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Nicholas Ray's 100th Birthday - Spotlight
Remind Me

Wind Across the Everglades

Wind Across the Everglades (1958) is an acid test for auteurists, one of those special films that, while ignored or despised for the most part, are cherished and fiercely defended by those who love great American directors. It could be said that there are two kinds of film lovers: those for whom Wind Across the Everglades is a marvelous film by Nicholas Ray, and everyone else. The second category may be further subdivided into three groups: those who regard Everglades as a minor or failed Ray work, those who know and care nothing of Ray (such people, if they ever stumble across the film, probably consider it as, at best, a puzzling oddity), and those who refuse Ray's right to be considered the author of the film, granting it instead to Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay.

This last (and no doubt smallest) subgroup has a lot of ammunition, in the form of detailed information about the production of the film that has surfaced in three books: Bernard Eisenschitz's Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Christopher Plummer's In Spite of Myself: A Memoir, and Patrick McGilligan's just-published Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. Of these books, Eisenschitz's is by far the most sympathetic to Ray and the only one that makes a case for the quality of his work on Everglades. Eisenschitz writes: "The way in which the scenes are handled leaves no doubt as to their inspiration: a weft of relationships between characters, a musical rhythm on several occasions reinforced by blues or ballads (very cruelly mutilated in the editing) which play a dramatic role."

Yet Eisenschitz's book, because of its extensive use of testimony from people who worked on the film, also contains some of the most damning evidence against Ray. In late 1957, when production started on Everglades, the man who only two years earlier had established himself as a major Hollywood director with the success of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) appeared to be in full battle with a number of personal demons, and, in the eyes of some of his collaborators, the demons were winning. Budd Schulberg, who in addition to writing the script was co-producer of the film (with his brother, Stuart), saw the first sign of Ray's disorder in the North African girlfriend, Manon, he brought with him to Florida for the all-location shoot. At an early meeting with Ray about the project, Schulberg recalled, Manon "came out of the bedroom just in a bra and flopped in his lap." Schulberg fretted that this unconventional girl would upset the people of Everglades City, the "extremely closed little community" that served as the location headquarters for the production. During production, Manon would make three dramatic suicide attempts and crash her car into Ray's cabin while the director was inside.

Schulberg also noticed early on that Ray "was under the influence, I didn't know of what... I thought it was just drinking; but a few days before principal photography, I realized that it was more than just drink." Visitors to the set who were experienced in such matters warned Schulberg that Ray appeared to be on heroin.

The cast of the film was a remarkable collection of professional actors and people known for work in other fields. Burl Ives played Cottonmouth, the leader of an unruly band of outcasts who live in the Everglades and support themselves by killing exotic birds and selling their feathers illegally in Miami. Making his second film, Christopher Plummer (replacing Ben Gazzara, who dropped out at the last minute before production) played Murdock, an idealistic Audubon Society representative who goes up against Cottonmouth to try to stop the slaughter of rare species. Smaller parts were played by boxer Tony Galento, famed clown Emmett Kelly, writer MacKinlay Kantor, and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Peter Falk made his film debut as one of Cottonmouth's gang, and another newcomer, Chana Eden, was cast as a Jewish girl who becomes Murdock's lover.

From the start of production, Ray had a bad relationship with Plummer, whom he soon gave up directing. Plummer admitted in his autobiography that the director "was fed up with my own inexperience as a film actor and my sheer arrogance and intolerance toward him." Before one scene, Ray took the actor off the set for a walk. "We must have traveled at least four hundred yards in utter silence," Plummer remembered, "before he finally stopped, turned to me, and said, 'See what I mean?' Things were getting a little scary." Meanwhile, Schulberg resented, and resisted, Ray's attempts to change the script. Ray, long known for being incommunicative about his own thoughts and intentions, baffled his crew by taking scenes from multiple setups with the camera position varying only slightly. There was much drinking on the set, and not limited to the director ("Everybody was drunk!" recalled actor George Voskovec). The production was further hampered by bad weather and by the Schulberg brothers' inexperience as producers.

On the 58th day of filming, January 13, 1958, Ray and Budd Schulberg got into an open dispute on the set when an argument arose over whether a shot Ray had ordered would break screen continuity. In Schulberg's view, the director was now "in very bad shape, not really coherent,... incapable of continuing to work." Schulberg decided that Ray would have to go and that he would finish directing the film himself. Plummer, who was not in the scene in question, recalled merely that after Manon's attack on his cabin with the car, Ray, "badly shaken, did not report for duty with much regularity, so a few days later he was dismissed." The scenes that still remained to be shot were those at the end of the film, in which Murdock and Cottonmouth set off alone together in a rowboat in a perverse duel to the death. "After Nick Ray left," said Burl Ives, "there was no director at all; everybody directed, you know... the first assistant [Charles Maguire] directed, some of the writers directed, actors directed. It was... not a happy experience, no."

Wind Across the Everglades was edited without Ray's involvement. The editing drastically reduced the material Ray had shot, eliminating many scenes and patching together the rest in a choppy way that unintentionally emphasizes the chaotic conditions of the shooting. Among the missing scenes, Ray particularly regretted a scene he had invented and added to the script, in which Murdock and his girlfriend, walking together through town on the Fourth of July in search of somewhere they can be alone together, unexpectedly encounter Cottonmouth, who has brought his son in from the Glades for medical treatment. As Ray later described the scene, "When the two men meet on the street, silently, they appreciate each other's desire for aloneness and walk in opposite directions. It was a beautiful scene, and why the hell they cut it I'll never... Maybe because Budd hadn't written it."

Uneven, mutilated, with a final section that is obviously, and damagingly, shot and acted in a manner different from the rest of the film (although the sequence resonates with other Ray films thematically, notably Bitter Victory [1957] and The Savage Innocents [1960]), Wind Across the Everglades carries Ray's unmistakable stamp. The broken, abrupt, fragmented quality of the images and movements develops the style Ray had been pursuing and refining throughout his career. The astonishing sequence late in the film in which, in the middle of a wild storm, Murdock finds himself the prisoner and the drinking partner of the feather pirates, is one of the greatest scenes in any Ray film. The documentation of the strange and little-known subculture of the Everglades outlaws and the use of folk music in several scenes point directly to Ray's life-long interests and predilections. The handling of the relationship between the two central male characters is right in the center of Ray's thematic universe: like Jim (James Dean) and Buzz (Corey Allen) in Rebel Without a Cause, Murdock and Cottonmouth discover, in mid-battle, that they like and respect each other. The two men form a dynamic pair of fateful opposites in a way that recalls Jeff (Robert Mitchum) and Wes (Arthur Kennedy) in The Lusty Men (1952), Matt (James Cagney) and Davey (John Derek) in Run for Cover (1955), and Leith (Richard Burton) and Brand (Curt Jurgens) in Bitter Victory.

For those who care about Ray, Wind Across the Everglades is an extraordinary work: deeply flawed, but no less deeply marked by the visual brilliance of the director and his bleak but humane and lucid view of character and relationships.

Producer: Stuart Schulberg
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Budd Schulberg
Cinematography: Joseph Brun
Film Editing: Georges Klotz, Joseph Zigman
Art Direction: Richard Sylbert
Cast: Christopher Plummer (Walt Murdock), Burl Ives (Cottonmouth), Chana Eden (Naomi), Gypsy Rose Lee (Mrs. Bradford), George Voskovec (Nathanson), Curt Conway (Perfesser), Tony Galento (Beef), Sammy Renick (Loser), Peter Falk (Writer).

by Chris Fujiwara