Raintree County (1957)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk

The behind-the-scenes drama of MGM’s lumbering adaptation of Ross Lockridge Jr.’s novel about the life and loves of a young, idealistic Indiana Hoosier in the years surrounding the Civil War would have made a better movie than this expensive white elephant created by famed producer Dory Schary.

Schary was so obsessed with the success of the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind that he wanted to make a Northern version of that Lost Cause cinematographic archetype. He compiled a first-rate cast but hired a second-rate director—Edward Dmytryk—and used a third-rate script. The result was a critical and box office disaster. Despite casting Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint and fine supporting actors such as Lee Marvin, Agnes Moorehead and DeForest Kelley, the characters were, as one critic noted, “vaporous creatures, without clear personalities or drives.”

Clift plays local-boy-destined-to-make-good John Wickliff Shawnassey with all the aplomb of a habitual drunk (which Clift was during much of the filming). Shawnassey is on track to wed local good girl Nell Gaither (Saint), but his head is turned by the mysterious, magnolia-scented Susanna Drake—played to haughty perfection by Taylor. She has her sights set on Johnny. After a playful swim in the river, they tryst and she is off on the next train to New Orleans, only to return later claiming she is pregnant. Johnny does the right thing and marries her. He bids his friends and family adieu and heads south to meet his new relations.

In New Orleans, the newlyweds visit the burned ruins of Susanna’s once grand plantation home. There, Johnny gets his first hint not only of the murky morays of Deep South culture but also the genetic madness that infects the Drake family. Susanna’s mother, he learns, went mad and Susanna was raised by a Negro nanny. Her parents and the nanny all died suspiciously in the fire that consumed the home.

With Susanna’s pain becoming clear, Johnny believes she can be cured, and possibly redeemed, by returning to Indiana. But after delivering their baby son, Jim— appropriately enough on the day war is declared—Susanna goes mad herself and runs away with the little boy.

A forlorn Johnny joins the Union Army and ends up fighting with Sherman in the Atlanta Campaign. In Georgia, he is repatriated with his wayward son and learns that Susanna has been committed to an asylum. After the war, he takes her home with him to Indiana. But realizing she is holding him back, Susanna again runs away, only to drown in a swamp during a howling storm.

Among the film’s best aspects are its lavish battle scenes and its subtle musical score. The cliché-ridden script probably didn’t cause Clift’s drinking binges, but they led to a horrific automobile accident while he was on location in Louisiana that delayed production and left his face disfigured. Later scenes had to be restaged and his voice was never the same. When the company moved on to Danville, Ky., Clift, now dependent on drugs for pain, ran naked through town one night. For the rest of the shoot, a policeman stayed outside Clift’s hotel room to prevent a recurrence.

 

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here