Breening “The River” for The Third Annual Great Breening Blogathon; R for Realism

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From October 11-14, we are hosting The Third Annual Great Breening Blogathon. This annual celebration is a tribute to Code entertainment which we host in honor of Joseph I. Breen’s birthday every year, which is today. Happy Birthday, Mr. Breen! For those of you who don’t know, Joseph Breen was the head of the Production Code Administration from 1934 to 1954. During his tenure, decent entertainment flourished because of proper enforcement of the Code, and the resulting twenty years were the peak of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Although the main point of the blogathon is for other bloggers to write about Code films, the Breen Era, and to try their hand at breening, we members of PEPS have to contribute special articles to the blogathon, as well. This year, I decided to breen a challenging Rating System Era film.

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The film I decided to breen for this blogathon is The River from 1984. This film is rated PG-13. This is my first time breening a film with this rating. I have breened G-rated films, a PG-rated film, and even an R-rated film, American Gothic from 1987. I only watched the first half hour of the last film, since it required a structural rebuild of its story. Thus, there was no need for me to watch the gory parts of the film. I was interested in that film because the leading man in that movie, Mark Erickson, is my sister’s ballet teacher and a good friend of ours. The River was his first film. He plays a supporting role to Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. Interestingly, this farming drama was also Mel Gibson’s American film debut. I recently interviewed Mr. Erickson about his experiences as an actor, particularly in regard to The River and American Gothic. He recounted some fascinating experiences, but I will save those for a future article. In this one, I will just focus on The River.

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Mark Erickson and Mel Gibson.

Just as a side note, Mark Erickson plays Baines, a young farmer who works at a steel factory with Mel Gibson’s character and becomes one of his best friends. In real life, Messrs. Gibson and Erickson became good friends during filming.

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This is the story of a young Tennessee farmer, Tom Garvey (Mel Gibson), who will endure any hardship to keep his farm going. The farm, complete with corn fields, has been in his family for generations, so he hates the thought of letting it go. However, things are rough for local farmers right now because of a downturn in the economy which has lowered land values. When the film opens, Tom, his wife, Mae (Sissy Spacek), his son, Lewis (Shane Bailey), and his young daughter, Beth (Becky Jo Lynch), are battling heavy rains which are flooding their crops. The water does a lot of damage, but, although he can’t get a loan for repairs at the bank, Tom refuses to sell his land. It is fiercely desired by Joe Wade (Scott Glenn), who owns the local milling company. He needs to buy several farms in the basin area so that he can build a dam which will provide the water he needs to irrigate his land, which is away from the river. However, he wants more that Tom has than just his lands. He used to go with Mae, and he is very interested in her. He tells her that she could have an easier life, and it is clear that he wants her to have it with him instead of being a farmer’s wife. Mae is devoted to Tom, but she does wonder if life would be better for them somewhere else, away from the river. That’s all you need to know for starters. Let the breening begin!

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Shane Bailey, Mel Gibson, and Sissy Spacek.

The biggest problem with this film is its language. It contains a lot of profanity. Tom and Mae frequently use milder swear words in the earlier part of the film. When Tom goes to work at the factory, the language becomes very coarse. By modern MPA rating standards, this film would get an R because of multiple uses of a particular swear word. However, the PG-13 rating was just introduced in 1984, so the CARA hadn’t formulated its guidelines yet for how much profanity required an R-rating. Now, they have a standard that more than one usage of this particularly bad swear word automatically gives the film an R. Unless they gave this film a special exemption, it probably would receive an R if released today. Instead of making a note of every time profanity is used, I will make a blanket statement here. All profanity must be deleted. Substitute words like darn and doggone can be used, but for the most part the swear words are just added as expletives. They can easily be removed or replaced with inoffensive words. Also, profane usage of religious expressions are also used very frequently. All irreverent uses of the words God, Lord, Jesus, and Christ are unacceptable and must be removed. Jeez is also an unacceptable expression, but gee is an appropriate substitute. These words may only be used in a reverent or religious setting. For instance, it is acceptable when a farmer says to his neighbors, “God bless you,” since it is meant reverently. With this general standard, the film’s tone would be improved greatly. It feels rather dirty and gritty in its present form. Removing the foul language would improve the images of the leading characters and would purify the movie’s whole feeling.

