Raintree County

1957, Movie, NR, 187 mins

Review

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This Civil War extravaganza, an intended successor to GONE WITH THE WIND, is handsomely mounted and boasts a superb cast, but was dogged by problems on the set and hindered by its rambling story. Elizabeth Taylor stars as a beautiful southern belle who causes every male head to turn when she arrives, a visitor from exotic New Orleans, in Indiana's Raintree County. It is the eve of the Civil War; President Lincoln has just taken office. Clift, an advocate of the abolition of slavery who is studying to be a teacher, is engaged to the practical, down-to-earth Saint. But Taylor, a spoiled lady of the southern aristocracy, gets what she wants, and she wants Clift. She charms him into a romantic trance, then seduces him and later traps him into marriage by falsely claiming to be pregnant. Clift does the right thing and marries her, leaving Saint to pine alone. Later, Clift becomes a schoolteacher and Taylor really does have his son, but when the War Between the States breaks out the two are soon at odds, with Clift going to fight for the Union while Taylor maintains her sympathy for the South.

As the war drags on, Clift and his Indiana boyhood friends go through four long years of bloody battle, becoming foragers for the Union Army. In one skirmish, Marvin, Clift's oldest friend, is shot and dies in agony while Clift escapes, carrying his boy with him--having retrieved the child from behind enemy lines, where the now-demented Taylor had taken him. Returning with his son to Indiana, Clift manages to bring Taylor back home after the war, but by then she is deeply disturbed, a victim of the insanity that afflicted her mother. In the South during the war, Taylor was institutionalized in a mental hospital. She does not improve upon returning to Clift, instead regressing back to her traumatic childhood, clutching a doll that was disfigured in a fire she survived as a girl; the doll becomes a symbol of Taylor's family ghosts and the early, violent loss of her parents. In a moment of utter madness (stemming from her belief that she has African blood), Taylor grabs her little boy and leads him into a fierce storm. Clift searches frantically for them, finding the boy alive and shivering next to his mother, who lies dead beneath the legendary raintree that Clift has endeavored all his life to find in the forest. Taylor is free of her mental anguish, and Clift is free to marry Saint, who has patiently waited for him through the difficult years.

RAINTREE COUNTY was a costly production, sapping MGM of more than $6 million. The expense is evident in the battle scenes, grand ball, and vintage towns and villages, but the film lacks the sweep and grandeur of the $5 million GONE WITH THE WIND (as well as a sympathetic central character). Much of the cost resulted from MGM's lavish way of throwing money away. A fortune was spent on Taylor's wardrobe, including not only outerwear made of the finest materials but also expensive petticoats that were never seen. Also, the studio still maintained the practice of full costuming for color tests, although by this time color was refined to the point of capturing exactly what was worn. On the sets, technicians showed up with equipment that had been used in the silent era and some cameras were not even equipped for sound. Director Edward Dmytryk had to gently remind some of his top personnel that technical improvements had been made since 1929, and alienated most of his crew. This was his first film for MGM, and he never worked for the studio again.

During the production, Clift, suffering from a hangover and little sleep, drove into a telephone pole and demolished his car, just barely escaping serious injury. As it turned out, he still suffered a broken nose, a cut lip, and the fracturing of his jaw in three places, so that wires had to be inserted to hold it together. Although the injuries themselves are not really evident onscreen, Clift's attitude and posture are markedly different in the scenes shot after the accident--he no longer looks handsome and vigorous, but haggard, his eyes furtive, as if he had crossed an invisible barrier into old age. Clift was drinking heavily and, as it later appeared, indulging in drugs during the filming. On location near Natchez one sultry day, Taylor struggled in her heavy period costume and collapsed from hyperventilation. The production's doctor could not legally prescribe medication for her. Taylor was struggling desperately to breathe and felt as if she were dying until, according to Dmytryk, Clift magically appeared with a full bottle of Demerol and a syringe. The doctor administered the drug and the actress relaxed, regaining her normal breathing, though she was bedridden for a week with a simultaneous attack of tachycardia (fast heartbeat). At one point the director found Clift so dead drunk in his hotel room that a cigarette had burned itself out between his fingers. Dmytryk later admitted to conducting an illegal search of Clift's hotel room and finding "a hundred containers" of every kind of drug and "a beautiful leather case fitted with needles and syringes" (Edward Dmytryk, It's a Hell of a Life but Not a Bad Living).

When the company moved on to Danville, Kentucky, for more on-location shooting, Clift's behavior worsened. To celebrate their first film together since the classic A PLACE IN THE SUN, he and Taylor went with Dmytryk to the best restaurant in town, where the actor ordered his steak "blue-rare" (nearly uncooked), smothered it with butter and a huge amount of pepper, then ate it with his bare hands, the melted butter dripping through his fingers, while star-gazing crowds watched through the plate glass window of the restaurant. Clift was later found running naked through the best part of Danville, much to the horror of the local upper crust, so that a policeman was stationed outside Clift's hotel room door to prevent him from leaving at night during the rest of the production's stay in Danville. Taylor's conduct also troubled Dmytryk. She was often late for shootings, being occupied with the attentions of producer Mike Todd, who rented a commercial airliner to make a special trip to Danville and deliver some expensive presents to the actress. Taylor became engaged to the entrepreneurial producer just when the film was finished.

RAINTREE COUNTY, which was eventually cut to 166 minutes, was the last production sponsored by outgoing MGM boss Dore Schary. Unfortunately, it was not a valedictory monument but a disjointed film--sometimes brilliant, more frequently disappointing. Most of the film's failure can be attributed to the rambling, unedited script by Millard Kaufman, whose dialog is predictable and often awkward, although it follows the original novel by Ross Lockridge, Jr., closely. Shot on locations in Natchez, Danville, near Port Gibson, Louisiana, and in the swamps outside of Reelfort Lake, Tennessee, the film was photographed with MGM's newly created Camera 65 process, whereby a 65mm negative is reduced to 35mm for release prints. Nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Score, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration and Taylor for Best Actress (she lost to Joanne Woodward for THE THREE FACES OF EVE). leave a comment

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