Flashback to 1984, and "the year of the farm movie": Hollywood, always quick to capitalize on the latest headlines, suddenly wakes up to the long-publicized woes of the farming industry, and produces a string of Oscar-bait epics that espouse the virtues of American farmers and the efforts of big business to co-opt them. 'Country' and 'Places in the Heart' were the most successful examples, each earning respectable box office, and strong critical notices (with the latter even snaring Sally Field a second Oscar for Best Actress).
'The River,' another of the year's farm flicks, seemed to get lost in the stampede. The lowest-grossing and most crically-dismissed of the crop, at the time it suffered from a more-of-the-same feeling. Today, it serves as a flawed but interesting artifact of early-'80s patriotic Hollywood cinema.
Meet Tom and Mae Garvey (Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek, both managing perfect Southern accents). On paper, they would seem to be living the American Dream on their 440-acre farm in rural Tennessee, land that has been in the Garvey family for over a century. But a stagnant economy has put the family and its way of life in hard times. Compounding their troubles is the fact that their home has long teetered on the edge of a flood plain, and Mother Nature seems hell-bent on its destruction. Add to that the overtures of Tom's rival, the wealthy Joe Wade (Scott Glenn), whose machinations result in a foreclosure on the Garvey land, and the family's American Dream would seem to be anything but. However, even up against such impossible odds, the Garveys refuse to give up -- the only way they'll depart their land is by force, and they won't be going without a fight.
'The River' is certainly heartfelt in its emotions, quite well-acted by Gibson and Spacek, and sensitively directed by Mark Rydell ('On Golden Pond'). And even if it never comes close to achieving the resonance of the inspirational classics like 'The Grapes of Wrath' that it clearly aspires to replicate, it still deserves points for even attempting such a noble goal.
Unfortunately, where the film fails for me is in the way it paints its lead characters. A malady all-too-common of well-meaning Hollywood flicks of the time, the leads in 'The River' aren't presented so much human beings as they are idealized martyrs. As a result, they're more sad than they are inspiring. According the film's script, the Garveys have no other way to deal with their predicament other than to fight a losing battle against the Evils of Progress. While that may be an effective means of tugging at our heartstrings, in the end it robs the film of any possible uplift. Instead of offering possible solutions (or attempting to instigate change by firing up audience indignation), the film seems to come to the dispiriting conclusion that the destruction of the American farmer is an inevitability.
In short, 'The River' is probably best described as a relic of '80s melodrama. Unlike more modern films of its sort, this one's far from inspirational, but it is certainly a well-intentioned and ably performed portrayal of the very real problems that faced (and continue to face) the farming industry in United States.
'The River' has only been released on standard-def DVD once -- back in 1999 -- making this HD DVD version a nice surprise. Universal appears to have minted a new master for this 1080p/VC-1 encode, which offers a noticeable upgrade over the old DVD, even if difference isn't exactly night and day.
The biggest beneficiary to the clean-up is the source material. Gone is most of the dirt and heavy grain that marred the past release. Blacks are more consistently solid, and the film no longer looks washed out for most of its runtime. Colors, on the other hand, don't enjoy as significant a boost. They are certainly improved, particularly fleshtones (which aren't as pale and splotchy), but don't expect tremendous pop. Detail is about as good as could be expected, not only for a 1984 production but also considering that the film is intentionally soft -- there is plenty of soft-focus photography, which -- in high-def in particular -- can veer towards the downright fuzzy. Overall, however, 'The River' holds up rather well considering its naturalistic visual style.
Universal offers up a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (at 1.5mbps) for 'The River,' and it is completely what you would expect for a 1984 film. The mix is almost entirely front heavy, with only scenes of strong action receiving any sort of discrete support.
The core sound elements are fine enough. Low bass is hardly strong but not anemic, either. Frequency response is fairly wide, although the high end tends to sound somewhat clipped. Dialogue is sometimes obscured by the louder elements of the soundtrack, and I found myself frequently bumping up the volume during quieter passages. Surround use is meager -- minor ambiance is almost non-existent, with only the big "sandbags against the rainstorm" scene remotely enveloping. There are no major defects apparent, however, so at least the mix sounds clean.
Like the old standard-def DVD release of 'The River,' there are zero supplements on this new HD DVD version.
'The River' is a big-hearted, well-meaning "save the farm" movie from the early '80s. It's got a fine cast, an impassioned script and was obviously made with grand intentions. Alas, it feels somewhat like a melodramatic relic today. As for this HD DVD release, it is also largely forgettable. A decent transfer and soundtrack seem unlikely to to save 'The River' from languishing in the bottom sales rung of HD DVD releases. But if you are one of those who've been waiting for 'The River' to hit high-def, this release should certainly fit the bill.