RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Fifty years later, a Tennessee town remembers its movie

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

It might have been the only time a movie’s world premiere was a special midnight showing at a drive-in theater to allow second-shift factory workers a share of the excitement.
Fifty years ago in Bradley County, Tenn., throngs of eager locals drove to Cleveland’s Star-Vue and paid $1 to see Elia Kazan’s new movie “Wild River.” The advertisement beckoned: “See your friends and neighbors” on the big screen. And it hinted movie stars might show up for the premiere.
This month, June 4 and 5, Charleston, Tenn., is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration of the movie that brought Hollywood stars like Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick to the area. “Wild River” showcased the Hiwassee River and Bradley County, not to mention Alabama author William Bradford Huie’s first novel, “Mud on the Stars.” Huie told the poignant story of a family forced from their island home when the Tennessee Valley Authority floods the valley.
Aptly enough, it’s another working man, second-shift welder David Swafford of Cleveland, whose hard work and fascination with all things “Wild River” is making the event possible.
“I took my mom on a Sunday drive to the movie location where the ferry is,” Swafford says. “I stopped at a convenience store to ask about the place and approached three people. The first said, ‘Son, you are in Charleston, Tenn. There ain’t never been no movie filmed here. There ain’t nothing here.’”
The second person had never heard of “Wild River,” and the third said the movie had been filmed in another county.
That was enough to convince Swafford that the county’s role in cinematic history would be lost in a haze if people weren’t reminded soon. So, despite getting off work at 2 a.m., the enthusiastic welder and movie buff began researching and planning. There’s a website – www.wildrivercelebration.com – that lists movie facts he has found along the way.
“Wild River” was the first movie filmed entirely on location in Tennessee. As many as 200 people lined Charleston streets each day to watch the filming. Coon Denton Island was chosen as the primary location two years before filming began. Kazan flew 650 miles up and down the Tennessee River, from Paducah, Ken., to Muscle Shoals, Ala., looking for an appropriate location. When he saw Coon Denton Island on the Hiwassee, he knew he’d found the spot.
The ferry, pivotal to the plot, has been in operation 150 years.
Free ferry rides are part of the festival, as well as continuous showings of “Wild River.”
A delightfully humble Swafford, who also is working on a book and documentary, credits his mother with helping him research the project. The two of them drove to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to peruse five boxes of notes Kazan kept on “Wild River.”
He’s received help from local historians Ron and Debbie Moore, who invited Swafford to be the first guest on a radio show called “Old Town Cleveland.” Letters and phone calls resulted, many of them from the 200 local people who had movie parts 50 years ago.
Swafford also has become good friends with Huie’s widow, Martha, whom he calls “the smartest woman in the world.”
And once again, for a time, Hollywood is heavy on the minds of working folks in Tennessee.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist who lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.

Click video to hear audio