Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in 1957's "Raintree County."

Raintree County

August 26, 2016

Raintree County is better seen as a footnote on a timeline than as a film.  Halfway during its production, star Montgomery Clift was involved in a serious car accident that left him with a broken nose, a split lip, a fractured jaw, and a partially paralyzed face.  In a matter of months, he went from Hollywood golden boy, striking and charismatic, to miserable victim of circumstance, his good looks forever stained and his career’s prosperity suddenly less important than daily bouts of self-medication.  


Following the crash, his behavior started becoming unpredictable and dangerous.  In just a few years, he became virtually unemployable.  Almost a decade after Raintree County was released to negative reviews and a public more concerned with trying to pinpoint which scenes were filmed before and after the calamity, Clift was dead from a heart attack, at the age of forty-five.


The tragedy of Montgomery Clift is more interesting a story than Raintree County could ever tell, but because it was the second pairing of Clift and lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor, and because it was the last movie he made before his career and personal life took a drastic turn, it’s worth viewing.  As an actual movie, though, it’s a classic case of Hollywood muchness, big-budgeted and lavishly designed but also overlong and paint-by-the-numbers drivel in its obvious Gone with the Wind aspirations.


It’s not the bad film that it’s been made out to be — only one of its ten reviews on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes are positive — but it isn’t a good one, either.  It’s just a handsomely mounted, competently made MGM epic without an emotional pull, all eye candy and no authenticity.  For half of its near three hour running time, it’s tolerable.  After that, it’s a dubiously operatic bore.


Clift and Taylor are predictably reliable, but even their individual cults of personality cannot overcome Raintree County’s overblown soullessness.  In it, they are John Wickliff Shawnessey and Susanna Drake, residents of the eponymous Indiana town whose lives are eventually largely affected by the American Civil War.  As the film opens, John is a graduating idealist romancing the kindhearted Nell (Eva Marie Saint); Susanna is a visiting New Orleans socialite with debauchery on the brain.  


John plans on becoming a writer or a teacher, sharing his visionary beliefs with the open-minded, and plans on marrying his girl as soon as he finds financial stability.  But Susanna’s arrival in Raintree County spells trouble.  She’s an irresistible looker able to steal any man’s heart, and the first guy she sets her sights on is John.  And apparently his devotion to Nell isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be: the two have a brief but torrid affair John hopes will be forgotten as a trivial fling of his youth.  


But shortly after their fleet of rendezvous come to a close, Susanna returns to Raintree County to announce that she’s pregnant.  Though he’d prefer to marry Nell and have his first child with her, John, wanting to avoid scandal, weds his side woman (who proves to be mentally unstable), thus enforcing that the next five year be woebegone.  The war only worsens things.


That premise, ripe with melodrama as it is, is Raintree County’s most pertinent problem and is certainly not compelling enough to energize a movie without the spectacle of Ben-Hur and without the consequentiality of Magnolia. For a short period of time is its materialism excusable — the stars are bright, the costume and set design are picturesquely palatial, the cinematography stately — but three hours is a long while to spend with a film more functional than impactful.  Tedium is increasingly copious, and when Clift and Taylor’s chemistry is surprisingly paltry (they were so sizzling in A Place in the Sun), the film has little to grab onto besides its lustrous looks.


I can’t quite blame Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My SweetCrossfire) for the movie’s lacking of life — he’s the glue that holds everything together — but I’m comfortable pointing fingers at screenwriter Millard Kaufman, whose stiff script bears the evident characteristics of being cobbled together.  John is a one-dimensional hero, mundanely good-natured and unbelievably unfaltering in his loyalty to Susanna (a nightmare).  Nell puts up with so much shit that her eventual ending up with John is less heartwarming and more a disastrous perpetuation of the age-old myth that a woman is only worth something when she’s standing behind a man.  And Susanna, a Southern belle who trumps your old white conservative aunt in terms of racial prejudice, is a flimsily drawn lunatic who flaunts her lunacy through an august doll collection (her favorite resembles a post-accident Harvey Dent), erratic monologues seasoned with crocodile tears, and an irreversible belief that she could be half-black (which destroys her).


Remarkably, Clift, Marie Saint, and Taylor play these characters effectively (despite not having believable rapport) and remain unscathed.  Taylor, in particular, turns a typical soap opera subplot into something absorbing.  But the rest of the film, attractive as it appears, is insipid.  Just goes to show that the right director, the right source material, the right stars, the right studio, and the right budget are not enough to equal quality.  Without a heart, zip is meaningless.  C