By Trey Smith
Jean Renoir’s first American film “Swamp Water” may not be as masterful as some of his earlier work, such as “The Grand Illusion” or “The Rules of the Game”, but that is by no means damning praise. It is clear that Renoir did not have complete control of the film, he even said as much in his autobiography, and the film suffers slightly for it, feeling more like a typical by the numbers Hollywood production of the 40’s than the truly special pictures he produced in France. However, this is still Renoir and even with the restrictions placed on him by the Hollywood studio system his prowess at producing movies rich with humanity and impeccable technique still manage to shine through.
“Swamp Water” tells of a small community of Georgians who live on the outskirts of the Okefenokee Swamp. Right from the beginning the film hammers us with how dangerous the swamp is warning us of vicious gators, deadly cotton mouths, and how if they don’t get you the treacherous geography of the swamp surely will. There is even s foreboding skull perched atop a raggedy cross at the edge of the swamp warning all that they are treading into a domain where man is not welcome. The people around the swamp don’t traverse it if they can help it and anyone who dares to venture into its murky, uncharted waters surely must meet a grisly fate.
Most of the movie is hauntingly shot on location in the actual Okefenokee Swamp, which lends the story a gritty, gothic realism that permeates throughout its entirety. It’s often said that a movie’s locale can sometimes prove to be its own character and that is certainly the case here. “Swamp Water” is a tale of murder, betrayal, and loss of faith in mankind, all of which are murky subjects, making the swamp the perfect setting. Continuing along this thread the people who live around it are a naturally cautious and suspicious folk, and who can blame them, living on the edge of a natural hell full of murderous creatures and hidden quicksand pits is apt to make you wary of the dangers in life.
The plot itself is just as muddy as the swamp and centers around the supposed murder of a man in the past, which based on the testimony of a wimpy guitarist (John Carradine) and two rough and tough brothers (Ward Bond and Guinn Williams) turned out to be committed by one Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan). Keefer was sentenced to death by the other members of the community, including Thursday Ragan (Walter Huston). Keefer escapes, and though local rumors suggest he fled all the way to Savannah, he is actually hiding out in the Okefenokee, so that he can keep near his young daughter, Julie (Anne Baxter). Years after the murder Ragan’s son Ben (Dana Andrews) discovers Keefer while searching for his dog. Ben believes Keefer when he says he is innocent and the two form an unlikely partnership, with Keefer leading Ben through the tricky swamp so that he may trap and sell the furs of the swamp’s abundant animals and share the profits with Julie.
Though it never goes into great detail about the murder, it’s the painful sense of betrayal by those that he loved and lived with that Keefer has wallowed in since he was wrongly sentenced to death that is the true heart of the story. At one point Keefer sorrowfully tells Ben that his exile into the vastness of the swamp feels as if he is on another world, forced away from all he knew and lived for because of a crime he never committed. He clings to Ben as a sort of reminder of his old life, which is also why he is so distrustful of him at times.
Brennan’s performance as Keefer is worn down and dejected. It is great to see his talents receive top billing for once and he more than earns it here. It’s easy to believe his innocence through his performance, even though Renoir never shows us that he is. Even when he is threatening Ben upon their first meeting you can see it’s merely a beaten down survival tactic rather than actual malice. When people from his old life so easily cast him out, how can he trust one of them who has invaded his new world to keep what little he has left a secret? That Brennan manages to convey all of that through his performance is really something special to behold.
The performance is the embodiment of the humanity Renoir is known for exploring in his films. Even though his exile has left him mean and distrustful of humanity, Keefer still finds himself drawn to someone he believes can restore his faith in the goodness he hopes lies in it. Ben, it seems, is his last hope. Andrews isn’t quite up to the task of portraying this as Brennan, but he does a mostly admirable job. He is a good actor, but there are times in the film that his performance just falls completely flat, suggesting that he doesn’t quite grasp what he’s supposed to be conveying. On the other hand when he’s in his comfort zone as a rebellious country rouge he’s really enjoyable to watch.
The love story that develops between him and Julie really adds a touching layer to Renoir’s point. As Ben becomes more loyal to Keefer he grows closer to his daughter, who is a black sheep in the community because of her father’s supposed crime. The two brothers treat her like dirt, her caretakers don’t seem to care that much for her either, and Thursday Ragan finds her to be wholly unsuitable for Ben. Though he is first drawn to her out of a fit of childish rebellion, he comes to really love her, strengthening the idea that Ben really is the goodness in humanity that Keefer has been hoping to find.
There are subplots that don’t really lead anywhere meaningful, such as one involving Thursday Ragan and his young wife’s sneaking suitor, and at times things just happen for the sake of advancing the plot forward rather than flowing naturally, but it all works in a cobbled together sort of way. Renoir’s ability to choose exactly the right shots, capturing the mysterious and dangerously alluring atmosphere of the swamp and melding it so bewitchingly to the story manages to obscure the flaws from plain sight.
The conclusion is a bit too neat and feels more like it was forced on by the studio than being the natural conclusion to the story but it works. It’s not without its darker edges and for the most part it feels earned, but you can’t help but believe that, with a couple of exceptions, everyone got off a bit too cleanly in a story that takes place among the muddy waters of the Okefenokee Swamp.
FINAL SCORE (OUT OF FIVE):