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Making a Virtue of Necessity

Apr 10, 2005 (Updated Oct 4, 2005)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

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Pros:A rich portrayal of Indian culture and theology; lavish Technicolor cinematography

Cons:Not plot-driven; some wooden performances

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended for viewers attuned to poetic and philosophical musings, with luscious color images.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

The River (1951) is one of the more prized films of Jean Renoir, though not up to the standard set by Grand Illusion or The Rules of the Game. It combines a coming-of-age story with a fascinating perspective on India, where the story is set. It is beautifully filmed in sumptuous color. Martin Scorsese once called it one of the two most beautiful color films ever made.

Historical Background: At the outbreak of World War II, Jean Renoir was working in Italy on a film called La Tosca. When Italy entered the war in the spring of 1940, Renoir had to return to France immediately. In the autumn of 1940 he had to vacate further to Lisbon. He then entered the U.S. in February of 1941 and by the end of the war he had become an American citizen, settled in Hollywood. Between 1943 and 1947, Renoir made five feature films, in what became known as his American period: Swamp Water (1941), This Land Is Mine (1943), The Southerner (1945), The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and The Woman on the Beach (1947).

Renoir spent much of 1947/8 trying to interest Hollywood producers in funding his idea of a production of The River, based on Rumer Godden's autobiographical novel. He got no takers until a chance encounter with a Beverly Hills florist provided an independent source of funding. The pair agreed on four stipulations: Renoir would make a reconnaissance trip to India, he would write the screenplay in collaboration with Rumer Godden, Renoir would make the final cut, and there would be no elephant hunt (a kind of cliché in films about India, at the time). Working with a novice producer had its drawbacks, however, as there were equipment delays when the producer failed to provide adequate generators, cranes, and tripods for filming. Renoir made use of the "dead time" to shoot silent documentary footage along the river and to record examples of the Indian music of which he had grown fond. These activities proved invaluable, making The River, in the end, the fine film it became. The filming of The River in India served as a transition for Renoir, from his American period to his triumphant return to Europe.

The Story: The story is pretty straight forward. There are a lot of characters but not much plot. At the center of the story is a British family living beside the Ganges River in Calcutta. The father (Esmond Knight) manages a jute plant (jute is a dried fiber derived from two tillaceous East Indian plants of the Corchorus genus, used for making mats). Then, there's the mother (Nora Swinburne) and six children, of which five are daughters. The only son is named Bogey (Richard R. Foster). There's a pair of twin daughters, Muffie (Jane Harris) and Mouse (Jennifer Harris), and a couple of others, Elizabeth (Penelope Wilkinson) and Victoria (Cecilia Wood), but it is the eldest of the girls, Harriet (Patricia Walters) that is our protagonist. She is also author Rumer Godden's alter ego and her adult voice (June Hillman) serves as the voiceover narrator. Harriet is fourteen and feeling the first flush of estrogens. The family also has a nanny and servant who is a native woman, Nan (Suprova Mukerjee). Nan is just about as silly and emotional as the children for whom she cares. Harriet is somewhat gangly and not especially pretty ("an ugly duckling wanting to be a swan," she says), but she has talent for writing poems and stories. She has a keen eye for the world in which she lives, including its Indian culture and heritage.

The constant metaphor of the film is likening the flow of the daily lives of this family and their neighbors to the ceaseless current of the Ganges. Childhood moves into adolescence and adolescence into adulthood as relentlessly but lazily as the waters drift downstream.

Next door, in a smaller house lives Mr. John (Arthur Shields). He's a pleasant sort of man. He is a widow now, but had been married to an Indian woman (mixed marriages were a rarity and frowned upon in India during the time in which this story takes place). He has a daughter named Melanie (Radha), obviously half-English and half-Indian. Melanie is being educated in England and, when she's home, is a friend of Harriet. Melanie feels a bit out of place in both cultures because of her mixed identity. There's a third adolescent girl, just a bit older, named Valerie (Adrienne Corri). She's the daughter of the jute press owner and therefore wealthier and a bit more refined and stuck-up. She also has a bit of a cruel streak.

The plot quickens with the arrival of a cousin of Mr. John from America, Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen). He was wounded in a war (which one is not specified) and now has a prosthetic leg, walking with a bit of a limp. Nevertheless, he is an outsider and dashing, at least in the eyes of Harriet, Valerie, and Melanie. Without really willing it, the three adolescent girls are soon competing for Capt. John's attention. Harriet is really too young and homely to be a serious contender, though she fancies otherwise. She tries to win Capt. John over by sharing her poems and stories. She succeeds, at least, in gaining his compassionate interest as a friend. Valerie initially seems to have the most success at collecting Capt. John's interest, but a couple of acts of cruelty on her part quickly cool his ardor. Valerie steals Harriet's private diary and reads aloud Harriet's observations about Capt. John. Later, during a game of catch with a disk, she intentionally throws the disk beyond Capt. John's reach to highlight his infirmity and lack of mobility. Melanie's handicap is her insecurity about her mixed race identity, but that proves an advantage, in one respect. She and Capt. John share a sense of not truly belonging anywhere. After all, as Melanie points out, where is Capt. John going to find a country of one-legged men?

