Swamp Water is a very American movie. With its ‘authentic’ American dialogue, archetypal American characters, and its assorted Americana (the costumes, the accents, the barn dance, the music), Swamp Water is deeply grounded in American culture. It is therefore surprising that the film was directed by Jean Renoir.
Renoir defined French cinema in the 1930s with a string of classic films such as Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Règle de Jeu (1939). These films delicately balanced drama and comedy, often articulating serious themes with a light touch. Like many European directors before and since, Renoir left for Hollywood in an attempt to repeat his successes there.
A director’s move to Hollywood is often tied to the question of artistic compromise: can the filmmaker maintain their unique aesthetics and outlook within the rigid constraints of the studio system? Inquisitive viewers no-doubt search for stylistic trends that made it across the Atlantic. In the case of Swamp Water, apart from a few instances of an effortlessly gliding camera, they would find it difficult to link it to Renoir’s earlier films. But perhaps making any obvious connections is a red herring; it is perhaps most commendable for its authenticity and pleasures as a Hollywood film.
European Émigrés in Hollywood
Hollywood has a long history of hiring European filmmakers to work on Hollywood productions, be it directors, stars or technicians. This tradition goes as far back as the 1920s when directors such as Victor Sjöstrom, Mauritz Stiller, Ernst Lubitsch and F. W. Murnau moved to Hollywood in an attempt to apply their native success overseas. Some of these émigrés successfully transplanted their talents to Hollywood, as in the case of Sjöström’s The Wind or Murnau’s Sunrise, yet others like Stiller failed to make it very far in Hollywood. Ernst Lubitsch was the only one of these examples to maintain a long career in Hollywood (indeed both Stiller and Murnau died young).
Renoir’s film contrasts sharply to those being made by his fellow émigrés at the time. Ernst Lubitsch had recently made Angel (1937), Ninotchka (1939) and A Shop Around the Corner (1940), comic films set in European locales and with European characters and performers, including émigrés Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo (arguably the most successful of them all).
Similarly Billy Wilder had written Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and in 1941 was screenwriter of the screwball comedy Ball of Fire. He would go on to direct both Lubitsch-style comedies such as The Major and the Minor (1942) and more serious dramas, such as Five Graves to Cairo (1942) which included a pan-European cast of wartime characters, including Erich von Stroheim as Field Marshal Rommel. ‘Exotic’ Europe was often a defining quality of these films and indeed Hollywood was keen to exploit the ‘sophisticated’ sensibilities that these European filmmakers could bring to their films.
Other émigrés such as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang continued to focus on the kinds of genre pictures that they had been making during the 1930s. In the case of Hitchcock there was still a clear British connection with an adaptation of Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940) and the international espionage of Foreign Correspondent (1940). Similarly Lang continued making crime pictures in Hollywood, a genre he had really made his mark on back in Germany. Yet after films such as Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937), Lang was soon making Westerns (The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941)), the most American of genres.
Indeed with its small-town milieu, good guys, bad seeds and corrupt Sheriff, Swamp Water closely resembles a Western. There is indeed a connection to John Ford’s regular contributors, through both Dudley Nichols the screenwriter and cast members such as Walter Brennan and Ward Bond. The theme of bringing law, morality and justice to uncivilized corners of America was a theme that ran through films such as Young Mr Lincoln (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946), but has also been a key theme of Westerns more widely.
In many ways Swamp Water, Renoir’s first film in Hollywood, proves that he assimilated to Hollywood material much faster than his contemporaries. Indeed the film contains little sign of any European connection. From its very opening, with a rendition of the American hymn and jazz staple ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ over the titles and a scrolling title card that pinpoints the action to Okeefenokee Swamp in Georgia, the film firmly enforces its American roots.
The film centres around a mysterious local swamp that breeds fear in the locals. Suspicion only grows when the bodies of missing hunters are discovered there and the locals wonder what kind of monster may be lurking in its darkness.
Indeed hiding there is the haggard Tom Keefer (Walter Brenann), a long-lost fugitive accused of murder. Cut off from civilization he has learned to survive amidst the alligators and deadly snakes that crawl around him. When Ben Ragan (Dana Andrews) finds himself in the swamp he is at first attacked by Keefer, but soon befriends him, believing in his innocence.
I would like to focus on two particularly striking moments in the film, both towards the end. The first occurs when the brothers Dorson track Ben and Keefer down to the swamp, intent on killing them. Keefer immediately suspects that Ben had led the brothers here to kill him: ‘You set ‘em on me. I should’ve cut your throat the first time you came at me, like I wanted to.’ In a test of loyalty, Keefer orders him to stand up and show himself. ‘They ain’t gonna shoot at you. Because you’re in cahoots with ‘em. Now go on, show yourself.’ Ben replies, ‘All right, Tom. If that’s what you think, I’ll show you.’
Ben stands cautiously and walks out into the open.
There is a moment of silence before a shot rings out and chips off a piece of the tree next to him.
Keefer instantly realises his friend’s loyalty and hurries to help him.
The second moment is soon afterwards when Keefer and Ben are being chased by the Dorson brothers. Keefer sets up a trap that involves the brothers having to run through a deadly ‘bog hole’. Watching close by, Keefer and Ben witness Bud plunge into the boggy earth, immediately up to his shoulders. He yells out to his brother, ‘Tim, hurry! I’m sinking! Get me out of here!’ His brother desperately attempts to pull him out with his rifle, but it’s no use.
As Bud is sucked deeper into the mud his screams become more desperate, yelling out his brother’s name, ‘You ain’t pullin’, Tim! Oh Tim, darn it! Don’t let me die in this mud!’ His last words are the chilling repetition of his brother’s name, the camera on a tight close up of his face as it goes under.
These two moments distil the relationships between these characters in a disarmingly honest way. Keefer suddenly fulfils his fierce desire: ‘I’m trying to find out if there’s anyone in the world that can speak the honest truth’, answering spiritual questions he posed to Ben earlier in the film about his place in the universe. Bud’s descent into the bog immediately conveys the love that had existed between these two tough brothers but also expresses the devastating disappointment of Tim in Bud’s voice, his child-like fear invisibly conjuring up an imagined past of Tim and Bud as young boys.
There are often viewers who have problems revering Hollywood cinema, siding with the perceived notion of European cinema, for example, as artistically ‘pure’ over a cinema motivated by commercial gain. Here are two brief examples of how Hollywood cinema can transcend the artificiality of the sets, the stylised performances and the commercial motivations of Hollywood as a whole.