Bitter debates over slavery leading eventually to war between the states turning countryman against countryman, unbelievably horrific violence occurring as the basic human right for liberty struggled to assert itself in the consciences and lives of mid-nineteenth century Americans. But 1957's Raintree County would prefer to talk about the trouble with women. Set mostly in a northern county (Raintree), the film sees the conflict through the story of a young northern man who marries a southern woman. Its use of a dully good guy (made somewhat interesting by Montgomery Clift) trying to deal with his emotionally unhinged wife (a very emotive Elizabeth Taylor) sort of works as a metaphor for the conflict between states but mostly it's reflective of 1950s misogynist attitudes. There's some impressive visuals and a relatively engaging story but it all drowns under the influence of dated attitudes the film lacks the imagination to move beyond.
Scenes of Taylor crying in Clift's arms as he helplessly tries to console her about some buried issues she can't articulate recur frequently throughout the film and invariably end up with Taylor's character, Susanna, doing something incredibly destructive and implausible. Like sneaking away from Raintree with her and Johnny's (Clift) son Jim to safety in the south right in the middle of the Civil War.
Johnny doesn't help matters much by encouraging Susanna to trash her beloved dolls as part of a vague effort to get her to mature. He also keeps hanging around with his childhood sweetheart Nell (Eva Marie Saint) who is always supportive, dispassionate, and about as exciting as a bar of soap.
All of Susanna's issues seem to stem from a fire that destroyed her childhood home. She seems to believe a slave who worked in her home was her real mother, or maybe there was a half black child who was killed, in any case part of her deeply loathes black people but she has an affection for this slave that is greater than the love she has for her white mother. But there aren't any black characters in this movie--there are a couple of household slaves Susanna frees when she's living with Johnny in the north but they both stay on as servants because of some implied love they have for Susanna. We never get to know them, their struggles apparently immaterial next to Susanna's problems.
I was never able to track down a decent copy of the movie. I looked on Amazon where the best option was a Chinese edition transferred from VHS. avarwaen pointed me to some online versions of the same VHS copy and my mother told me she could order the film through NetFlix. So I waited for the NetFlix version to see if that one was any better but it ended up being the same Chinese VHS transfer. At least it was widescreen but part of the image was still noticeably cropped.
Even in VHS quality, it's still easy to spot the shots of Clift that were shot before and after his car accident and extensive facial reconstruction surgery.
It's fascinating partly because it reveals the sequence in which scenes for the movie were shot. There are crowd shots with pre-accident Clift that cut to close-ups of post-accident Clift and vice versa.
Even Clift's voice was different after the accident, shakier, more plaintive. I've always felt he was a better actor after the accident. It's as though the trauma had broken down a psychological barrier and left his emotions forever unmasked and raw. It lends some interest to his character who for the most part just spends the film trying to live with Susanna.