It is nearly impossible to define the essence of Nicholas Ray’s 1958 masterpiece Wind Across the Everglades, at once a kind of Floridian swamp western, a mysterious parable about the richness of the natural world, as well as an existential grudge match waged between an environmentalist and a bird poacher (Christopher Plummer and the powerful Burl Ives, respectively). The great critic Chris Fujiwara notably described Everglades as “[a]n acid test for auteurists, one of those special films that, while ignored or despised for the most part, are cherished and fiercely beloved by those who love great American directors.” Certainly Ray’s eccentric trip into the American wilderness, shot on location at Everglades National Park in vibrant Technicolor, deserves to be mentioned alongside such films maudits as Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955), strange late works by beloved filmmakers which were received harshly or indifferently by all but the most resolute hardcore defenders. I tend to regard Everglades as the finest Nicholas Ray picture, though I seem to be nearly alone in this position.
The lamentable neglect and hostility that Everglades has been routinely subjected to might very well be related to its somewhat contested status as a Nick Ray film; the filmmaker was fired from his directorial duties near the end of production due to his erratic behavior and discernible heroin habit. As a result, a few scenes were completed by screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who also supervised the film’s editing. Although this slight discrepancy in creative control has led some journalists to express doubt over the film’s status as a “total work” of Ray’s distinctive sensibility, to my eyes and ears the film fits perfectly within his larger oeuvre, grappling as it does with the themes and concerns that mark his mature work.
One way in which Everglades announces itself as a Ray film is through its emphasis on a particular kind of community which might be called the “makeshift family,” groups of characters who choose to co-habitate with one another in a particular place due to shared desires or socioeconomic circumstance. These makeshift families imbue Ray’s haunted, sensitive films with an almost Dickensian richness of character; they can be observed in the central “couple on the run” of They Live by Night (1948, Ray’s debut feature), in the teenagers hiding out at a deserted L.A. mansion in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and in the sad rodeo clowns wasting away on the empty western circuits of The Lusty Men (1952). In Wind Across the Everglades, this family of misfits manifests itself in the band of poachers who live deep in the swamps, beyond the boundaries of social order, illegally killing rare bird species in order to profit off of clothing and accessories fashioned from their feathers. As in Ray’s other makeshift families, the collective thread underlining the group ethos here seems to be a kind of punkish refusal or inability to deal with the laws and regulations of civilization.
Like Arthur Hunnicutt’s aging bronc rider in Lusty Men, Burl Ives’s character here, a dastardly poacher known as Cottonmouth, presides over the swamp-folk as a troubled patriarch of sorts. The narrative pits Christopher Plummer’s character, a hard-nosed ecologist set on protecting the local wildlife, against these diametrically opposed figures. The individual must face off against the group, and the singular loner must journey into the Floridian heart of darkness — the swamp which functions as Cottonmouth’s home turf.
Plummer’s trip into the Everglades – a sequence which constitutes the final third of the film’s duration – is marked by a kind of non-rational, formal psychedelia, alternating as it does between the most precise, classical staging imaginable and loose, quasi-documentary footage of alligators, snakes and dense varieties of flora and fauna particular to the setting, with the bog itself operating as a space of abstraction. Ray achieves one of the rarest of all artistic feats here: he makes us care about and empathize with people who we would ordinarily consider shallow, or perhaps even odious. Ray pulls this off through a kind of leveling of the narrative playing field – by equating Plummer and Ives with one another through the shifting nuances of his baroque mise-en-scene. Jonathan Rosenbaum calls this quality in Ray’s work “a mystical sense of equality among antagonists.” The comic and metaphysical grudge match reaches its culmination in one of the great drunken scenes of the cinema – only Ray would choose to untangle irreconcilable, philosophical differences of character through mud and whiskey. If the film’s conclusion feels like an outlaw elegy of sorts, this is because Ray understands that the vagaries of fiction implicate the viewer through imagination and empathy.
In 2013, the IU Cinema programmed an exciting series entitled Nicholas Ray: Accidents of Imagination, which showcased a few of the filmmaker’s greatest works, including They Live by Night (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.