MGM attempted to repeat the success of “Gone With the Wind” twenty years later with another all-star Civil War melodrama, “Raintree County,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, in their second onscreen appearance after “A Place in the Sun,” in 1951.
Set on the eve of the Civil War, when Lincoln was President, Edward Dmytryk’s overlong picture (over three hours, and then recut to 166 minutes,) is technically lavish and handsomely mounted. But the narrative structure is disjointed and the direction leaves much to be desired. The rambling script is by Millard Kaufman, who adapted Ross Lockridge, Jr’s original novel.
Taylor, who received her first Best Actress Oscar nomination, plays a beautiful and seductive southern belle, in the mold of Bette Davis in “Jezebel” and Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind.” She’s an “exotic” outsider from New Orleans, whose arrival in Indiana’s Raintree County affects and changes everyone’s life around her.
Clift plays an advocate of slavery abolition, whose goal is to become a dedicated teacher. Though engaged to a lovely, practical woman (Eva Marie Saint), he’s smitten by the spoiled and aristocratic Taylor. After seducing him, she traps him into marriage by claiming to be pregnant.
The couple gets married and later has a son, but tension arises due to differing political allegiances: Clift fights for the Union, while Taylor maintains loyal the South.
Clift and his Indiana friends go through years of bloody battle as foragers for the Union Army. Lee Marvin, Clift’s closest friend, is shot and dies, while he escapes carrying his boy with him.
Returning with his son to Indiana, Clift brings Taylor back home after the war, but by then she is deeply disturbed, a victim of insanity that runs in her family. Institutionalized in a mental hospital, she regresses back to her traumatic childhood. In one scene, she hysterically clutches a doll disfigured in a fire she had survived as a girl; the doll becomes a symbol of Taylor’s family ghosts and troubled past.
In a moment of madness, based on her belief that she bears “contaminated” African blood, Taylor grabs her boy and leads him into a fierce storm. Clift searches for them, finding the boy alive and shivering next to his mother, who had died beneath the legendary raintree Clift has been searched for all of his life. He is now a free to marry his sweetheart, who has patiently waited for him.
An expensive production, with a budget north of $6 million, “Raintree County” benefits from lush technical production values, manifest in some of the ball and battle scenes, and Taylor’s costumes, which change from scene to scene.
But ultimately the film lacks the sweep, grandeur, emotional impact, and appeal of “Gone With the Wind.” And there’s no way around the fact that Taylor basically plays an unsympathetic character, lacking the sympathy that Vivien Leigh (or Bette Davis) elicited from viewers, despite playing flawed parts.
The troubled production was beset by all kinds of problems. During the shoot, Clift, then a confirmed alcoholic, suffered from recurrent hangovers, and damaged himself seriously in a car accident that changed his looks radically (broken nose, cut lips, fractured jaws). Moreover, on location near Natchez, Taylor collapsed from hyperventilation, struggling to breathe; a week later, she suffered an attack of tachycardia.
The secondary cast includes Nigel Patrick, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor, Agnes Moorehead, Walter Abel, Tom Drake, and DeForest Kelly.
Filmed on locations in Natchez, Danville, near Port Gibson, Louisiana, and in the swamps of Reelfort Lake, Tennessee, “Raintree County” was shot with MGM’s new Camera, 65mm process, reduced to 35mm for release prints.
“Raintree County” was the last production overseen by MGM’s head, Dore Schary. It’s noteworthy that this was Dmytryk’s first—and last–film for MGM.
Star power may explain the fact that Raintree County was one of 1957’s most popular pictures, occupying the fifth position, grossing close to $6 million in domestic rentals.
Oscar Nominations: 4
Actress: Elizabeth Taylor
Art Direction/Set Decoration: William A. Horning and Urie McCleary; Edwin B. Willis and Hugh Hunt
Score: Johnny Green
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Oscar Awards: None
Joanne Woodward won the Best Actress Oscar for “The Three Faces of Eve,” in a contest that also included Deborah Kerr in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” Anna Magnani in “Wild Is the Wind,” and Lana Turner in “Peyton Place.”
“Sayonara” won the Art Direction Oscar. Malcolm Arnold received the Score Oscar for “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Designer Orry-Kelly won the Costume design Oscar for George Cukor’s musical, “Les Girls.”
Montgomery Clift as John Wickliff Shawnessey
Elizabeth Taylor as Susanna Drake
Eva Marie Saint as Nell Gaither
Nigel Patrick as Prof. Jerusalem Webster Stiles
Lee Marvin as Orville ‘Flash’ Perkins
Rod Taylor as Garwood B. Jones
Agnes Moorehead as Ellen Shawnessy
Walter Abel as T.D. Shawnessy
Jarma Lewis as Barbara Drake
Tom Drake as Bobby Drake
Rhys Williams as Ezra Gray
Russell Collins as Niles Foster
DeForest Kelley as Southern officer
“Raintree County” was released as a prestige film in the prime Christmas season, on December 21.