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The first surface objection occurs near the end of the credits. The land is flooded, and a dead steer can be seen lying dead on the ground. It appears to have died recently. This is too gory. No dead animals should be visible.

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After the credits, Tom gets trapped beneath a large piece of machinery. Mae and Lewis struggle to pull his leg out. Near the end of this sequence, a rock and roll beat enters the music. It is different from the rest of the John Williams score, which usually is more folkish. The rock beat stimulates the baser element. It should be removed.

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In a later scene, Tom and Mae are in their bedroom at night. She is in bed, wearing her nightclothes. He is just wearing his trousers, and his belt is undone. During the scene, he takes off his pants, and he is wearing nothing but small underwear underneath. He gets into bed thus sparsely attired. This is indecent. He should not be shown in so little clothing. He could just be wearing his pajama bottoms when the scene begins and put his top on during its course. He could also start wearing his pants, fully fastened, and then step out of camera range to change into his pajama pants. Then, we could see him again just as he is putting on his shirt. In Code films, men were sometimes shown in nothing but their underwear, but they were always boxer shorts which were as loose and long as modern outerwear shorts. Still, in this particular case, I think it is unacceptable for him to be in nothing but his underwear, even if they are more covering.

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After Tom finishes disrobing, he gets into bed with Mae. The Code standard was that a man and woman shouldn’t be shown in bed together, even if they were married. As I explained in my article about the Breen Era’s twin bed rule, the ban on double-beds stemmed from the British aversion to seeing couples in bed together. However, it became an American standard to forbid a man and woman to be in bed together under any circumstances. Ultimately, I think that that standard is best. After fifty-one years of the Rating System Era, people’s minds are just too dirty. The bed, even when sanctified by marriage, has such suggestive connotations to people that it is better to avoid it in film. Also, the actors are not married. If Tom and Mae are shown in bed, they should be in twin beds. If Mae is shown in a double-bed, Tom should remain standing or just sit on the bed. He shouldn’t actually get under the sheets.

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In a later scene, Tom acts romantic toward his wife for the first time in the movie. He and Mae begin to feel very affectionate when in the kitchen one afternoon, doubtless because he is jealous that Joe Wade drove her home. After asking their young daughter to go outside and do chores, the spouses begin kissing passionately. I have nothing against the concept of a married couple’s expressing deep and romantic love for each other. However, in this case, the love scene is excessive and unacceptable. Their kissing is lustful, open-mouthed, very aggressive, and much too prolonged. As they are kissing and embracing, Tom put his hands in Mae’s hair, tangling it. In general, this scene is too passionate. Some things are not acceptable to be shown on the screen. They may kiss, but their kissing must be shorter, gentler, and close-mouthed. Also, Tom should not tangle Mae’s hair. He may stroke it, but the movement should be gentle. In general, the feeling of the scene should be one of affection rather than just lust.

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In a later scene, Tom needs a part for his tractor. It seems that Harley (David Hart), the man who owns the store where he bought the part, sold him the wrong piece of equipment for his old tractor. On a Sunday after the local baseball game, Tom storms into the poolroom, fighting mad. All the fellows, including Joe and Harley, are drinking, playing pool, and carrying on. Their behavior looks too rowdy and disreputable during this scene. They can be drinking and playing pool, but the general tone should not be so much of reckless abandon. After all, most of these men are farmers with families. They shouldn’t be acting like wild college boys.

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In this scene, Harley says that his store is closed today and that Tom will have to come tomorrow for his part. He half-jokingly says, “I can’t open on Sunday. I’m a Christian.” This line is meant as mockery of Christian faith. He can’t open on Sunday, yet he can drink beer and play pool. Christianity should not be mentioned here. He should just say, “I’m closed on Sunday.” Tom then threateningly says that Harley will have a Christian burial if he doesn’t get him that part, and that makes Harley realize how urgently he wants it. Since the word Christian must be removed, Tom should say, “If you don’t get me that part, the store will be closed tomorrow too for your funeral.” Obviously, Tom isn’t insinuating a murder threat. He is just trying to get his point across.