All of this vying for the Captain's attention proceeds with a quiet rhythm beside the great river. Nothing very specific happens to mark the days, except for occasional Hindu festivities. The British families participate in the festivities much as tourists might, with genuine interest and a sense of entertainment, but not as true believers.


There's so little plot in this film that it seems a shame to spoil the only dramatic development, but it's important to the discussion of the themes, below. There's a little bit of film time spent following the activities of Bogey, the male child, and his little Indian age-matched playmate, Kanu (Nimai Barik). Bogey becomes fascinated with a Cobra that lives among the roots and tentacles of a giant pipal tree. He wants to charm the snake with his flute, as he has seen the snake charmers do at the bizarre. Later, Bogey turns up dead, having been bitten by the poisonous reptile. Now death is added to the kinds of transitions with which Harriet much learn to cope.

Themes: The River is a plot-poor but a theme-rich film. It's more a piece of meditative poetry than a narrative. It that respect it anticipates a trend in European films that would be later celebrated in such films as L’Avventura and A Sunday in the Country, in which relationships and the slow currents of everyday life take precedence over conventional story threads.

One of the charges that has been levied against The River relates to alleged orientalism, which means the tendency of Westerners to attach romantic, mystical, and fantastical qualities to Asian cultures because it's all so foreign to us as outsiders. Visitors to a foreign land never see or experience that country in the way that the indigenous people do. Tourists are drawn to tourist traps that package "native culture" expressly for the consumption of outsiders. Meanwhile, the natives typically go to the places unknown to the tourists that provide authentic local culture. During colonial times, the British in India were perpetual outsiders, living a kind of transposed Victorian existence while merely observing from a distance the colorful native heritage. Compared to the works of Satyajit Ray (which were inspired by Ray's observation of the filming of The River), Renoir's film has an indisputable tendency toward orientalism. On the other hand, compared to such films as Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Gunga Din (1939), and Kim (1950), Renoir's film was a profound step away from xenophobia and racism. The River has the feel of a travelogue. The central characters may be outsiders but their personal situation is projected against the backdrop of a genuine India. Harriet's life becomes interwoven with the life of India. Harriet and her family remain the conscious center of the film, but India is strewn across the film's unconscious. It is not merely the colorful native festivals or the recurrent shots of the Ganges, from every conceivable angle, that give The River its cultural authenticity. It is the interpretation of the classic coming-of-age issues in the light of Hindu metaphysical perspectives that makes The River much truer to its subject matter than other films of its time or before. Besides, if we demand that every film be politically correct by today's standards, we'll sacrifice a lot of historical authenticity.

It is interesting that critics reviewing this film can't even agree on when the story takes place. We know that the author's own adolescent years occurred in the early 1920's, while colonialism was still going strong in India. Some critics assume that the time is therefore the early twenties and that Capt. John was likely injured in World War I. Other critics assume that the story was transposed to the early fifties, when Renoir shot the movie, in which case Capt. John was likely injured in World War II. Since there are no overt political references in the film to independence or the fight for independence, it is impossible to know. India gained independence in 1947, so the film is either during the colonial days or in the immediate aftermath. Those British-born people who chose to remain in India after Indian independence often continued to live as they previously had, though without the authority of the Raj behind them. The plot elements of The River are not either supportive of colonialism or in opposition to it. It is simply a story about the time period shortly before or shortly after the end of colonialism. The contextual elements of the film, however, clearly derive from a sympathetic attitude toward native Indian culture, as one might expect from a sensitive humanist like Renoir.

The River is quasi-feminist in its perspective. Women, in this film, are seen as providing continuity and stability, like the river. The flow of time is equated to the flow of the Ganges, which in turn relates to Harriet's coming-of-age challenges and the beginning of menstrual flow. The river gives life and women give life. Harriet's coming-of-age story is thus contextualized into Eastern philosophy, raising this film above conventional orientalism. Bogey's subplot and untimely death add other thematic elements subtly linked to Hindu perspectives. Bogey is the most Westernized of the children, having an English boy's curiosity with nature (a proto-scientist), evident in his fascination with lizards and frogs. Instead of simply accepting the flow of life, he wants to manipulate nature by charming the wild Cobra. The giant tree through which the Cobra slithers can be seen as metaphorical of the tree of knowledge, so Bogey is reliving the story of creation, playing the part of Adam. He pays with his life for his curiosity and insufficient respect for the wildness of nature. One of the Hindu festivals depicted in detail in the film is built on the notion of perpetual renewal. Destruction and birth go hand in hand. A new child is soon born into Harriet's family – another daughter.

