The River

‘The River’ and the limits of working class solidarity

“The River”, a 1984 film directed by Mark Rydell and starring Sissy
Spacek and Mel Gibson, is one of the more underrated political films
of the 1980s. The story centers on Tom and Mae Garvey, Tennessee farmers who are barely holding onto their land during an economic crisis. As we begin,
their farm is nearly destroyed by a flood and Tom is almost killed in
the process. It doesn’t get any better from there.

Local mill owner and capitalist villain Joe Wade, played masterfully
by Scott Glenn, wants to buy up all of the flooded farm land in order
to build a hydroelectric dam. Throughout the film he does everything he can, both legally and illegally in order to squeeze the farmers out of the land, but the fiercely independent families refuse to sell.

Eventually, Tom Garvey is forced to take a job in a massive factory
just to make ends meet until the harvest comes in. He travels to some
unknown City, possibly Birmingham, and discovers he’s been hired as a
scab during a labor dispute. As trucks full of men crawl into the
factory, striking workers hurl insults and rocks at the farmers.
Garvey is shocked at what he’s doing, but refuses to back down. His
family needs the money.

Throughout their time as scabs, the men are constantly besieged by
strikers. A brawl nearly takes a young man’s life. And then, just as
quickly as they were hired, they’re let go. They have to leave the
plant immediately and, in a further insult, they must do so by walking
through the strikers. Tom is spit on by a woman, who yells at him for
taking her family’s food. He hangs his head in shame and walks on.

Tom himself is later put into the exact same position, only this time
on the opposite side. In the climax of the film, it begins to flood
again, and the farms need to be saved. They create a makeshift levy
that protects their fields, but it is only barely holding on. At
exactly the wrong time, the villain makes his return. Joe Wade pulls
up to the levy in his fancy Jeep (as opposed to the working men who
all drive pickup trucks), and leads a gang of men hellbent on
destroying the levy, ruining the land, and driving the farmers out
once and for all.

Tom makes an appeal to the men to not destroy the levy, just as the
strikers once begged him not to cross the picket line. They refuse to
listen because, as one man says, “We’re hungry.” They are doing
everything they can to support their families, even if it means
destroying some farmers’ harvests. When your belly is empty it’s hard
to hold onto principles.

Eventually though, as you knew from the beginning, the levy is not
destroyed and the men all come together to save the farms. They stick
it to the capitalist and show him what true class solidarity is all
about it. But our villain sees it another way. He doesn’t admit
defeat, he probably can’t admit to such a thing. Instead, he gives one
of the most chilling lines I’ve ever heard. He tells Tom Garvey that
it doesn’t matter if they stop the floods today. The river will never
be tamed, rain will never stop, the fields are inevitably going to be
destroyed. And in the final line of the movie, Joe Wade says, “I can
wait.”

And you know he’s right. The farmers won’t win. The working guys won’t
prevail. The capitalists are going to get their land and build their
dam and control the power and the jobs. There won’t be any little guys
making it on their own, everything in the valley will have to go
through the capitalists. Eventually, when the economy goes bust again,
or something better comes along, they’ll abandon the area and take the
jobs away.

Meanwhile, the working class will be scrambling at the bottom,
fighting amongst themselves for whatever scraps remain. The
capitalists know this. They know that people will scab, even if it
means taking food away from someone else. They know men will tear down
a levy that will destroy farmers for decades if it means they can feed
their families for another week.

Seeing your family suffer really does a number on the principles you
once held dear. Your sphere of empathy narrows down, sometimes to only
one person. Screw everyone else. The capitalists know this, and use
this against you all of the time. You need their meager pay more than
they need your labor because, at the end of the day, you’re just a cog
in a machine. A replaceable part.

There are limits to our solidarity because we live in a system
designed to prevent unity. Everything is working against the billions
of workers in the struggle against the handful of capitalists and
imperialists. It need not be so.