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Transformations in the Swamp: "Wind Across the Everglades"

Evan Davis

Wind Across the Everglades played as part of a 15-film Nicholas Ray retrospective at New York’s Film Forum on July 30th.

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Wind Across the Everglades (1958) is necessarily incomplete. This has everything to do with the personalities behind its creation, Nicholas Ray and Budd Schulberg. Aside from King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, it is the one Ray film which solely bears his name as director that could be argued has the least of him in it. The chaotic production resulted in poisoned relations between Ray and Schulberg, while both were indulging their alcoholism. Ray got sick, and was barred by Schulberg from the final shooting and editing.

Down what path of auteurism shall we travel with Wind Across the Everglades? Does Schulberg’s involvement make it a lesser film by simple virtue of another artist having placed their soul into it, or are the mediocrities of the Masters better than the masterpieces of the hacks? Does anyone even care?

A theory: without having any way of knowing who shot what, how much Ray was able to manipulate the script (Schulberg apparently demanded that no word be changed), or from whom the editors followed their instructions for each scene, the film’s first half feels much more like Schulberg and the second half feels like Ray. Schulberg’s preoccupation in many of his scripts is corruption and hypocrisy in institutionalized life, and the stands that individuals make against those institutions on moral grounds. (See On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd for examples—the only two Elia Kazan films scripted by Schulberg, and two of Kazan’s most scathing works.) Our introduction to the fledgling town of Miami, and to the future Audobon Society warden Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer), is highly suggestive of Murdock being a crusader looking to fight for what is right against decadent, morally vacant opponents. Swamp kingpin Cottenmouth (Burl Ives) in these early scenes seems to have a kinship to Lee J. Cobb in Waterfront or Andy Griffith in Face. He is boisterous, defiant, and convinced of his own supremacy over the world.

The scale of the first half is much more encompassing as well. We see the many strata of south Florida’s civilized world, from high-society ladies to classy brothels to dying Seminole populations to the bird-poaching swamp rats. Ray is also interested in exposing other types of social networks, but usually from the perspective of identification rather than classification.

Ultimately, the first half feels narratively disjointed, as if Ray and Sculberg were rushing through it to set up various plot threads as context for what is to come afterward. Murdock’s burgeoning relationship with a local woman (Chana Eden) is never returned to after she agrees to marry him. A final showdown with the corrupt local government forces Murdock to return to the Everglades to find Cottenmouth, which sets off the film’s second act.

The Schulberg-isms fade away and what is left is a Ray film at its most poetic, evocative of Bitter Victory (the film immediately preceding Wind), sections of Rebel Without a Cause, and the bifurcated structure of On Dangerous Ground, not to mention the color palettes of Johnny Guitar and Hot Blood. The hints of the family of outsiders that Cottenmouth has created become more attractive once Murdock is captured by them. The gang may be unapologetic bird poachers, but the money it brings them seems to be of little importance. They seem to prefer to live outside the boundaries of “cultured” Miami by soaking in the purity of the Everglades. A scene with Ray’s remarkably unique brand of tension turns Murdock & Cottenmouth into Leith & Brand—two opposing forces who become part of the same coin. Murdock’s latent rebellious streak comes to the surface, and once the jug of ’shine slides across the table to Cottenmouth, his gleeful anarchy becomes sensitive, even respectful. With Cottenmouth’s whole gang shrieking and carrying on around them, the two men hardly take their eyes off each other. Even the thematic rhetoric changes in the second half. Rather than standing on a soap box delivering his judgments, Murdock goes at them sideways. He pithily tells Cottenmouth that by killing birds, Cottenmouth is destroying rather than honoring the nature he claims to love. In the film’s final scene, with Cottenmouth flummoxed by why Murdock would care so much about birds, Murdock tells him to look at their strange beauty.

The strengths of Wind Across the Everglades become more clear when one sees it as the successor of Bitter Victory. Both films feature equivocated male antagonists, rather than romantic couples. Ray’s expressive interiors are also abandoned for exteriors, a wider geographic canvas also speaking volumes about the conditions of the main characters. There is even a shot in Wind with the camera staring at Murdock & Cottenmouth’s boat through a cage of reeds, linking it with a consistent visual motif going all the way back to They Live by Night. Both Wind and Bitter Victory conclude with the death of one of the men, resulting in an ambiguous future for the other. Murdock’s transformation from civilized to “savage” seems clear, but what he will do with it remains to be seen. As for Cottenmouth, as he lies dying in the swamp, he finally can see what Murdock has been saying this whole time. Heartwarming if it weren’t so rigorously unsentimental, Wind Across the Everglades stands as one of Ray’s strangest, most challenging, and most visually sumptuous works.

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Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.

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