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Joe persuades Tom to join next week’s baseball game. During this game, Joe is seen spitting on the ground. This action looks quite vulgar. It should be removed.

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Times are so hard that Tom has to go to work at a steel factory as a strikebreaker to support his family, since his farm is failing. It is at this point that the film gets rougher, since the behavior and language of the foreman and the other employees is much coarser than that of the families in the earlier part of the film. When Tom and the other new strikebreakers are receiving their first instructions at the factory, the foreman crudely informs them that they get a ten-minute bathroom break once every two hours. Even if the phraseology were improved, that is not a topic which should be discussed. This line should be removed.

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Later during his preliminary instructions, the man tells them that they will be living in rough quarters there and lays down some rules. He says, “No booze and no dope.” The reference to alcohol is fine, but drugs should not be mentioned. Instead, he should just say, “No booze.”

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Soon after, we see Mae and the children back at the farm. Before eating, they say grace. However, instead of praying to the Christian God or some other deity, they say a strange prayer to the earth and sun in thanks for their food. I know that, as farmers, these people rely heavily on nature for their livelihood. Recently, Mother Earth has not been a very loving protector to them. Instead of this bizarre prayer, they should pray to a more recognized deity. If the script writers don’t want them to say a Christian prayer like, “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful,” they could just bow their heads and say, “Thank you for the food we are about to receive and for continually sustaining us,” not saying the words God or Lord. However, I think a little Christianity among the farmers wouldn’t be a bad thing. There still was a strong Christian presence in Tennessee at this point, so I think it would be quite realistic.

Later, an injured worked is shown at the factory. He is bloody and burnt and seems to have been very severely hurt while working. He looks much too gruesome. An injured man can be shown, but his injuries shouldn’t be so gorily depicted. A man can be carried through the factory, looking hurt, but the blood on him should be minimal. Also, if he looks burnt, his injuries should not be so red.

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One of the goriest parts of the film occurs when Mae is trying to repair a tractor. She is alone on the farm, since her children are at school. and Tom is at the factory. While under the machine, she gets her arm caught in the workings. It quickly starts bleeding heavily. As time passes and she is unable to free herself, her shirt becomes soaked with blood, and her whole arm is crimson. This part is quite graphic. She can get her arm caught in the machinery, but there must not be so much blood. Instead of just a thin cotton shirt which absorbs the blood like a sponge, perhaps she could be wearing a coat over her shirt. Thus, the blood wouldn’t be seen, since it wouldn’t able to soak through her clothing, but the absence of blood wouldn’t be unrealistic. After she is there for a long time, some blood could have trickled down onto her hand, just so long as there isn’t too much of it.

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Eventually, a bull comes along, and Mae throws things at it to enrage it so that it will kick the tractor and free her. The bull quickly becomes angry and starts ramming the tractor. Finally, the force is enough to turn the chain and release her wounded arm. This part is a little too violent. The bull’s kicking should not be shown from the level of the ground so much, since it is very uncomfortably nerve-wracking. It would be better to show most of the exchange from a distance and at standing level.

After she is freed, Mae goes to the kitchen and washes her arm in the sink. She is so weak from loss of blood that she can barely stand. As she pulls back her sleeve, we see blood on her arm and the very realistic wound from which it is issuing. Rather than showing her cleaning the wound, we should just see her weakly reach for the telephone and start dialing for help.

Back at the factory, we see Tom and several other factory workers in the dorms. As the five main fellows talk together, we see several unnamed men in the background who are wearing less than proper clothing. Many of them are very fat men who are barely covering themselves with towels. They are not the focus of the scene, but they can be seen. I suppose they are coming back from washing themselves after a long day of sooty work in the factory, but that is no reason for them to be undressed. This inclusion is very indecent. The men in their bunks should at least be wearing trousers. Men who are walking around in the background after bathing must at least be wearing large bath towels which are wrapped around their waists and reach to their knees. Better still, they should be wearing bathrobes or, best of all, full clothing.

As they are sitting there, there is the inclusion of a crude bodily function and some vulgar discussion of it. This must be removed. One of the fellows should just say that it is hot and stuffy in the room and thus suggest that they go outside.

