Friday, April 1, 2016
Wind across the Everglades
A peculiar psychodrama with Jungian overtones, Nicholas Ray's Wind Across the Everglades (1958) is a fascinating, botched melodrama. Shot in intensely saturated and moody Technicolor, the movie's interiors and natural settings have a feverish quality, a bit like imagery in one of Douglas Sirk's more garish films -- some of the outdoor shots have a curiously overlit and claustrophobic character: it's nature as a series of small, shadowy chambers where men are pressed together in barracks-like confinement. Ostensibly, the story concerns a young teacher (Christopher Plummer) pressganged into becoming an Audubon warden for the Everglades. The warden's mission is to protect "plume birds" (mostly large alien-looking herons) from the depredations of poachers, embodied by a gang of swamp-rats led by Cottonmouth, a massive, sadistic brigand played by Burl Ives in a spectacular, scenery-chewing performance. Cottonmouth is the patriarch of his rag-tag mob that is a kind of "primal horde", and the huge red-bearded pirate keeps a venomous snake in his pocket, or caresses it on his lap, as his fearsome pet. Ray was raised in Lacrosse under the "scourge of alcoholism" -- his father was a violent drunk -- and the film portrays Cottonmouth as the ultimate paternal tyrant: the all-male community of swamp-rats, always shown tromping through knee-deep mud, has vaguely homosexual features: the men bunk together, generally in pairs comprised of a burly, older brute and pretty young boy. For entertainment, Cottonmouth makes the men fight with one another, taking bets on the outcome -- when one of his "boys" is beaten in a gladiatorial battle, Cottonmouth bellows at the battered and exhausted man (a tiny jockey who fights with a riding crop) until he rises from the filthy mud, only to collapse again. Then, Cottonmouth tenderly lifts the muddy boy out of the muck and carries him in his arms to his own shack. Although the film nods toward heterosexual romance -- there's a brothel in the town of Miami and the hero has a girlfriend, the picture's primary emphasis is same sex, man-on-man aggression: the weird commune of plume poachers and, ultimately, the duel between Plummer's game warden and Cottonmouth. The protracted encounter between Chistropher Plummer and Burl Ives comprising the last third of the film is the main event -- it's a nightmare father and son bitchfest, involving competitive drinking, various kinds of ordeals and tests of strength, and can end only with the death of one of the protagonists. Although Cottonmouth repeatedly has the game warden in his power, he hesitates to kill him -- Cottonmouth's motivations are obscure until the relationship is interpreted as a sort of Abraham-Isaac gig: Burl Ives is the pater familius to his boys in the swamp as well as to the hapless game warden who keeps falling into his clutches. Cottonmouth embodies the evil, but life-affirming and hedonistic father: he chews on "swamp cabbage" to keep his belly free from parasites, gnaws on melons and roast alligator and generally attests to the "sweetness of living" -- he's like Zorba the Greek stranded in the marsh and surrounded by gay boys. Although we see the figure initially as a terrifying tyrant, Cottonmouth becomes more sympathetic as the film progresses and, indeed, in the final ordeal sequence, his patriarchal cruelty seems to mold Plummer "into a man." The script is by Budd Schulberg and its too, too busy, with many flights of unmotivated poetry -- Cottonmouth is not only an Old Testament patriarch, brigand, and gang-leader, but, also, an embodiment of the savagery of nature: in some sense, he's supposed to represent the cruelty and indifference of the mighty Everglades themselves. Ray was a master of small, but pointed details -- although the plot outline is sketchy, and some scenes start with promise, seem to develop, but, then, go nowhere, the director keeps things lively with local color. A one-armed Seminole Indian, like a spectral Charon, leads the game warden through the darkness of the night-time Everglades. There is a poison tree like something out of William Blake: "you don't carve your name on that tree," someone says, "it carves its name on you." The madam at the Miami whorehouse where Plummer's characters looks but doesn't touch requires that her girls maintain six inches between their torsos and her customers while dancing -- she scans her brothel through a lorgnette. When Plummer gets drunk in the whorehouse, he moves his fingers as if to mimic the Black blues singer at the piano. There's a lyric interlude midway in the film, a sequence that looks like Peckinpah at his most mild and poetic: it's the 4th of July and, at Miami, the lovers go to the beach and, on a flag-bearing sailing barge, the whores cruise by saluting (and embarrassing) their customers, and Plummer, with his best girl, retreats from the sun under a ramshackle bandshell. While a tuba player performs overhead, he and the girl embrace. Plummer says something like: "You're bold and fine -- it's a devastating combination," she replies: "I like devastated men." This snippet of dialogue exemplifies what's wrong with Schulberg's script: it's clogged with trite aphorisms and failed poetry. Much of the film is a mess. The impressive wild-life photography doesn't generally match the rest of the film and, in truth its incongruous to see soul-baring father-son confrontations, staged in the best fifties method-acting style, cut together with panoramas of sky and water infused with Maxfield Parrish light mingled with Mutual of Omaha "Wild Kingdom" animal sequences. But the film belongs to Burl Ives and he, certainly, puts on a show. At one point, he demands that his swamp rats smile -- the camera obligingly pans over the rogue's gallery containing such notables as the novelist Mackinlay Kantor, the clown Emmett Kelly, and a very young, squint-eyed Peter Falk; they all contort their lips into a sinister grimace. "Eat and be et," Cottonmouth declares as his credo. And when a viper seizes him in the film's final scenes, Cottonmouth, who seems now to be a combination of Falstaff and King Lear, howls to the snake: "Bite deep, brother, bite deep!"