Battling Nature

Among the little-seen films in TCM’s Classic Film Festival were Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960), and Frank Capra’s Dirigible (1931), where man’s stubbornness to conquer Nature and win came yielded more than a few sacrifices.

Kazan’s film depicts the story of a matriarch’s unwavering decision to remain on her island farm in spite of dire warnings by the Tennessee Valley Authority that everything on her isle will be underwater once the giant dam project is completed.

Montgomery Clift plays the TVA rep determined to ease Jo van Fleet into a mainland home, and Lee Remick is the love interest that fuzzes up Clift’s judgment. On the one hand, the dam will provide electricity to rural communities still living a few feet from electrified civilization, but the costs are loss of wildlife, landscape, and a way of life that’s been constant for generations of farmers. In the end, progress wins the battle (no big surprise, really), but not everyone emerges unscathed from the massive project that upsets a community for the sake of progress.

Wild River has been available on DVD for a while now in Europe, and I’ve reviewed a lovely Spanish R2 release since Fox has no interest in releasing back catalogue ‘scope films anymore in North America. Their presumption seems to be that the market for physical media is only sustainable for popular classics and top 100 critical favourites, and blockbusters; everything is for the graying crowd of film fans.

For Americans, it’s less of an issue because many classics are available digitally online via and Fox’ on HD channel & website, but in Canada, quite frankly, we’re getting screwed, because neither digital nor cable venue is available here (yet), which leaves Europe as the only source to see films that have evaporated from regular TV airings.

Not a great situation for Canuck movie lovers wanting to own classic Fox films.

Capra’s Dirigible is a strange blend of creaky love triangle, aeronautical spectacle, and the conquest of Nature, and it mostly works because of the stellar cinematography, montages, and solid direction of action scenes involving planes and airships (otherwise known as dirigibles, and zeppelins).

Dirigible’s secondary plot involves reaching the South Pole by air, but it’s also an amazing document of airship technology that was once poised to give transcontinental travel by plane some competition.

Although the film has aired on TCM, Columbia’s film really, REALLY deserves a special edition, with dual commentary tracks (airship historian + Capra biographer), a making of doc on the film as a blockbuster production as Capra was reaching the apex of his industry prominence, and a doc on airship travel – an integral component of the story.

Chances are that’ll never happen, but there are some fascinating chunks of ephemera out there which the film’s fans can read to place the airship’s prominence and decline in perspective.

This site features vintage issues of Modern Mechanix regarding the heady, dreamy ideas for large-scale dirigible travel, including a docking via a roving boat, and the loony idea of mooring a zeppelin to the Empire State Building.

The history of that last concept – apparently tried twice, on a much smaller scale – began with the erection of a docking mast on the building, and the idea of big ships mooring at the building, people climbing down a gangplank to what’s now the building’s observation platform, and descending down to street level by elevator with breezy ease.

There are images online of some drawings and tweaked photos of what hopeful designers thought the docking scenario would resemble, but my favourite is this postcard with displays exaggerated ease: there’s no ground traffic, no surrounding building clutter, and there’s the very wrong assumption that passengers would never have to worry about wind as they and their luggage are ferried to and from the big balloon.

Someone was sufficiently fascinated by the concept that he created a CGI animation short, accessible on YouTube, whereas a photo of what’s extant is HERE.

Perhaps the best-known airship is the Hindenburg, which burned up in 1937. Besides newsreel footage, there’s also a rare home movie shot of the ship’s interior in 1936 by a passenger, which is part of the 2000 Treasures from American Film Archives set.

The tragic flame-up was also dramatized in Robert Wise’s elegant but dull film The Hindenburg (1975). The conspiracy theories regarding sabotage were the fodder for the 1971 international production of Zeppelin, and in addition to several TV documentaries, there’s also a new retelling of the Hindenburg disaster in the works, starring Stacey Keach.

Mark R. Hasan, Editor


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