[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
Wind Across the Everglades marked the beginning of the end for Nicholas Ray. After falling ill during several productions during his career and necessitating shots from other directors, Everglades was the first time Ray's substance abuse problems finally got him fired. As such, it opens up a contentious debate centered on the film's auteurist cred. Budd Schulberg, the film's writer and co-producer, took over for Ray and purportedly discarded a great deal of footage in the editing bay. But if the final product certainly feels to have been put together by another's hand, there are numerous visual and narrative traits common to Ray's oeuvre.
Set in the late 19th century, Wind Across the Everglades charts American expansion into Florida, opening up new territory through swamps to Miami. It also creates a market for the plumage of region-specific birds, sparking a poaching frenzy that flagrantly ignores conservation laws, and few people rise to the challenge of monitoring the glades to enforce these laws. But when a nature studies professor named Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) steps off a train and immediately gets arrested for indignantly ripping the feathers off a woman's hat, the Audobon Society realizes they have just the man for the job. Unfortunately for the now option-less Murdock, the poaching gangs won't give up their lucrative trades without a fight, and as he ventures into the glades, Murdock finds himself confronted with a way of life at odds with his own even, in true Ray fashion, as he comes to see his rival as an equal not merely in intelligence and capability but almost spiritual connection to their setting.
Murdock's arch-rival is a vicious, almost Kurtz-like demon of the swamp named Cottonmouth for the live snake he casually ropes around his neck. Compared to the fake, Hollywood ruggedness of Plummer, with his chiseled jawline and refined carriage, Burl Ives lumbers like a bearded ogre. Ives plays Cottonmouth like an antediluvian Nephilim displaced and stranded in the great marsh during the Flood. He simply appears before Murdock when they meet and fades away just as quickly, rematerializing back with his band of poachers in time to set off an orgiastic volley of gunfire, birds dropping like rain. Back at the outlaw camp, Cottonmouth presides over the masculine rituals of his compatriots like a tribal chief, his grim pronouncements law among the other hunters. The band of outsiders is of course a core component of Ray's work, and for the antagonists to embody that here adds a fresh take on Ray's approach to outcasts before he would move to different civilizations altogether a few years later.
Murdock, so dead-set on stopping these people from exterminating the birds, does not realize how much he shares with them. They live among nature in muddy hovels and carved skiffs, while he pines for a Thoreau-esque connection to the primitive. "I'm afraid progress and I never got along so well," he says to one of his only friends, and he speaks of the Everglades as if it were a portal to the beginning of the Earth itself, unspoiled and beautiful. The poachers threaten that balance, although Ray and Schulberg also show the romanticized naïveté of Murdock's view of the glades with shots of animals devouring other creatures, especially an alligator that destroys a bird with no less savagery than buckshot. Neither Murdock nor Cottonmouth represents a balance, and they soon become archetypal foes in a cosmically inevitable battle for the soul of the swamp.
Reduced to a 1:85:1 aspect ratio after years of CinemaScope, Ray cannot capture the wildlife with the same panoramic capability of Scope. But then, Ray never used Scope to make panoramas, either; his most expansive landscape films, at least before his late-career 70mm work, were in tight framing, from Johnny Guitar's acidic canvas to The Lusty Men's almost unbearable sense of fate pushing down on the characters. Likewise, he captures the Everglades with gorgeous shots that make up for lost width by pushing back into the z-axis, adding depth of field to give a sense of space to this area. Of note, however, is the rapid editing of many of these bridging scenes, broken up—most likely by Schulberg—to show close-ups of animals in a less poetic, color recollection of the ethereal pillow shots of The Night of the Hunter's river trek. The choppy rhythm of these inserts robs them of some of their grace, but the shots nevertheless work to show a more intimate approach to the landscape, softening shots of the movements and behavior of animals as the characters move through this rich ecosystem.
Various touches make Wind Across the Everglades compelling for more than just these nature shots and the fine acting of the two leads. In a twist of cruel irony, a Seminole guide hired to lead Murdock to a slow death is put to death for his mercy and respect for the conservationist. That in itself is standard, but Cottonmouth perversely sentences the man to death by Manchineel, a tree that exudes a poisonous sap capable of seeping through a man in tortuous agony. In effect, the tree can exact revenge upon those who trouble this sacred, untamed land. On the other end of the spectrum is a showdown between Murdock and Cottonmouth that undercuts the villain's psychopathic capacity for violence with a drinking game. That was a bold move on Schulberg's part, and were it not for the steadiness of the actors and the sure footing of Ray, that might have been nothing but a silly, even narratively debilitating joke. Instead, it works as a comic high point, a well-paced scene that reveals much about both characters even as everything devolves into sloppy chaos.
Having been fired from this production, Ray would finish a kiss-off to Hollywood by the end of the year and take independent projects until his full collapse in 1963. Wind Across the Everglades may lack the frenzied passion of Party Girl—a film that feels like the cinematic equivalent of a bankrupt shop owner sloshing gasoline around his tax shelter after dark and fumbling for a match—it is as much an indication of where Ray would go outside Hollywood. More so, even, as it shows his interests broadening from archetypal settings (one of which, the conformist suburb, he helped craft) to new territories and different perspectives. It also shows Ray once again getting ahead of everyone else, tackling ecology well before it became a popular subject matter, even before Rachel Carlson kicked off the modern environmental movement. It's not a great film by any means—pretty much the whole of the ending is unjustified and forced—but Wind Across the Everglades boasts enough memorable images and trademark flourishes to feel like a proper Nicholas Ray film even when it's unmistakable that someone else led it to the finish line.