The definition of the “ahead of its time” artwork, Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (1958) is a rare bird, much like the ones Christopher Plummer is fighting to protect in the film. It was plagued by Ray’s alcoholism and drug abuse, production problems (according to historian Bernard Eisenschitz, some of its scenes were shot UP, “under protest”, from the film’s crew that hated Ray) and the clashing of personalities between Ray and the film’s writer and producer, Budd Schulberg (the oscar winning writer of On The Waterfront), who also fired Ray before the end of production and finished shooting the film (including the death scene of Burl Ives). It is a dark story of environmental destruction and greed set in the Everglades in Florida during the early years of the twentieth century, a period of railroad expansion and the concretization of plans to drain the extensive wetlands for agriculture.
Although it pits the idealist Christopher Plummer, who struggles to impose the law as game warden, against the greedy, ruthless bird poachers who are decimating the population of birds (egrets, herons) living in the Everglades, the film is neither idealistic nor straightforward in its ethical position. Much to the contrary, it embraces a complex moral view of the universe, where the desire to preserve a patch of land reminiscent of the Creation as it must have originally appeared (one of Plummer’s early musings) is mixed with the equally strong desire to live outside the law, free as a wild animal, grabbing whatever life can offer you for as long as you got left to live on this miserable godless earth. That is why the film is stronger in the scenes where Plummer confronts Cottonmouth, the brutal leader of the poachers who lives where the law can’t reach him, deep in the Everglades, keeping the company of a snake in his pouch. Played by Burl Ives, the quintessential Southern patriarch in films such as East of Eden (1955) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Cottonmouth dominates the scene in his corpulent, red-headed savagery, contrasting effectively the youthful masculine beauty of Murdock (Plummer’s character), who by the end of the film has turned equally ragged, dirty and desperate. The scene of their drinking match is superb, as is the driving of the canoe through the marshes, after Cottonmouth, having recognized his opponent as worthy, unexpectedly agrees to be taken by Murdock to the authorities, with the condition that he can find his way back by himself.
According to Eisenschitz, Ray did away with the longer speeches in Schulberg’s script, and his tendency to pontificate, and the film, one is left to assume, is better off without them. The brief interludes taking place in town do not do much towards advancing the plot, and there were scenes that were cut in the editing process (which Ray did not supervise), as when the film jumps from the celebration of the fourth of July on the beach to the inauguration of the new avenue. The film is populated by an assortment of secondary characters, either first time actors, or people from diverse backgrounds such as famed circus clown Emmett Kelly, the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (who four years later would be portrayed by Natalie Wood in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 film Gypsy), or avant-garde Czech theater actor George Voskovec (who had worked with Ray on radio and years later played the psychic in Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler). It also features the strangely alluring Chana Eden as Naomi, Plummer’s love interest. Although she is manifestly not a good actress, she fits the part in a wild and unexpected way, appearing natural, almost primal, whereas all the other women in their excessive dresses and feathered hats (the reason the birds are killed in the first place) look artificial, stuffed, superficial and vain (Gypsy Rose Lee, her sexuality, and world-weary look somehow escape). Her scenes were also apparently truncated because of her lack of talent but she works well on screen with Plummer.
The film is more than timely, touching upon themes of environmental protection, the vanishing species of animals endangered by mindless money-making urges, the lasting results of colonial settlement (the Seminole wars are alluded to, with the brutal treatment of the Seminole Indian who plays Murdock’s guide and meets a horrific end at Cottonmouth’s hands as a result). Yet, Ray’s ambivalent treatment of the outlaws themselves, imbued with a longing for freedom outside societal norms and conventions, raises the film above what could have easily been transformed into a manifesto of intentions. In the end, Ray’s pessimistic treatment of his subject matter, with the last shot of the film showing Christopher Plummer grimly wading through the marshes, never seen reaching civilization again, bring to mind the words of another man who wrote unforgettably about the horrors of colonial exploitation: “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”