River, The (1951): Renoir’s Coming of Age Tale, Set in India

Jean Renoir directed The River, a touching coming of age tale set in India, was based on a dramatization of Rumer Godden’s literary, and shot in stunning Technicolor by Claude Renoir.

Harriet (Patricia Walters), the protagonist, is a perceptive upper middle-class English girl who resides on the banks of the Ganges River with her father (Esmond Knight) who runs a jute mill, her kind mother (Nora Swinburne), and her five siblings.

Harriett’s four sisters play minor roles in the tale.  Her only brother (Richard R. Foster), ten years her junior, is an adventurous boy who wants to learn how to tame cobras with a flute.  His sudden death later on and the ensuing funeral provide one of the film’s most shocking and emotional sequences.

Tthough they are raised in a genteel English setting, and have the benefit of a live-in nanny, their upbringings represents a confluence of Western and Eastern philosophies, a blend of Christianity and Hinduism.

The stability of the English family is shattered when a neighbor invites his single handsome cousin, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), to live with him on his plantation.

Captain John, who has lost one leg in the war, exudes such charm and sophistication that all the daughters are smitten with him. They invite him to a Diwali celebration via a formal invite hand-delivered by the oldest daughter.

Harriet eventually gains the courage to show him her secret book, her diary, and he responds in a friendly but fatherly way.  She impresses him with her knowledge of Hindu religion, and to divert his attention from her best friend Valerie, Harriet tells him a marriage story.

In this tale, Lord Krishna intervenes in a wedding ceremony to assume the identity of the groom, and a bride is temporarily transformed into Krishna’s consort. The moral to the story is that things are not always as they seem, and that individuals perceive the same events subjectively and differently.

One day, Harriet secretly follows Captain John and her friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) as they meet by the river. She is devastated when witnessing the Captain trading a passionate kiss with Valerie.

This incident, aggravated by her feeling that she might have contributed to her brother’s death, makes Harriet lose her will power.  She runs away from home that night and attempts to commit suicide by floating down the river, but her brother’s friend and fishermen rescue her. Ashore, brought back to life, the captain kisses her on the forehead.

However, Captain John has much deeper interest in Melanie (Radha Burnier), the young mix-blooded daughter from his cousin’s marriage to an Indian.  But, unlike the five other girls, Melanie is not deluded by Captain John’s charm and finds him more overbearing and stifling than seductive.

In the original book, the English family in the book had no admixture of blood from Indian nationals, and Melanie didn’t exist as a character.

The River world premiered at the 1051 Venice Film Fest, where it won the International Film Award. The National Board of Review placed it among the year’s Top Five Foreign Films. The film was a considerable commercial success as a result of its filmmakers reputation, earning $1 million in rentals.

Renoir made use of nonprofessional actors in key roles, including Captain John and Harriet. Thomas E. Breen, playing Captain John, was a vet of the US Marine Corps who was injured during fighting on Guam in 1944, resulting in amputation of his right leg. Renoir cast him without knowing that he was the son of Joseph Breen, Hollywood’s chief censor.

The would be great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, then working in advertising, met Renoir while The River was in production, and the two men became friends.

Nora Swinburne as The Mother
Esmond Knight as The Father
Arthur Shields as Mr. John
Suprova Mukerjee as Nan
Thomas E. Breen as Captain John
Patricia Walters as Harriet
Radha Burnier as Melanie
Adrienne Corri as Valerie


Narrated by June Hillman
Music by M. A. Partha Sarathy
Cinematography by Claude Renoir
Edited by George Gale
Distributed by United Artists
Release date: September 10, 1951
Running time: 99 minutes