There was a full house last night at Film Forum to see Wind Across The Everglades (Warner Bros., 1958) — among the rarest films in FFs current Nicholas Ray retrospective and one that has never been released on DVD.
WATE takes place at the turn of the 20th century in the Florida Everglades, where the fad for wild bird plumes as adornments to women’s hats is fueling a voracious trade in the skins of egrets, herons, ibis, and other semi-tropical species. City-bred birder Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) arrives to teach high school in a rough backwater town and is promptly recruited as an Audubon Society game warden charged with enforcing new Federal statues designed to protect the birds from the depredations of a grubby gang of swamp rats led by Cottonmouth (Burl Ives). Complications ensue, Cottonmouth dies, Murdock lives, and we’re left with the hope that the birds will survive, given efective legal protection.
WATE was written by noted screenwriter Budd Schulberg (still kicking at 95) and produced by his younger brother Stuart Schulberg (1922-1979). Stuart’s daughter Sandra Schulberg, founder of the Independent Film Project and a vital force in the field of film preservation and restoration, was on hand to introduce the picture, in which she very briefly appears. To my surprise (and likely not just mine), Ms. Schulberg stated that Nick Ray “was so strung out on heroin” that he had to be replaced after three weeks of shooting and that her uncle Budd directed most of WATE uncredited. She described both Stuart and Budd Schulberg as ardent environmentalists at a time when the word was barely part of the American lexicon, and said that the brothers had fought to overcome the resistance of Warner Bros. executives to making a “message movie” about a bunch of birds.
The Florida location shoot was “very chaotic and very difficult for the adults involved,” she recalled, “but a wonderful time for the children” on the set who delighted in playing with trained animals and became acquainted with some of the locals cast in supporting parts. Prior to the 7:15 p.m. screening that night at Film Forum, Sandra Schulberg had not seen Wind Across The Everglades since she was fifteen years old.
After this lengthy introduction, I wish I could proclaim WATE a masterpiece on the order of such Nick Ray films as In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life, or Rebel Without a Cause (as did Jonathan Rosenbaum in a 2002 essay on the direct0r). However, it is decidedly not a masterpiece and in fact “doesn’t feel anything like a Nick Ray movie,” to quote my always-observant wife.
The ungainly script, held together with spit and Spanish moss, rambles through pointlessly prolonged fight scenes, unconvincing bouts of moonshine drinking, and tiresome, empty death threats muttered in the direction of Murdock. The naturalist also engages in a brief romance with Naomi (Chana Eden) but their fling ends as suddenly as it began when he lights out for the interior of the ‘Glades. In parting, Naomi adorns Murdock with her gold neck chain…with a Star of David attached. (I took this as a portent of the ethnographic future of South Florida, much as another scene in the film celebrates a two-block extension of Flagler Street in embryonic Miami.) Events take another unexpected turn when a black singer/pianist (Rufus Beecham, his hair impressively processed) sings the blues a la Nat King Cole in the parlor of a whorehouse presided over by Gypsy Rose Lee!
And yet, and yet…In Wind Across The Everglades, there are scenes of the Everglades so stunningly beautiful that my heart rose in my chest.
Despite its many “clunkers,” to use Sandra Schulberg’s apt term, the film ultimately succeeds in communicating a passion for the natural world of wild Florida and in drawing the viewer deeply (if too sporadically) into that world. It’s amazing how much one can feel from the sight of a Seminole woman silently poling a dugout pirogue through a river of grass or of a vast flock of white ibis taking flight across a blue sky. The pleasure of these scenes is matched by a genuine sense of horror as we watch Cottonmouth’s gang unleash slaughter in a rookery (nesting area), knowing that the adult birds will not abandon their fledglings and thus will make themselves easy targets. But in the end, even Cottonmouth undergoes a sort of deathbed conversion: Fatally bitten by a water moccasin, he finally sees the birds, his prey, for the precious and irreplaceable creatures they are.