Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Southern Comfort?

Films: Raintree County
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I keep a fairly extensive database of the movies that I still have to watch on my various Oscar lists. One of the things that I track is movie length, because I don’t want to get to the end of this with nothing but three-hour epics left to watch. For whatever reason, I had the 168-minute Raintree County listed as a movie of about half that length. This is also a movie I have had DVRed for well over a year; there were too many aspects of it that made me not want to spend all of that time with it. Still, I had to watch it eventually, and since I had the house to myself for a large part of today, I figured this was as good a chance as any.

I’m not kidding when I say that there’s a lot here that I typically don’t like. American Civil War dramas don’t really do a lot for me. This is also the part of Montgomery Clift’s career of which I am not much enamored. There was a chunk of his career where he came across as more whiney and wimpy. That works in films like The Heiress, but not in a film where he is being put forth as a paragon of moral virtue and a standard of decency. Raintree County is also a straight-ahead melodrama complete with the sort of overacting that the style requires. Even a solid cast that includes Eva Marie Saint and Lee Marvin couldn’t make things happier for me. Not even the presence of a young DeForest Kelley could rescue it.

We start in the eponymous Raintree County in Indiana in the years before the war. Young student John Shawnessey (Montgomery Clift) is a good student with plans to become a writer. He romances young Nell Gaither (Eva Marie Saint) and listens to the life lessons of his teacher (Nigel Patrick). All seems well until the arrival of Susanna Drake (Elizabeth Taylor), who has arrived from Georgia and turns young John’s head. There is a whirlwind romance, feats of athletic prowess against Orville Perkins (Lee Marvin), and eventually Susanna returns to Georgia, leaving John to try to repair his relationship with Nell. Soon thereafter, though, Susanna returns claiming to be pregnant, and John, filled with responsibility, marries here and the pair head to Georgia.

It’s here that the film takes a different course. We learn about the past of Susanna’s family, including a terrible house fire, her father’s evident taking of a Cuban woman as a concubine, and the eventual insanity of Susanna’s mother. It’s hinted, in fact, that Susanna may actually be the daughter of her father’s concubine, although this is never really explored. But the insanity angle surely is. Susanna admits that her pregnancy was a farce created to force the marriage and she begins to show signs of losing her mind just a little bit. John decides that it’s Georgia that’s the main problem and he returns his family to Raintree County. It doesn’t seem to help, though. John digs a little deeper into Susanna’s dark past. The two eventually do have a son, but Susanna loses her mind more and more, eventually fleeing back to Georgia with their son at the outbreak of the war. Naturally enough, John joins up, specifically with the intent of locating his family.

Certainly there are some bright spots in Raintree County. Lee Marvin was always a joy, even in a film like this where he is required to be bigger-than-life at all times. But very little here works for me. This is like everything that I didn’t like about Gone with the Wind tied up into a single movie, including the over-long running time. Wars make for grand spectacles, of course, but we don’t get close to the war until the final third of the film, and once we get there, we’re not there for too long. No, the war is merely an excuse for us to track down Susanna and the boy and nothing else. It may well have been a better and more interesting movie if it did focus on the war, because John Shawnessy’s family problems aren’t that interesting.

I get why Montgomery Clift might have been thought of as a good fit for the role of John Shawnessy, but I don’t think he fits the role. Clift was always better in roles where he was filled with moral quandaries. There’s one of those here, but it is such an obvious one and happens too soon and without anything like a struggle that Clift could do well.

It’s Elizabeth Taylor’s performance that put this on one of my lists, though, and while she’s important for large parts of the film, there are large parts where she’s virtually absent. For her part, Taylor essentially seems to be trying to recapture whatever magic there might have been left in Vivian Leigh’s portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara without much effect. Taylor was a good, even great actress when she had good material to work with, but this wasn’t good material and I don’t buy her as a Southern belle for a second, let alone a three-hour movie.

Ultimately, there’s just not enough here for me to be interested in and there’s far too much of it for me to care about it. And worst of all, it takes two and a half hours getting to what could be an interesting ending, and then speeds through a ton of material and plot points in a quarter of an hour. Unless you need to watch it, you’re probably better off ignoring it.

Why to watch Raintree County: A sweeping story?
Why not to watch: It’s everything that doesn’t work about Gone with the Wind and not much more.


  1. Again this is another Elizabeth Taylor film I've yet to see. The only really notable thing I know about the film, apart from the Oscar nominations, is that during the production Clift had his awful car accident that required all the facial reconstruction.

    1. This is an Elizabeth Taylor you can miss unless you're a completist. She's absent for long sections of it, and even when she's there she's more annoying than entertaining.

  2. Agree completely. MGM spent mega-bucks in hopes of another Gone With the Wind and flopped big time.

  3. For geographical reasons, I wanted to see Raintree County for a long time, decades in fact. But quite a while passed before I watched it because it's long and it sounds kind of boring and word-of-mouth is rather discouraging.

    Raintree County is code for Henry County, Indiana, and that's where I grew up. The main town in the county is New Castle, and though I never lived in New Castle, my mom grew up there and we visited relatives there frequently when I was a kid. We lived in a small town in the northwestern corner of the county.

    Outside of the novel, I don't recall ever hearing about the legendary raintree, although New Castle does have a hotel called the Raintree Inn.

    I finally DVRed it off TCM a year or so ago, and it was just alright. It was OK. I remember that it was watchable and I wasn't bored by it (much), so it kind of passed my bare-minimum test for rating a movie.

    I did kind of like Hollywood's presentation of New Castle as it might have looked in 1860. I know New Castle and I didn't get the impression that they made a lot of effort to make it authentic. But then a lot of time passed between 1860 and the time period when I was running around in the streets (1970s).

    New Castle, by the way, has an ancient theater called the Castle Theatre that's a bit of a local institution and they're trying so hard to keep it open. My mom saw Sunset Boulevard there (and she probably saw Raintree County there because it was a big deal in the area when it opened) and I saw Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and The Poseidon Adventure at the Castle many years later.

    The Castle Theatre has its own Facebook page.

    1. I know roughly where New Castle is. I have a brother in Indianapolis and another brother who spent his college years about as far west of Indy as you were east.

      My guess is that you watched the same showing of Raintree County as I DVRed. It was from a little more than a year ago.

  4. As far as lengthy epics go this is nowhere near as enjoyable as GWTW or How the West Was Won but it beats the hell out of the ghastly Duel in the Sun.

    On its own it has beautiful sets and costumes and a ravishing Elizabeth Taylor but it's also clunky, poky and far too long for the story it tells. I can kind of understand the reasons behind Clift's uneven performance but since it's his film much more than Liz's or Eva Marie's that wobbliness is a fatal flaw. There is the sad fascination of studying his face judging which scenes were filmed pre and post accident.

    I'd seen bits and pieces of it for years so when I finally sat down to watch it from beginning to end I was somewhat familiar with the story. That helped since I was waiting for certain scenes to fall into place but it's nothing I'm in any hurry to revisit.

    1. I pretty much agree. Gone with the Wind is not something I choose to watch that often, but it's widely regarded as a classic for many reasons, and there are plenty of wonderful scenes. In truth, I think a lot of things beat the hell out of Duel in the Sun.

      I've changed my tune on Clift over the past half-decade or so. I think my introduction to him was more in roles like this one, and he's not really suited for it. This required someone who could be more resolute, and Clift was someone who excelled more as someone who was constantly conflicted and filled with inner turmoil...or as someone morally weak. This role needs to be anything but that.

      However, I think even with a better casting (John Garfield could've done this), this would still be a drippy mess.