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Outside, Truck (Charles Robinson), one of the four main factory employees, is demonstrating his strength to the other men by holding a barrel over his head. He asks the other men how much they weigh. He proudly states that he is “205 pounds of USDA prime n-.” The word which is spelled with a dash is the offensive term for African-Americans. Truck is black, but it is still is likely to give offense if he uses this derogatory term. As I explained in my Gone with the Wind article, the Code forbade the usage of this racial epithet even if spoken by a person of that race about himself. That word should be replaced with the word negro.

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In this scene, Baines decides to climb over the fence and go home. You see, these men are strikebreakers. They took the job unaware of what it was, but they are all desperate for work. The strikers are encamped right outside the factory’s fence, ready to kill them if they come out. However, Baines’s wife is expecting a baby, and he is very worried about her managing their farm alone. Giving the brief explanation, “I’m going home,” he climbs over the chain-link fence. Tom, Truck, and Roy (Barry Primus) quickly follow and climb over the fence to save Baines from the vicious strikers who attack him as soon as he lands on the other side. A brutal fight ensues. The strikers hit the scabs with wooden boards, causing their faces to bleed heavily. Men from both sides smash their opponents’ faces against a wall. Finally, the strikebreakers win the fight and scrabble back over the wall. Their faces are bleeding very heavily, but they are alive. This scene is much too violent. There is nothing wrong with the idea of the fight, since there are fights of many sorts in Code films. This one is just too brutal and gory. The strikers should not be holding boards. They should just strike their opponents with their fists. Also, there must be no pushing against walls. A few of the strikers seem to deal low blows to the unarmed factory workers. This should be eliminated. After the men climb back over the wall, they may have some cuts and bruises, but their faces should not be so bloody. Any blood should be minimal and quickly wiped away.

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Soon after, Tom arranges to spend the weekend with his family in the city where the factory is located. He and his family stand in line for a movie with his cousin Roy and his family. Tom tells Mae that he wants the children to go with Roy’s family after the show. He looks meaningfully at a nearby hotel. The next scene takes place in the hotel room, which they rented for obvious reasons. Although there is nothing wrong with a married couple wanting to be together, this scene is unacceptably suggestive. In fact, suggestive does not properly describe it. It is thoroughly indecent in its clear depiction of intimate aspects of marriage. However, after the first few minutes, they start talking about what has been happening while they have been apart. This conversation is entirely proper and important for the story. It may remain if the location is changed.

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Instead of motioning toward a hotel, Tom should motion toward a restaurant, where he wants to have dinner alone with Mae so that they can talk. Thus, the next scene can take place during dinner. The conversation which takes place in the hotel room about the crops and the factory could take place at the restaurant. The scene in the hotel room ends in excessive kissing. Obviously, they would not kiss so passionately in a public place like a restaurant. If they kiss at the end of the scene, it would have to be acceptably restrained, which would be necessary for kissing in a restaurant.

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Back at the factory, a deer gets into the building one day. The men are very hungry, since they have been living on the meager food at the cafeteria. They look greedily at the animal, thinking about the barbecue they could have. They proceed to chase it all over the factory. Eventually, they corner it. They have the animal surrounded and intend to capture, kill, and cook it. However, it looks at them so pathetically that they decide to release it. As it is just standing there, cornered by them, it does its business. This is a highly unnecessary detail which must be eliminated. It has no importance whatsoever.

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Soon after, the boss of the factory abruptly tells all the workers that they must accept their pay and leave immediately. The strike is over, and so are their jobs. The men are disturbed to learn that no truck will be provided to transport them out of the factory. It is part of the strikers’ deal that the scabs must walk out through them. The nervous men proceed to do so. Although the strikers don’t physically hurt them, they yell insults at them and spit on them. The insults are fine, as long as the profanity is removed, as specified earlier. However, the spitting is unacceptably vulgar. This element should be removed.

