Much-maligned melodrama. No more episodic over a three-hour running time than Ben-Hur (1959) or Doctor Zhivago (1965) and though bookended by the American Civil War has less grandiose views on history. Part of the problem is that, faced with such length, critics expected something with greater depth rather than just ordinary people caught up in circumstance. As if a stunning treatment of madness was not enough, inside the warring mind of a beautiful woman, whose realisation of her condition sets her on the road to tragedy. But it is riddled throughout by an element of fantasy, the fabled “rain tree” with golden leaves triggers a moment of madness in all who seek to find it in the swamps.
Like Zhivago, the narrative arc is a love triangle between principled teacher John Shawnessy (Montgomery Clift), southern belle Susana (Elizabeth Taylor) and reporter Nell (Eva Marie Saint). Sub-plots involved drunken gregarious Flash (Lee Marvin), bumptious Garwood (Rod Taylor) and the charming adulterous Professor (Nigel Patrick). The characters intertwine at various points and John, Flash and the Professor come together during the war while Garwood tries to make political capital out of it afterwards.
John and Nell have known each other since childhood, but there’s no real sense that they are childhood sweethearts. If they have passion for each other, it’s well hidden, and when Susana turns up, she steals him away, in part by the ruse of pregnancy. Despite her incipient madness, perhaps because of it, John sticking by her no matter what, there’s grand passion in full view. But the best scenes are Susana talking not about her condition, but what she believes to be true and her fears that her truth may be false. She lies, for example, about her age when a fire killed her father and his lover. She leaves her husband a note that she discovers she has never written. Her confusion at the depth of her illness, fear that she might have inherit the genes of her mother (also insane), is very touching.
She also does one thing that smacks of “Hollywood madness,” the crazy action that is shorthand for insanity, but within the twisted confines of her mind that is out of love for John. She has a dark secret about her role in the events surrounding the fire. But she overcomes her innate racism out of love for him, prior to the war freeing her slaves. She clings to John because she knows he is the one route out of her madness.
Audiences wouldn’t buy a three-hour picture about madness. You might perceive the other episodes as mere filler, and in some senses that’s true, but the episodes in themselves are quite entertaining and revealing. Though told the “rain tree” is a local myth, a kind of “holy grail”, John is the only character who tries to find it, out of idealism or insanity who knows, and nearly drowns as a result. Flash has come by his nickname for his running exploits and is challenged to a race by John and the otherwise outwardly idealistic Professor, a gambler, tries to influence the outcome.
Though a stranger in town Susana (“I’ll arrange it”) positions herself to place the garland of victory upon his head. When the Professor tries to make off with another man’s wife, John’s skills with a bullwhip prevent him getting shot. Although John’s mother and Nell push him towards politics, Susana leaves him be, recognizing the joy and fulfilment he gets from teaching.
The war is primarily viewed through the perspective of the Professor, a non-combatant who has found himself a job as a war correspondent, making wry comment as he illustrates various battles. By the end of it, soldiers on both sides are weary of the slaughter.
This was intended as one of the first roadshows, MGM’s initial attempt at incorporating its innovative widescreen process Camera 65 (meaning 65mm – the other 5mm in the more common 70mm taken up with the sound strip) that was later used to tremendous effect on Ben-Hur. And while this lacks the scope or action sequences of the Biblical epic, it looks just sumptuous on the wide screen.
Director Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965) has a keen compositional eye and he also favors actors over showing off his directorial skills. But there are exceptional scenes from the directorial perspective. In one the camera remains fixed on Montgomery Clift at the side of the screen while in the background Lee Marvin is creating havoc. In another we follow a female warden as she unlocks door after door in an asylum before Montgomery Clift is led to Elizabeth Taylor.
The acting is superb, Elizabeth Taylor was nominated for an Oscar and might well have won except Joanne Woodward was playing a character with a split personality in The Three Faces of Eve. But it was a bold role for a young star like Taylor, and a tremendous piece of casting. As much as she uses words to try to explain or understand herself, when the camera cuts to her face you can see the terror in her eyes.
Clift had disfigured his face during an accident during shooting and that clearly physically affected his performance. Eva Marie Saint (36 Hours, 1964) is very effective as the rejected lover. Lee Marvin (Point Blank, 1967) takes the showboating approach to his role while Rod Taylor (Chuka, 1967) is not above some scene-stealing himself. But then both are competing with the over-the-top Nigel Patrick (The Battle of Britain, 1969). Millard Kaufman (The War Lord, 1965) wrote the screenplay from the Ross Lockridge Jr. bestseller.
The kind of film to immerse yourself in the performances and let the running time take care of itself.