The River (1951 film)

The River (1951 film)

Infobox Film
name = The River

image_size =
caption = Film poster
director = Jean Renoir
producer = Kenneth McEldowney
Jean Renoir
writer = Rumer Godden (novel)
Rumer Godden
Jean Renoir
narrator = June Hillman
starring = Nora Swinburne
Esmond Knight
Arthur Shields
Suprova Mukerjee
music = M. A. Partha Sarathy
cinematography = Claude Renoir
editing = George Gale
distributor = United Artists
released = 10 September 1951
runtime = 99 min.
country = France / India / USA
language = English / Bengali
budget =
amg_id = 1:41530
imdb_id = 0043972

"The River" (French: "Le Fleuve") is a 1951 film directed by Jean Renoir. It was filmed in India, and was seminal to the launching of the careers of Satyajit Ray, who assisted on the film, and Subrata Mitra, Ray's cinematographer whom he met during the filming of "The River".

A fairly faithful dramatization of an earlier literary work of the same name ("The River," authored by Rumer Godden), the movie attests to a teenager's first love, and how her heart was broken when the man she fell in love with, was smitten with her older sister instead.

The film was produced by Kenneth McEldowney, and original music was by M. A. Partha Sarathy. The cast includes Esmond Knight, Nora Swinburne and Arthur Shields.

The Lotus Blossom Scene

As the movie opens, golden brown hands reach over and into little pots of bright white rice paint, alternately painting out the outlines of a lotus blossom on a beige or brown stone floor, and then, in order to preserve the symmetry, fill in different portions at a time. This practice, according to the narrator, is a matter of tradition in India when inviting strangers into the house for a festive occasion. The pattern is anything but simple, and the hands that are given to the task, appear to take liberties with the design, and despite the inaccuracies of human measurement, always return to the task so that the symmetries can be preserved.

After the lotus is drawn, and the invitation made, the hands proceed to spell out the credits to the film, returning again and again to the little pots where the white rice paint is found.

Life on the River

Although most of the movie is shot in Technicolor, the next scene, although rather brief, has the appearance of washed out "stock footage" better suited to a National Geographic documentary. Life on the river is far from a serene and peaceful place meant for meditation. Rather, the scene appears to have been shot near twilight, either at dawn or dusk, which makes for pale colors, in comparison to the rest of the film, which are mostly day shots. The river is alive with activity. There are numerous kinds of boats afloat, and about half of them possess hut-like roofings arching over them, apparently made of reeds and straw, woven together and rising from the sides of the boats. Some of these ships are made for ten or twenty men together, and there are closeups of numerous men pushing and pulling on the oars that drive them forward. Some of the ships even have sails, too. All in all, the scene appears to consist of footage shot up close to emphasis the frenzied pace and commercial activity the river Ganges is responsible for.


Harriet (played by Patricia Walters) belongs to an upper middle class English family residing on the banks of the Ganges River in India. Her father (Knight) runs a jute mill, and she has five sisters. Her only brother (played by a very young Richard R. Foster), somewhat ten years her junior, wants to learn how to tame cobras with a flute. Although they are raised in a genteel, English setting, and even have the benefit of a live-in nanny, their upbringings bear the mark of a curious confluence of Western and Eastern philosophies. If there ever could be a compromise between Christianity and Hinduism, they are immersed in it. (The youngest girl, for instance, has a doll she treats as her newborn baby, and says that some babies can be born again and again.)

The tranquility of an upperclass English family lifestyle, however, takes a tumble and turns thoroughly topsy turvy when her father invites his cousin, Captain Jack (played by Thomas E. Breen), to live with him on the plantation. When Captain Jack arrives, the girls discover he has lost one leg in the war. Notwithstanding his handicap, he has such an atmosphere of charm and sophistication about him that the daughters are all understandably smitten with him, and therefore invite him to a tea party, complete with a formal invitation in writing, hand-delivered by the oldest daughter herself.

Harriet's otherwise uneventful life contains moments worth recording, and to invite Captain Jack further into her life, she eventually gains the courage to show him her "secret book" - her diary. He politely acquiesces in a kind and fatherly way.

Later, eager to impress upon him her familiarity with Hindu religion, or perhaps to divert his attention from her sister, Harriet tells him a marriage story where mundane identities of ordinary peasants are subject to divine change and transformation. 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, nor that what you see is what the other person necessarily sees, and that but for the intervention of Krishna, things taken at first appearance, may be elevated to something significantly different.

One day, somewhat after the festival of Diwali, Harriet secretly follows Captain Jack and her oldest sister, Valerie (Adrienne Corri), to a point on the river bank where they think they are alone. It is there that Captain Jack trades a passionate kiss with Valerie, which Harriet witnesses. This incident, coupled with her perceived role in death of her brother, makes Harriet lose the will to live. Preferring to die, she runs away from home that night and attempts to commit suicide by floating down the river in an unattended canoe-like skiff. The river should not be navigated at night, as there are strong currents, and two or three men are usually needed to row the boat against the current. Overcome with very high waves, the boat would take on water, and sink. Dying on the river, as from a boat that sinks, would certainly have the appearance of an accident, but she takes things a step further by lowering herself into the water. Her death would have been a sure thing had her brother's friend not seen her steal the boat, and had fishermen not rallied after her to rescue her body from the water. Ashore, she was brought back to life, and the captain then kisses her on the forehead. He returns her to her home.

Later in the movie, alone in a room elsewhere in the family's mansion, we discover that Captain Jack has a much deeper, and more mature interest in his cousin's twenty-ish, mix-blooded daughter Melanie (Radha Burnier), a sole daughter from an unsuccessful first marriage to an Indian national. Without so much as a heated word, Captain Jack and Melanie appear to have reached a point where their irreconcilable differences are insurmountable. Unlike the five other daughters in the movie, Melanie does not appear deluded by Captain Jack's bearing, and particularly on account of their culture clash finds him more overbearing and stifling than seductive. (This represents a directorial departure from the literary work the movie was based on, as the English family in the book had no admixture of blood from Indian nationals, and Melanie as a character did not exist.)


Shot in Technicolor, it was necessary to use brighter lights than usual. A five month turn-around at the lab, meant doing things right the first time around. A spectrometer was used, in addition to a photometer. When a lawn was not green enough, the director had it painted a darker color of green.

In filming this movie, Renoir made use of nonprofessional actors in key roles, including Captain John and Harriet.

At the New York Film Festival, Director Wes Anderson, a "great" fan of Jean Renoir, talked about how Martin Scorsese showed him a print of "The River". The River was hugely influential upon Wes Anderson's 2007 film, "The Darjeeling Limited", as it inspired Anderson to make a film about India.

Other Movies Similar to The River

God's Little Acre - A single man has three daughters and appears incapable of having male offspring.

The Re-Creation of Brian Kent - (1925 silent film) A bank clerk is married to a nagging wife that demands he steal from the bank; losing the will to live, he attempts to commit suicide by drowning. Surviving the suicide attempt, he leaves his wife and meditates on the tranquility of the river passing by his cabin. He then employs a young woman to type up his reflective thoughts in a manuscript. The movie [] is a dramatization of Harold Bell Wright's 1919 book of the same name. Nearly lost to the world, a positive print and a negative survive in the United States Library of Congress.


External links

* [ Criterion Collection essay by Ian Christie]

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