Oct 30, 2015

On DVD: Christopher Plummer's First Leading Role in Wind Across The Everglades (1958)

In his second film role and first lead, Christopher Plummer faces off against Burl Ives in the Florida-set Wind Across the Everglades. Fascinating location shooting and an unusual cast add interest to this unusual, rambling drama, now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Plummer is Walt Murdock, an environmentalist at the turn of the century, before they had a word for it. He travels by train to Florida planning to work as a school teacher, but after yanking feathers from a hat belonging to the wife of a school board member, he finds himself under arrest instead. The passionate Murdock is spared jail when a pair of men from the Audubon Society observe his rant against using plumage for hats and decide to offer him a position as bird game warden. They arrange his release and find him a room.

Murdock's assignment is to stop the illegal killing of exotic birds whose plumage will then be sold for ladies' hats, just like those that filled the train he took to Florida.

While Walt is delighted to explore the majestic Everglades, he is warned to be wary of Cottonmouth (Burl Ives), a dangerous poacher, and his men who make their own laws. It isn't long before he meets the charismatic criminal and his filthy band of men. After a few stand offs and a drunken night of revelry during which Cottonmouth wonders if Walt is more like him than he realized, they face off in the swamp, where nature is more powerful than both of them.

Though I tend to roll my eyes when a critic refers to anything inanimate as a "character" in a movie, I can't think of a better way to describe the way the Florida location shooting brings this film to life. Beautiful, brutal scenes of nature: tracking birds eating fish, alligators eating birds and snakes slipping through the water, create a sense of mystery and, oddly, dread. There is something almost menacing about the way these animals can kill to survive without falling into excess the way the humans who hunt them do. They are quietly superior to us and in watching their graceful acceptance of nature, it is clear we can never match them.

While the color cinematography does not appear to be presented to its best advantage, it has a worn around the edges feel that enhances the lawless surroundings. That said, there are plenty of visually stunning moments.

I was surprised to be underwhelmed by Plummer's performance as Walt. He is curiously lackluster in a role that demands passion and fury. That sexy, knowing smile is there, but it's almost as if it hasn't connected to the charisma center in his brain yet. He has his powerful moments, especially in a drunken scene with Cottonmouth and his men, but for the most part he doesn't seem quite prepared to headline a film.

As the daughter of his landlord, and Plummer's love interest, Chana Eden is similarly lackluster. Her romance with Walt does nothing more than make the film lose momentum. It could have been excised completely without being missed, as it has no connection to any other part of the story. I was a bit astonished to see how little heat these two attractive and appealing actors generated.

The rest of the cast more than makes up for the lack of fire in Plummer and Eden. Burl Ives is a tall tale come to life, with his blazing read beard and terrifying smile. He's so good when he's bad, because that smooth voice and the soft twinkle in his eye charm you as much as those brief flickers of menace that flit across his face chill your blood. It's also fun to see Peter Falk in a small part, his first movie role, as one of Cottonmouth's scrubby poachers.

Even more amusing is the cast of supporting characters who are famous for anything but movie work. I would love to know who is responsible for hiring burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee, heavyweight fighter Tony Galento, famed sad clown Emmett Kelly, author MacKinlay Kanter and celebrated jockey Sammy Renick. As much as the action can lag, just watching this crowd together is entertaining. It doesn't feel like stunt casting either; these are true eccentrics, and they look right at home.

Though Nicholas Ray is credited as the director of Wind Across the Everglades, the film always belonged to writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) and his brother, producer Stuart Schulberg. It was a passion project for the pair and when they found Ray's work to be unsatisfactory (there were accusations of drug abuse), Budd took over directing duties. Unfortunately, as a film director, Schulberg is definitely a writer. He never hits the right rhythm and the action flails and stutters.

The film never quite feels focused. It could have used more than the few bursts of exhilarating action it has to offer and it tends to ramble. There's a powerful lesson to be learned about the environment here, but it is too often explicitly preached by Walt, when a few potent images could have communicated just as well. In the end, it is saved by the beauty of its locations and a fascinating cast.

The disc includes a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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