the Mississippi Delta. Since at the time the Republican party was in power at both the federal and state levels, African Americans reacted against a government that nearly enslaved them by shifting party allegiances from Republican (the party of Lincoln) to Democrat, a shift still maintained today. The abandonment of the Republican Party (the GOP) by black voters first in 1928, and to an even greater extent in 1932, was a direct result of the 1927 flood. Hoover lost about 15% of the Black vote in 1928 because Black newspapers endorsed the Democratic candidate, Al Smith, over Hoover, who, as Vice President under Calvin Coolidge, had betrayed them after the flood. Since Al Smith was Catholic, however, Southerners who were historically Democrat (the party that destroyed Reconstruction and enacted Jim Crow laws) voted Republican and helped provide Hoover with a landslide (Barry 414).
According to Barry, Blacks' defection from the Republican party was a direct result of "uncertainty in many sections as to [Hoover's] attitude toward the Negro in the Mississippi disaster (413). Barry argues that before the floods, the Mississippi Delta provided blacks with a relatively safe haven, where Whites actually protected Blacks from vigilantes and refused to tolerate the Ku Klux Klan. The flood and the economic devastation it spearheaded changed all of that, leading Blacks back into serfdom and, consequently as of 1932, away from the Republican party and its representatives that had oppressed them. In rebellion, Blacks moved to the Democratic party led by FDR (see also Grant). This monumental flood and its aftereffects are all but forgotten, even in these two films meant to highlight the ramifications of humans’ exploitation of nature and the solution to the flooding human waste had caused. Only subtle signs of these consequences remain.
Wild River, then, argues for the benefits the TVA produces: electricity, work for both Blacks and whites, and revitalization of a failing agrarian economy. But at the same time, because of its reliance on a dimming historical memory, the film fails to show the human reasons behind the flooding and seems to assert that taming the river with dams goes against nature—as Ella proclaims—and creates problems for White Southerners and, perhaps, the lands The Tennessee River floods when the dam is closed. Although the film illustrates that racism serves as an essential cog in the Southern economic ecosystem, it does not offer a viable alternative for slave-like labor. In fact, Chuck uses Blacks to serve his own purposes, just as did Ella and the other propertied Whites. The environmental message here is confused.