Wind Across the Everglades (Nicholas Ray, 1958)

by October 25, 2019 5 minutes (1028 words) 35mm Cinémathèque québécoise, Festival of Nouveau Cinema/‘Films for the Planet’ section

It’s early twentieth century as game warden Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) arrives in a Miami looking more like a Florida (ie, moister and more green) version of the dusty clapboard town found in a spaghetti western, than the slick Cubano drug-dealer home of Miami Vice it would eventually become (on TV anyway), intent on stopping the decimation of the local plume birds, slaughtered in droves to supply all those rich ladies with fashionable feathers in their hats, and finds himself at dangerous odds with both the town businessmen making a killing (pun intended) off the illegal business, and the fierce and brutal gun-toting poachers living out in the wild ‘glades, leading to an inevitable confrontation with their larger-than-life leader Cottonmouth (Burl Ives).

With its unabashed focus on environmental concerns, its heavy ‘nature’ setting, as well as populating so many of the supporting characters with non-actors, what a unique oddball of a Hollywood film Wind Across the Everglades is. Rarely a Hollywood film of the 50’s was particularly concerned with ecological concerns.

With so much of the production having been set clearly in the inhospitable (and profoundly film-unfriendly) Florida ‘glades, as Plummer’s courageous Murdock (apparently based upon a real-life game warden who was shot and killed for daring take on the illegal plume trade) is taken in by the poachers for almost the film’s entire second half, with Ives’ brutal Cottonmouth (geez, who would have thought the portly actor who gave us the gentle voice of “Frosty, the Snowman” could be so tough) taking a liking to the young man, sensing a bit of a similar wild man in his spirit despite the fact that he knows he’s there to end their livelihood and take him back to the law, and also having discovered post-screening that that iconoclastic director – and OG (that’s ‘original gangster’ to you white folk) of the indie filmmaking scene — Nicholas Ray was fired during production (with legendary screenwriter Budd Schulberg having taken over at some point) makes this production – and film — all the more fascinating.

A young Christopher Plummer

It’s a gorgeous looking film, with the various colors and textures of the swamp popping off the 35mm print (with a problem – as much as I love celluloid, there’s almost always something when one of these old prints is sussed out and projected – with this one I was told being the last surviving one, at least that any of the official sources know anything about – that being, it was cropped down to around a 1.33 television ratio, cut considerably down from what I’m sure was a theatrical — probably 1.85 ratio – diminishing a lot of the ‘scope’ the filmmakers were intending), and even with the obsessively lingering shots on the uncivilized world (with lots of Werner Herzog’s ‘the brutality of nature’ moments of crocs chomping on birds, buzzards circling waiting for death, and the like), the filmmakers never lose sight of creating the ‘mythic’ stature to the conflict between our two male leads (it is, after all, what Hollywood once did best).

In line with Ray and Schulberg’s usual approach, the politics are admirably left-leaning (even if Schulberg ended up naming names in the 50’s before the horrendous red baiting House of Un-American Activities committee, wilfully destroying the Hollywood careers of so many, mostly progressive minded, filmmakers, in the name of saving his own), with the film less critical of the poachers themselves (a grotty group of brutes, with missing teeth and leathery aged skin, many of them played effectively by non-actors literally looking like they walked out of the swamp a day before the shoot, mixed in – not entirely convincingly – with the odd familiar movie face, such as a very young Peter Falk), presenting them as surviving within the unforgiving ‘natural’ order of the swamp, with a brutal code they live by, and its vitriol focused more on the greedy and uncaring upper crust, shown to be filled with scheming businessmen and self-indulgent ladies of wealth, concerned their needs be met, disregarding the ecosystems they’re destroying… or the less privileged they’re exploiting… to the point of willing to stand aside and enable the attempted murder of Murdock.

The milieu of both the town and the rougher swamp-life is well realized, with the high-level prostitutes, led by the grand dame played by legendary burlesque striptease artist Gypsy Lee Rose, presented nicely as another example of the exploitation and hypocrisy of the wealthy.

Not everything works in the film, though. While Cottonmouth’s actions in the last third of the film, voluntarily agreeing to go back with Murdock, as his eventual prisoner, if Murdock can navigate his way through a murky and danger-filled swampland he is unfamiliar with and that Cottonmouth knows like the back of his hand, are never entirely convincing (feeling more like a script contrivance that no one ever overcame than something from the character). Murdock’s love interest, played by Chana Eden, is even more thankless than these roles tended to be at the time, setting it up without much development or narrative interest.

“Wind”, a film I hadn’t even heard of before, is a fascinating, beautiful film – an admirable one, obsessing over things not usual for Hollywood of that time, in its subject matter and setting. Even seeing it on a cropped 35mm print was worth it (the only other way it appears available is on similarly cropped DVD from Warner Archives).

It’s a good start for the Festival of Nouveau Cinema’s ‘Films of the Planet’ section, an unfortunately un-inspired title for a particularly exciting selection of mostly speculative films from yesteryear – including milestones from my younger days that I can’t wait to re-discover, such as the late, great NRA-loving Charlton Heston in one from his bleak future scifi trilogy with Soylent Green (1973), (also blacklisted) Douglas Trumbull’s ahead-of-its time eco-themed Silent Running (1972), and Peter Weir’s enigmatic tale of portends of doom amongst the Australian aboriginals, The Last Wave (1977).

As always, while there might be a lot of good new cinematic offerings on display… yet its the history of cinema that beckons most clear to me… and I follow….

eco-cinema   environmental cinema   festival of nouveau cinema   nicholas ray