Sunday, November 6, 2011

Review of Wind Across the Everglades (1958)

In Wind Across the Everglades a game warden named Walt Murdock (played by Christopher Plummer) confronts plume hunter Cottonmouth Smith (played by Burl Ives) in early 1900s Florida. It is based loosely on the experiences of Guy Bradley, an Audubon warden who was killed by a plume hunter (also named Smith) in 1905. The Smith in the movie does not kill the game warden, although he made several failed attempts to rig a "natural" death. The cinematic game warden differed from the real one in ways other than that he survived his confrontation with his Smith. As where Bradley was a native Floridian familiar with the 'glades, Murdock is well educated northerner (often referred to as a "Yankee" when not called "Bird Boy") who came to Miami to teach natural history at the high school. He was fired literally as soon as he gets off the train because he pulled some plumes off one a woman's hat. This immediately draws him to the one Audubon representative in Miami who convinced the judge to release Murdock to serve as a warden in the Everglades. The views of the business community are crystallized in two individuals. One wants to profit from the plume trade, the other wants to drain the Everglades to make room for development. In contrast, Murdock becomes instantly infatuated with the swamps and rejects both of these positions.

In many ways I find the market hunter Smith the more interesting character. He leads a colony of violent outlaws, the misfits of society who believe their lifestyle is both the ultimate expression of individualism and a form of protest against modern society. Smith holds sway over this community as a sort of king. He is lord of nature and man in the swamp. He dispenses justice as he sees fit, punishes transgressions, and holds the power over life and death. In the end he miraculously decides to bring the "Bird Boy," as he calls Murdock to Miami and risk prosecution, but as he went to grab his hat he was bit by a snake and died with a buzzard circling overhead. This is a Hollywood movie after all!

Having read a great deal on the Progressive Era wildlife conservation movement, I really enjoyed this film. I think it captures a lot of the indifference that existed to the plumage issue at the time as well as the crusading spirit that motivated the early conservationists. By casting Murdock as a "Yankee" in the south, it also captured some of the conflict between local and outside values over nature that exist in conservation battles. But, I think the depiction of the market hunters is a little off. Many were family men following a tradition of their fathers and who shot game (for plumes or meat) to make extra money. This is not  to defend them, but by and large they were much more ordinary than Smith's counter-cultural Robin Hood's band of the Swamps.

If I was teaching an environmental history class I think I would try to incorporate this film into the syllabus somehow. It could be a good vehicle for discussion on the points I enumerated above. As far as the film is concerned, the cinematography is phenomenal, especially given the date. There are many great scenes of wildlife and swamps, and there are no computer generated heron flocks in this movie.

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