Wind Across the Everglades

wind across the everglades

Wind Across the Everglades is one of Nicholas Ray’s manliest movies in that it deals almost exclusively with men: men talking to men, men socializing with men, men fighting men, men standing off against other men.  And yet, it strikes me that there is a drastic, and gendered, division between the film’s two social worlds of Miami and the everglades, particularly Cottonmouth Key, where Cottonmouth and his “rag tag” bunch of swamp rats reside, away from the pressures and limits of society.  The division between the two spaces and the two types of people who inhabit them is based on connotations of gender, a divide between masculine and feminine, which is ultimately meant to define and privilege the type of hearty, traditional masculinity of our two heroes: out in the wilderness lies the manly, masculine (and natural) world, while the “civilized” (unnatural) world of the newly-built Miami is dominated by women (very frilly-dressed Victorian women, at that).  Here in town, where male figures are limited to the rotund, well-dressed men on the beach who attempt to appease their wives and to the city politician type who wants to pave the streets and drain the swamp to advance development (and profit and civilization), the only truly powerful and important figure is Ms. Bradford, the Madame who runs the two-sided bordello.  Not only does her feminine presence (and dominance) thus define this more urban world in relation to the glades, but she also has the important ability to traverse and command both of the social spaces of her bordello; both the lighter-colored, cheery side connoting and catering to social prosperity and decorum, where she fastidiously maintains the socially-proscribed six inches of distance between a man and his female dancing partner, as well as the literally and figuratively darker side, whose sexual nature is more explicitly pronounced and which caters to a less dignified crowd.  This bordello itself represents the two worlds of the film: the (feminized) civilized, cultured, confiningly-dressed townspeople who demand the glorious plumes of birds to satisfy their fashion trends and social conformity, versus the (masculine) side of society less interested in appearances or in abiding by the rules, those figures who live on the margins (or on the other side of the bar window), who reach their arms through into the other world from time to time, to have a taste of real whiskey, to provide those much-desired plumes to the better halves, and to rake in the profits.

This division of worlds ends up creating a gendered dichotomy between the townsfolk and the men led by Cottonmouth, criminals and ex-lion tamers (and philanderers) and rough-housing ex-jockeys, who are characterized by their lethal cunning, their physical violence, their admirable ability to survive the many “natural causes” by which the everglades could kill them, and their very lusty verve for life, which encompasses drinking, eating, and “protesting.”  Such values are all associated with a certain hearty type of rugged masculinity, a more primal, pre-civilized notion of man (i.e. the male), and the film deeply contrasts them and their “man cave” type of world to the town with its man-made (though still unpaved) roads, its properly built houses, its nickelodeon, its modern train, and most importantly, to its women: these ladies of society epitomize the unnaturalness of this constructed society (especially in comparison to the jungle-like everglades), with their restrictive Victorian clothing, their conservative, heavy bathing suits,  and of course their overlarge feathered hats, which co-opt the beauty and trappings of nature for their own fashionable decoration and social status.  Even the enterprising male “land pirates,” though linked to the rugged “feather pirates” in their common manipulation of the land and in their taking advantage of the natural environment for personal profit, are associated more with the feminine women who seem to overrun the town, are equally well-dressed and “civilized,” are men who would never be able to venture into the glades let alone survive there and whose lust for life can only be expressed by dancing decorously with ladies at a sustained distance of six inches.

Interestingly, Murdock, sort of like Ms. Bradford, can cross both social worlds, can hold his own in town with his lady love Naomi (to whom he is presumably ultimately returning, along with a “civilized” life in Miami) as well as against the larger-than-life (literally!), King-of-the-Jungle-type, Cottonmouth.  Yet Murdoch’s ultimate value is defined by the same traditional type of lusty, macho masculinity which validates Cottonmouth and his crew; he just has the added benefit of looking more cultured and cleaned up (he was going to be a school teacher, for goodness sake) than the huge, fire-bearded Cottonmouth.  To all appearances, this “Birdboy” was just as feminized and weak as the rest of the townspeople, easy prey for Cottonmouth and his motley men; yet as Sawdust reports to him, Murdoch isn’t the sort of pansy figure they expected.  Though he cares for the birds and wants to protect them instead of masculinely using shotguns to shoot them down and to dominate nature, he can still, like a man, defend his position and beliefs, just as Cottonmouth uses his poisonous namesake to protect his values and way of life from outsiders and intruders.  Murdoch can fight, shoot, and hold his liquor, manly traits he (very masculinely) proves when going to face Cottonmouth alone and when he matches him in drinking and revelry, which thus reveal him to be Cottonmouth’s equal.

Lastly, I wanted to note how often this film utilizes the themes and conventions of the western genre and how much it coincides with Run for Cover, the film I am analyzing for my final paper.  Everglades includes the opening arrival of a stranger into a town, community, or group of people, which is a characteristic of both the western genre and of Ray himself, who is obsessed with outsider figures and whose own mantra was “I’m a stranger here myself” (for instance, this conventional opening occurs in both of Ray’s westerns, Run for Cover and Johnny Guitar, the film in which that line is actually spoken by the newly-arrived Johnny).  Also, Everglades revolves around a frontier, so to speak, with the expansion of American (and immigrant) society moving South rather than West.  This 19th century Miami looks like many of frontier towns in typical western movies, with wooden buildings comprising the half-built town on the edge of the wilderness and dirt roads running through it.  This film, too, utilizes the dichotomy between civilization and the frontier, between town and nature, which defines the western genre.  In a way, Cottonmouth and his crew even sort of resemble the Indians of many westerns, characterized by an affinity with nature, the land, and the animals which the white settlers lack.  However, the film also makes clear that these “feather pirates” are just as destructive as the typical settlers, which is perhaps more disappointing and blasphemous considering their closeness to the land and the fact that, as Cottonmouth takes such pride in, he was born and will die there.  Everglades does in fact have an authentic Native American, poor Bill One-Arm, an exiled Seminole who now has eye twitches and an almost-stutter from being ousted from his own community and separated from his wife and daughter, as well as from his encounters with white people, especially mean, threatening ones like Cottonmouth.  The film makes very clear the analogy being drawn between the birds being shot down for their feathers, with entire rookeries destroyed far beyond the necessities of survival, and the Native Americans, who were similarly pushed off their land and their entire culture destroyed by the whites who wanted it for themselves, for their own gain (similar also to the settlers’ hunting and killing of buffalo for sport and gain in stark comparison to the Native American’s complete utilization of the animal as a part of their survival and their way of life).  As Murdock tells Billy, “first you had good land, then you had band land, and now you have this, no land.”


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