Setting is more interesting than story in Swamp Water (1941), the first of Jean Renoir’s two films set in the American South. The film opens with a message explaining that the Swamp was once notorious as a place of dangerous alligators and cottonmouth snakes and that residents feared its “vast openness.” Next we see a skull posted on a crudely constructed cross jutting out of the waters of the Okefenokee Swamp. The camera pans over to a group of local residents in flat bottom boats hunting for two trappers who have disappeared in the swamp. They find an overturned skiff and conclude that the men were “gator-et.” Clearly the Okefenokee is a place of menace. And in this film’s mythology, it is also a place of perdition, where the damned are consigned to suffer for their sins, hiding out from the civilized world that would bring them to justice. The swamp thus occupies the same symbolic realm as it does in Hawthorne’s woods.
Swamp Water plies the same thematic territory as Deliverance (1972) and Southern Comfort (1981), both of which examined what happens when civilized individuals find themselves at odd with the natural wilds. Those latter films take a distinctly Conradian view—civilized people lose their moral bearings in the wilderness and resort to primal means to survive. Swamp Water doesn’t go so far, but it’s not necessarily in disagreement with the premise.
The case in point is Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), framed for a murder he didn’t commit five years in the past and fled to the swamp to avoid being hanged. Local folks assume he’s dead. But when a local boy named Ben Ragan goes into the swamp to hunt for his lost dog, he encounters Keefer. Let me say first of all that Walter Brennan’s performance as Keefer is absolutely outstanding—it is the most important reason to watch this film. But there are others. Five years alone in the swamp have marked Keefer—he behaves when Ben first meets him almost as a mad man. He sneaks up on Keefer as he sits in front of his campfire and clubs him. When Ben comes to, Keefer has tied him up. He threatens to kill Ben or at least never to let him go. Keefer has a vacant, distracted stare, and speaks disjointedly. He lives in a clearing and sleeps on the ground. When a cottonmouth bites him on the face (!!), he immediately falls unconscious, and Ben assumes he’s going to die and digs him a grave. But the next morning Keefer wakes up, explaining that he has learned how to will himself to survive snake bites. When he learns that Ben has taken care of him, they become friends.
Keefer is full of Emersonian insights with vaguely mystical connotations. He talks to Ben about the importance of all living things, looks distractedly at the stars (“I hear tell that stars is other worlds, too, big shining rafts a-floatin’ in the ocean of God’s night”), isn’t sure he can survive in the civilized world when Ben tells him he can return. There’s otherworldliness to his character, not the otherworldliness of a saint but instead of a man wounded by isolation and hardship (“Living alone in these swamps is just like living on another star”). Even in the film’s final scene, after he’s been exonerated and welcomed back to the community, sitting in a chair at a town dance, watching the action, he seems uncomfortable and out of place. He’s similar to Tom Joad in John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but without a humanist or political agenda.
Another reason to watch this film is its portrayal of life in an isolated Southern village on the borders of the Okefenokee Swamp. Without much condescension or stereotyping, Renoir shows the people of this town engaged in the normal affairs of their lives. We see dances, courtship, various forms of work, recreation. As in The Southerner (1945), Renoir exhibits a remarkable gift for revealing the nuances of a particular way of life.
I’m interested in Thursday Ragan (Walter Huston) and his younger wife Julie (Anne Baxter). Thursday is an older man who has married a younger woman, and the film gently plays with the connotations of such a relationship. He’s often absent from home, hunting and tending to business, and she misses him. She tells him so, and the implication is that she misses him sexually. While he’s away a local no good named Jesse Wick played by John Carradine tries to court Julie with his guitar, and although she repeatedly tries to rebuff him it’s clear that she isn’t entirely uninterested.
Another interesting character is Tom Keefer’s daughter Mabel. With her father convicted and lost in the swamp, she’s been taken in by a local family and spends most of her time doing menial work. She’s a wild Ariel-like character, always running to and fro, taking care of animals, protecting kittens, constantly in motion, more or less tolerated by the local community but without a real place within it. She may be 14 or may be 18—it’s not clear—but after Ben grows tired of his one-time girl Hannah’s capriciousness, he turns to Mabel.
In its attention to an isolated small Southern community Swamp Water is akin to Thunder Road (1958) and I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (1951). As with The Southerner, one senses the influence of John Ford. But riding up against Ford’s tendency to idealize his characters is Renoir’s effort to see them as fallible inhabitants of their world. Renoir’s characters are more three-dimensional than Ford’s, more nuanced. Yet this is really only a matter of degree, for neither Ford nor Renoir (at least in his Southern films) plumb human character too deeply.
Although I find his father Thursday more interesting, and although Tom Keefer is the fascinating center of the film, Ben Ragan is Renoir’s protagonist. He’s a young man just starting out in the world. He’s intelligent and idealistic, and like his father a stubborn individual. Stubborn willfulness brings father and son into conflict. A major argument erupts when Ben announces his intention to go into the swamp to hunt for his lost hound. When Ben returns after a two-week absence, the argument erupts again, and Ben moves out. What Ben doesn’t see is his father’s deep anxiety for his safety. What Thursday cannot see is the effect of his dogmatic temper on his son. Ben’s own stubbornness is a virtue as well—once he decides that Tom Keefer is a good man, nothing will alter his loyalty, and even when the two men who framed Keefer for murder try to drown Ben, he refuses to give Keefer up to the local people who want to bring him back to be hanged.
Much if not most of Swamp Water was filmed on location in and near the Okefenokee Swamp. The result is a film with a relatively authentic feel that lacks the claustrophobic atmosphere of a studio production. Only one scene in the swamp seems to have been shot in the studio, and it sticks out like the sorest of thumbs.
In 1952, a Technicolor remake of the film entitled The Lure of the Wilderness was released, featuring the same setting and many of the same scenes and dialogue from the original. Walter Brennan reprised the same role, though the other cast members and character names had changed.