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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.

Heading West

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.

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There is a moment of silence before a shot rings out and chips off a piece of the tree next to him.

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Keefer instantly realises his friend’s loyalty and hurries to help him.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Christian Hayes.

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Jean Renoir arrived in America for the first time on New Year’s Eve 1940 on an American liner sailing from Lisbon to New York. He swiftly left the Big Apple for Sunset Boulevard and by the middle of January had been signed to a contract with 20th Century-Fox. It wasn’t until the end of May however, after having had a series of ideas for stories rejected, that Renoir was able to begin on his first American film Swamp Water, scripted by Dudley Nichols and based on a novel by Vereen Bell.

Despite having been relatively forgotten even in relation to Renoir’s American oeuvre Swamp Water, while at times frustrating, is ultimately impressive. It tells of the vast Okeefenokee swampland of Georgia and focuses on young Ben Ragan’s (Dana Andrews) encounter with Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan) an accused murderer who has been hiding out in the swamp for years. Particularly strong is the film’s use of depth photography in its location shooting of Okeefenokee as well as in some key dramatic scenes.

Likewise of interest is the film’s attempt to get at the accent of the American South, which, while possibly not in itself immensely researched, nonetheless feels accurate, with performances aided by the script’s strong sense of linguistic authenticity. The script also contains some sharp comic moments, a good example being Ben Ragan and Keefer’s daughter Julie’s (Anne Baxter) first romantic encounter, in which Ben tells Julie that “You’re a heap prettier than Mabel is, if you was a little bigger” to which Julie responds, “I could grow more maybe!”

In this piece I will focus, however, on the film’s central story, which on the surface might appear fairly melodramatic and apolitical and has indeed generally been received this way. Although Swamp Water was assigned to Renoir, rather than chosen by him, it nevertheless was of interest to the director who commented that, “it is still something to be able to direct a film with a story that is not completely idiotic.” Screenwriter Dudley Nichols was an established figure and had worked throughout his career with such directors as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang. Renoir and Nichols got along very well, no doubt not in small part due to the fact that Nichols’ previous experience with these directors must have left him very open to possible revisions of his work. I will argue here that while on the surface Swamp Water appears to be an escapist drama, it has a political subtext that touches at once on issues both of the American South and of the Europe that Renoir had recently escaped.

A key example of a theme in Nichols’ script that appears to have been worked on by Renoir is that of humans as being not dissimilar to animals. For example, Ben like his dog is an adventurer who gets easily lost, while Julie like her kittens is small but bites when threatened.

There is nothing in the film’s narrative or script, however, that could be seen to have prompted the decision to have Tom Keefer horizontally creep up on Ben the first time we see him, paralleling him with the alligators that haunt the swamplands; this seems likely to be Renoir’s image.

And the choice that Julie remain silent for a long-time into the film (which incidentally is perfect for Baxter’s acting, which is of a high-emotional tenor) and have wild hair and a wide-eyed performance, all seem to extend her appearance as a cat beyond those expressed on the page.

These images of Ben and Julie are undoubtedly fairly romantic and arguably mildly condescending towards the real people of small-towns in America. Indeed Renoir was close friends with Robert Flaherty, who arranged for Renoir’s journey to America; and Flaherty had made the famously condescending ethnographic documentary of the Inuits, Nanook of the North (1922.) And Renoir said of Georgia that it was “an old country, very primitive, with peasants who remind me of the inhabitants of very isolated corners of Brittany” and that “the families have no idea of quitting their wooden farmhouses. The tree which shades the porch has been planted by some ancestor.” (1)

On closer inspection, however, this theme is a little more complex than it first appears, since beneath the surface of this more romantic animal imagery there is also the image of the hunt. The brutality of rabbit hunting had been central to Renoir’s previous film La Regle du Jeu (1939), a symbol of human brutality: as a man is killed we are shown a close up of a rabbit being shot. In both films the hunt is presented as a social convention upholding bourgeois society’s cruel and arbitrary rules. In Swamp Water the culmination of Ben’s ostracism from his community is represented in his no longer being allowed to hunt foxes alongside his neighbours. But the villagers’ hunt can also be paralleled to their blood-thirsty desire to catch Tom Keefer and have him hanged.

In this respect Swamp Water can be considered a film about the lynch-mob mentality, following on from Fritz Lang’s fairly recent film for MGM on the subject, equally with an all-white cast, Fury (1936.) Seen this way Swamp Water’s opening image of a skull sitting on the top of a cross in the centre of the river which is a marker to help guide people through the river, can also be considered as suggesting that the film can be read as a Christian allegory of Jesus’ unjust crucifixion.

Considering the setting of Georgia it is strange that this film has no black characters (and very few black extras.) It is possibly the case that, just as with Lang’s film, it was thought that too overt reference to race could be dangerous. (2)

Despite this, however, Tom’s daughter Julie, while literally white, could certainly pass symbolically as black. Indeed her reputation in the village has been blackened by her father’s name and she is treated as inferior, forced to take on the role of live-in maid, one that in Hollywood cinema is traditionally taken by a black character. Equally when Ben takes her to a ball the community are surprised and while she receives some compliments the family for which she works disapprove, which is certainly suggestive of the racial issue of segregation.

A final image that suggests the racial allegory in the film is the quite blatant fact that despite Ben’s dog having the name Trouble he actually does not get Ben directly into trouble. This red herring is similar to the paralleling of Tom with the alligator, whose viciousness turns out not to be in Tom’s nature. In each case there is an overturning of our perceptions of a dangerous “other.” Key here, however, is the fact that these quite central and obvious negations of the danger of “otherness” do not seem to have any direct reference to racism against black people, but are far broader. Clearly this more general space for considering the unfair victimization of some form of “other” makes the film, like Lang’s Fury, equally open to being read as an allegory about the victimization of Jews under the Nazis throughout Europe.

While Swamp Water contains various hints that it is intended as in part racial allegory, most viewers today will probably not notice this and indeed neither would have many at the time of the film’s release. The initial script of Swamp Water was greatly cut by the time the film came together: a memo from Darryl F. Zanuck to Renoir pressing him to hurry the production along notes that the script, “has been cut to 137 pages. Over 45 pages have been removed”. (3) Equally, a key scene that Renoir shot was cut and Zanuck constructed another scene to replace the gap that had now been made in the plot. (4) It seems likely that a closer look at all the elements that didn’t make it into the film’s final cut, if available, along with the various discussions amongst the filmmakers involved in Swamp Water’s production might well yield further political aspects of the film. Nevertheless I would say that something of a political perspective remains in this film, if only in its overt argument against the victimization of an “other” that may well have been recognized by some viewers at the time, if on an unconscious rather than conscious level, as a reflection on the dangers of fascism.

Ben Dooley.

 

(1) Sesonske, Alexander, ‘Discovering America: Jean Renoir 1941’, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1981, pp. 256-261.

(2) Eisner, Lotte H., Fritz Lang, Da Capo, 1988, p. 164.

(3) Vitanza, Elizabeth, ‘Another Grand Illusion: Jean Renoir’s First Year in America’, The Film Journal, http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue12/renoir.html

(4) Sesonske.