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The ending of this film is very unsatisfying. Reviewers often complain about this movie’s open-ended conclusion. By gaining the support of the other farmers, Tom and his family are able to repair the levee. Joe Wade says that he’ll leave them alone, but their victory is only temporary. “Sooner or later there’s bound to be too much rain, or too much drought, or too much corn. I’ll wait.” He sees a small leak in the levee and throws a sandbag on it. This is his one attempt toward being on the “right side.” After that, we just see the Garvey family harvesting seed for next year’s crop. They all seem happy, but one can’t help thinking about Joe’s gloomy yet realistic prediction. It could only be a matter of a year until they can no longer make ends meet and end up surrendering to Joe’s plans for a dam like most of the other farmers have been forced to do. Has anything been accomplished by this fight? Is it a real victory or merely a temporary cease fire? I think that this film needs a more satisfying and uplifting ending. This isn’t really a Code issue. It is more of a friendly suggestion.

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Instead of just saying that he will wait for the Garveys’ farm to fail, Joe should come around to the right side. We must assume that, as the protagonist, Tom is in the right, despite many people’s complaints that antagonist Joe Wade is more likable than stubborn Tom Garvey. When Joe sees that the levee has been repaired through the help of the other farmers and the ruined men whom he hired to destroy Tom, he should realize that only a few minions are still on his side. He should finally seem to have a change of heart. Perhaps Tom’s reminders that his people are buried in the valley as well as Tom’s penetrated his heart. Maybe he finally realizes that Mae loves Tom and that ruining her husband won’t win him her love. His hard heart should seem to soften toward Tom. He should declare that Tom is right, and so are all the other farmers who are sticking to their lands. They belong here as much as he does, and he can’t flood the valley to help his farm while destroying theirs. Then, he turns to all the farmers who have lost their farms, partly because of the hard times and partly because he has forced them out of business with low prices and influence over the banks. He tells them that he is going to buy the land in the valley which they used to own. Instead of turning it into a reservoir next to a dam, he is going to make it a huge farm, and they can all work and live on it with their families for a share of the profits. Maybe someday they will make enough money to buy back their own portions. As for the other farmers, he will pay them fair prices for their corn. Everyone celebrates, since all the farmers have banded together. They realize that they all need the land as much as they need each other.

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Director Mark Rydell

This film was rated PG-13 but, as I stated before, it probably would be rated R today. Why does this film contain content which makes it bad enough for a Restricted rating? It is a simple, almost Capraesque film about a simple man who fouls up a powerful man’s plans by clinging to his land. I don’t think the director, Mark Rydell, added the objectionable content just for the sake of being vulgar, cheap, or sensationalist. Firstly, he was following the trends toward unacceptable content which have prevailed since the formation of the rating system in 1968. However, I think that the main reason for the inclusion of the unacceptable content was the attempt to create realism. From the blood to the coarse language to the natural functions of the deer, all the gruesome, distasteful, and offensive content was doubtless included to create a very realistic depiction of the hard lives of Tennessee farmers.

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Should a film have to be rated R for realism? I think not. A movie can be realistic without depicting every disgusting detail of life. A man can be angry without using swear words. An accident can be dangerous and tense without blood everywhere. A husband and wife’s marriage can be romantic without embarrassing scenes of passion. There are many acceptable things about this movie that are very realistic. The footage of the river, the crops, and the floods are extremely realistic because of the unique and painstaking process which the filmmakers used to really film this movie in Tennessee. The actors look like farmers because of their ragged clothes and disheveled hair. Their dialogue makes them really seem like Tennessee natives. The sight of the homeless farmers and their families’ camping in tents strikes the viewers with how hard conditions are for them. This film is very realistic aside from its unacceptable elements.

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This film contains an interesting premise, good acting, amazing scenery, and some good scripting. What it needed was more opportunities for Tom to be a sympathetic character. Many people have criticized him for being too stubborn and rough with his family as conditions get harder, so much that Joe seems to be talking sense while Tom is foolishly stubborn. Mel Gibson himself said that he thought his character was too stubborn. If the foul language was removed, Tom would have seemed a lot less harsh and quick-tempered. Perhaps breening would have also encouraged the screenplay writers to give him a little more gentle dialogue, making him a Capraesque David and Goliath hero. (The only other thing the film needed was a few more scenes for Baines, but that has nothing to do with the Code!) This is another example of a good movie which needed the Code’s alchemy to refine it to gold!

The Great Breening Blogathon 7

Happy Birthday to Joseph I. Breen, the Keeper of the Code!


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