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The Criterion Collection presents

The River (1951)

"The world is for children—the real world. They climb trees and roll in the grass. They're close to the ants and as free as the birds. They're like animals. They're not ashamed. They know what is important."- Mr. John (Arthur Shields)

Stars: Patricia Walters, Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Arthur Shields, Thomas E. Breen
Other Stars: Suprova Mukerjee, Radha, Adrienne Corri, Richard Foster
Director: Jean Renoir

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some intense moments)
Run Time: 01h:39m:15s
Release Date: 2005-03-01
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

Cinema has the extraordinary power to transport us anywhere in the world. Its ability to show us those places we can only dream of is one of the blessings of the medium. For Jean Renoir's first color feature, the rich culture of India would provide an exotic, revealing backdrop for what is ultimately a coming-of-age tale. But like the innovative, haunting strains of Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou-Chou, this is a distinct entity within a well-tread genre—one that mixes beauty with horror, and speaks to the transient nature of life.

Harriet (Patricia Walters), the story's narrator, lives in India with her British family. Her father (Esmond Knight), whose eye was injured during WWII, runs a jute press, making a comfortable living for his female-dominant household. His loving wife (Nora Swinburne) has given birth to five girls, save Bogey (Richard Foster), the sole male child among them. Despite Father's love for his family, this abundance of estrogen irks the war vet, who sees raising girls as a bloody hard task next to raising the opposite gender. Nan (Suprova Mukerjee) is an Indian woman who takes care of the clan, and is just as excitable and innocent as the children she watches over. Valerie (Adrienne Corri), daughter of the jute press' owner, is a frequent playmate, slightly older and more attractive than the rather plain Harriet.

Harriet's love for her family and her life's rich setting is absolute, taking flight through poetry and the lazy wanderings of summer afternoons. The Ganges River, with his never-ending flow of activity, provides the setting, and brings about the winds of change. The weekly steamer arrives, bringing Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), another war vet and cousin of neighbor Mr. John (Arthur Shields). The sight of this dashing American is enough to send the females of the house into a frenzy. Harriet and Valerie are immediately smitten, though Valerie's chances are more realistic than Harriet's childish infatuation. Nevertheless, this stirring marks an important change in Harriet's life, one that marks the end of childhood's bliss.

Though he is the center of attention, Captain John wants nothing more than to blend in and live a normal life. He lost his leg in the war, and praise as a hero has been replaced by pity. He shares a common plight with the daughter of Mr. John, the half-English, half-Indian Melanie (Radha). She too feels like a constant outsider, never fitting in among either culture. She wants to abandon her mixed heritage and live normally, finding common ground with Captain John's distinct desperation. Will the meditative power of the river and its people bring the peace these souls seek? Or is this simply another chapter of life that must be conquered independent of India's intoxicating power?

The River is a film about transition, the cycles of life, and hidden sufferings. Just about every character here is undergoing a distinctly critical, transitory moment, full of small deaths and births. Harriet is the protagonist, and her adult voice provides a poetic narration to the blazing, lush imagery. She is on the brink of young adulthood, ready to leave behind the innocence and carelessness of childhood, replacing it with the concerns of love, maturity and life's purpose. She does not yet understand all these things, but as the current flows, so does her maturation, slowly revealing the truth of life, and the things we leave behind. Captain John, too, must redefine his existence as a man with one leg. It cannot be denied, just as Melanie's cultural identity cannot be changed. The cast of actors and non-actors make these themes come alive (Thomas E. Breen actually did lose a leg in the war, so his emotions are real). Discovery is juxtaposed with moments of darkness and horror; Renoir does not shy away from the dismal underbelly of existence.

These cathartic times are set among the colorful culture of India. Beaming in glorious color, this is one of the most beautiful uses of the Technicolor process I have seen. The lush, jungle colors and the brightly vivid garments infuse a welcome sense of life; India has never looked this luminous. These images range from the realistic to the pastoral—some suggest the impressionistic hues of the director's father. Consequently, there are moments when Renior's picture trails off into pseudo-National Geographic territory, intercutting small cultural lessons and documentary footage, but this is to be expected for the time. This was undoubtedly the first exposure to Indian culture for many, and Renoir's admiration for the humanity and richness of its people is apparent, transporting his audience to another world. Charges that The River is supportive of colonialism is a non-issue; Renoir is not interested in politics, but in capturing history and life's changing currents, enhanced metaphorically by the life-giving waters of the Ganges.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion's transfer is the gorgeous result of last year's restoration of the film, showcasing the blazing three-strip Technicolor process we all know and love. Saris, painted cups, kites, and Kali burst off screen in vivid, bold hues. Sharpness and detail are breathtaking and only occasionally soft. Grain is extremely minimal. Despite some slight color shifting here and there, this is a superb image that will certainly satisfy.

Image Transfer Grade: A

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: This is one of Renoir's few English language films. The monaural audio is adequate, with minimal hiss and distortion. Dialogue and the wonderful Indian music are clear and bright.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Audio interview with producer Ken McEldowney
  2. Stills gallery
  3. Insert with essays by film scholars Ian Christie and Alexander Sesonske
Extras Review: Criterion has not skimped on the extras, even though this title is at their lower price point. We begin with a vintage introduction by Jean Renoir (07m:50s), who addresses the film's production, his travels, colonialism, and more. This is presented in black-and-white 1.33:1 in French, with English subtitles.

Rumer Godden: An Indian Affair (58m:41s) is a 1995 BBC documentary on the author of the film's source material (and of Black Narcissus) as she travels back to her childhood home of India with her adult daughter. This is a beautifully shot documentary, presented in nonanamorphic widescreen. This journey reveals her many literary inspirations.

Director Martin Scorsese, a key player in the film's 2004 restoration, delivers a colorful conversation on the film in a newly recorded interview (12m:45s). He discusses how The River deeply impacted him as a nine-year-old, and cites it as the second most beautiful color film next to The Red Shoes. Scorsese is as avid a film scholar as he is a director, so his comments are always a great listen.

A 2000 audio interview with producer Ken McEldowney is broken up into five sections, including Setting up The River (17m:12s), Casting (09m:28s), Renoir and Rummer Godden (04m:11s), Location Anecdotes (10m:18s), and Legacy (05m:58s). There are also some text screens with biographical info on the producer.

Finally, a stills gallery of production and publicity photos, the theatrical trailer and a colorful insert with essays by film scholars Ian Christie and Alexander Sesonske (plus some brief notes by Renoir himself) completes the package.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

Jean Renoir's first color feature is a masterful look at transition, personal struggle, and the rich culture of India. Beauty and darkness intermingle, teaching its characters in turn. Drenched in the boldness of Technicolor, this is a visual feast, enhanced by Criterion's fine disc.

Matt Peterson 2005-02-28