The River is about transitions (birth, maturation, death), the never-ending cycle of life, and learning to accept limitations when they are unconquerable. Harriet has to accept that she is not unusually beautiful externally, though inside she teems with intelligence and literary skills. Melanie has to learn to accept her mixed race identity and Capt. John has to accept that he has just one remaining leg. Western philosophies are action oriented while Hindu theology emphasizes a stoic acceptance of life as it is. The Indian religions preach consenting to the world and to one's life and hardships within it. My personal view is that Western and Eastern approaches to thought and life can each be either valid or countereffective, each in its own way. Westerners are pragmatic and motivated to solve problems, but often exhibit a wanton disrespect for the natural environment and an inability to accept insolvable situations. Easterners excel at acceptance of life's tragedies and burdens but also invest too little in finding practical solutions to problems that could be addressed by human endeavor. A person is best served, in my opinion, by thinking like a Westerner in dealing with problems that can be addressed but thinking like an Easterner when encountering problems that are insurmountable.

Production Values: The choice to make The River in large part a meditation on the essence of India and Indian philosophy was something forced on Renoir by circumstances. The Technicolor film could not be developed in India, preventing Renoir from reviewing what had been shot and determining which scenes needed another take. The actors were mostly amateurs and the child performers especially inexperienced. Renoir simplified the shooting of the plot elements as much as possible (using short segments and static camera placements), but even so, some of the film proved unusable once he had returned to Hollywood to conduct the film editing. Retakes were out of the question. After removal of scenes marred by awkward performances, the plot proved difficult to follow. Renoir then made a virtue out of necessity. He added a voiceover narrative to tie together the usable segments, but that also permitted the added benefit of providing a poetic quality to the film. Then, he fleshed out the film with the documentary footage that he had taken while waiting for proper equipment, which strengthened the emphasis on the Indian setting and culture. Finally, he chose to base the soundtrack on the Indian music he had recorded rather than having new, Western music composed for the film. Renoir once said that among all of his films, The River was the one that most came out as he had initially conceived it. I wonder if he forgot that its final form was a product of necessity.

The River was Renoir's first color film. The new three-strip Technicolor process had its limitations. It was excellent at representing saturated primary hues, rendering these in beaming glory. It was weak at depicting pastels and half-hues. Renoir decided to minimize the challenges for the Technicolor process by choosing settings and costumes featuring primary hues almost exclusively. The setting in tropical India was a big help in that respect. Renoir even went so far as to have a lawn shaded a deeper green for one scene.

The performances are somewhat wooden, at times. Nora Swinburne was pretty good as the mother. She had appeared in The Citadel (1938). Esmund Knight was the most familiar face to me and performed well as the father. He had roles in such films as Henry V (1944), Black Narcissus (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), Peeping Tom (1960), and Sink the Bismark! (1960). I didn't care much for Thomas E. Breen as Capt. John. He wasn't Renoir's first choice, but other American actors refused to work in India for five months. Arthur Shields was excellent as Mr. John. He appeared elsewhere in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and The Quiet Man (1952). Among the three adolescent girls, Patricia Walters performed commendably as Harriet, though she seems not to have gone onto a career as an actress. Radha Shri Ram, who played Melanie, was a Hindu dancer. Her graceful performance of a wedding story told by Harriet is one of the film's highlights. On the other hand, she scarcely passes for fourteen and spoke with a distinct Indian accent, which seems strange for a girl educated in England and whose father was English. Except for those quibbles, I thought Radha gave one of the film's better performances. Adrienne Corri, the most "professional" of the three adolescent female actresses, was easily the worst of the three, in my opinion, despite going on to roles in Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Bottom-Line: Renoir tells a simple story, here, while providing more than a casual glimpse at Indian culture. In fact, the film is as much about India as it is about Harriet. It's beautiful to look at, with expansive landscapes and views of the Ganges, all filmed in luscious color. If plot is a major part of what you demand for film enjoyment, you'll want to look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you have an eye and an ear for visual and aural poetry and metaphysical themes, The River will provide you with a glorious experience. This film is in mostly English with English subtitles for the hearing impaired and has a running time of 99 minutes.

Recommend this product? Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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