Sunday 20 August 2017

Movie Review: Raintree County (1957)

A misguided attempt to create another Gone With The Wind, Raintree County sometimes looks gorgeous but sets a new benchmark for boredom.

Indiana, 1859. John Wickliff Shawnessey (Montgomery Clift) is a recently graduated young man in love with his sweetheart Nell (Eva Marie Saint). John is also enthralled by his teacher Professor Stiles (Nigel Patrick), and inspired by Stiles' words John goes into the swamplands on a fruitless quest to look for the mythical Raintree that gives the county its name. But John is soon hopelessly distracted by the arrival of the beautiful Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor), a southern belle on a visit. After a brief tryst Susanna announces that she is pregnant, and John does the honourable thing and marries her. But the pregnancy story was a ruse and she was never carrying his child.

Further tension is added when John, a firm pro-Lincoln abolitionist, learns that Susanna supports slavery. On a trip south to her hometown of New Orleans John learns of Susanna's troubled family history, including a tragic house fire that killed her parents and a beloved Negro housekeeper. With Susanna starting to exhibit signs of mental illness, they move back north and start a family. The eruption of the Civil War adds more stress and John eventually has to fulfil his military duty and save his family.

An adaptation of a book by Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County has the ingredients that could have created a rousing epic: a civil war setting, a mismatched romance, a clash of ideas between progressive idealism and prevailing oppression, academic discourse, and plenty of melodramatic personal tragedies. The settings are gorgeous and the costumes are lavish.

Somehow, in the hands of director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Millard Kaufman, the film never comes close to igniting. With horrid pacing, stiff dialogue and through-the-motions acting, Raintree County is three hours of tortuous boredom.

Whether before or after the car accident that scarred his face and shut down production for months, Montgomery Clift is bland and boring, a black hole sucking energy at the heart of the film. Elizabeth Taylor is poorly served by harsh characterization that destroys all empathy early: Susanna is a woman who lies about a pregnancy and goes to bed with an army of dolls, including a grotesque half-burned figurine. Subtle, coy or clever she is not, and between Susanna's unhinged personality and John's emptiness the film has nothing to latch onto.

Very late in the film John joins the war effort, and in the company of colourful rogue Orville 'Flash' Perkins (an over-animated Lee Marvin) Dmytryk finally finds a faint pulse, but even the battle scenes carry a cheap whiff.

As Clift and Taylor dominate scene after scene, the secondary cast is confined to the far background. Eva Marie Saint is, well, saintly as the long-suffering true love. Rod Taylor drifts in and out of the film on a single note as a politician-in-waiting. Agnes Moorehead and Walter Abel appear lost as John's parents.

A laborious exercise in endurance despite some pretty visuals, Raintree County is a painful slog through waist-high swamp waters.

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  1. For me, the biggest offender of "Raintree County" was Millard Kaufman's screenplay. I found it incredibly turgid. Edward Dmytryk's direction and Montgomery Clift's performance did not help matters. Nor did the lead character, who struck me as boring.

    1. Yes, very little worked in this one. For 20 years Hollywood kept on trying - and failing - to recreate the success Gone With The Wind.


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