I was lucky enough to see a pristine print right off the 3-strip Technicolor elements of The River on the big screen. It was the first time I saw it, and I’m so glad I waited for just this occasion to catch it. Renoir adapted a novel by Ruth Godden, who grew up in Bengal, East India, and it’s really a scrapbook of reminiscences of her coming-of-age amid the spiritual and pastoral tranquility of the Ganges. Renoir’s movie is a respectful ode to India, never condescending or cynical or ironic — all those things that make up the ugliest qualities of Western thinking. His film coalesces into a delicate tapestry of images that evoke a different way of life, of thinking, and of relating to the world.
Centering the story is Harriet (Walters), a gawky teenager going through an awkward phase of pubescence, who develops a crush on Captain John (Shields), an American army veteran who arrives at their Bengali estate on a visit. Captain John, one-legged thanks to a war injury, has demons of his own to exorcise and seems on a kind of spiritual journey to do just that. While the Captain is drawn to Harriet’s older and prettier sister Valerie (Corri), he feels a deeper attraction to Melanie (Radha), the reserved Hindu daughter of his white cousin.
You might be thrown off by the awkward, amateurish performances (I think Renoir went with non-actors for this movie) but that, I feel, is part of Renoir’s intention to draw you into this exotic land where everyone relates awkwardly to each other as they try to understand the mysteries of life and of the world around them. Overall, The River is exceptionally honest about itself, made by a director who — like all great artists — knows enough to subordinate his ego to the demands of the material at hand.
Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir, Rumer Godden
Cast: Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Arthur Shields, Suprova Mukerjee, Thomas E. Breen, Patricia Walters, Adrienne Corri