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Once upon a time, I said this blog would focus mostly on movie reviews:
Those reviews – when they happen – are a throwback to my time at the University of South Florida, in 1976. I reviewed movies for the student newspaper, The Oracle. (Before it got all famous and well-known.) I liked films enough to make that my minor.
That’s from THAT “WASP” NAME, above. But the last review I did – technically – was “Joseph Welch, dead at only 69? OMG!” I reviewed a 1959 movie I’d seen many times, Anatomy of a Murder. It starred Jimmy Stewart as the defense lawyer in a murder trial, but it also had Joseph Welch as the trial judge. That review focused mainly on the fact that Welch had died at a mere 69 years of age, three months “after I’d just turned 69.” So I reviewed Anatomy in passing. (Aside from saying he died way too early, I also noted that Welch was the “real-life lawyer famous for dressing down Joseph McCarthy during the Army–McCarthy hearings.”)
The last real review I did was “Imitation Game” – Revisited, in February 2018. But that post just reviewed a review of the same movie in April 2015, Oscar Wilde and “gross indecencies.” It was a review-of-a-review. Bottom line? “It’s been a while since I’ve done a real movie review.”
In this post I’ll review Swamp Water, the 1941 “film noir crime film” directed by Jean Renoir and starring Walter Brennan and Dana Andrews. Mostly with an eye on how it got me hooked on the Okefenokee Swamp. Hooked in the sense of trying three times to cross it from east to west, and finally succeeding last February, detailed in I paddled across the Okefenokee – finally!
It all started when I was 10 or 12 and first saw the film. (In the early 1960s.) The scene I remember most was Walter Brennan getting bitten on the cheek by a smiling – and sinister – water moccasin. (As he knelt over to part some bulrushes, to get a drink of “swamp water.”)
I’ve been fascinated ever since…
Which brings up how different the real Okefenokee is, compared to how it got portrayed by Hollywood. (In the film especially.) It seems like every person I talked to about canoeing into the Swamp last February had the same response. “Are you crazy? It’s dangerous in there!” In short the Okefenokee has a terrible reputation, and I think it started with Hollywood and Swamp Water. I’ll focus on that in this review, the difference between “Hollywood” and reality.
The movie starts with opening credits rolling against what seems a view of the Suwanee Canal. There’s dramatic, heart-pounding music, followed some time later by a calming version of “Red River Valley.” (To dramatize the dangers of the Swamp, compared to life in the “civilized” world?) The film itself begins with a graphic, saying those people who live around the edge of the Okefenokee know “that its sluggish waters were filled with alligators and that its boggy forests harbored the deadly cottonmouth snake. They feared these creatures, but much more they feared the unexplored vastness in which a man might disappear, never to be seen again.”
Which leads to the first question: Are the waters really “sluggish?” Later on that.
After the graphic comes a cross, formed by two pieces of tree branch, shown at the top of the page. The “cross” is topped with a human skull and draped with Spanish moss. The camera pans left, to show a group of flat-bottomed boats poled by standing men. (Again, poling up what seems to be the Suwanee Canal.) Dana Andrews, as “Ben,” is in his boat with his dog. He stops in front of the cross-and-skull to blow a hunting horn. Other boats come up, and the men see – off in the distance – what may be what they’re looking for, two trappers who had disappeared in the Swamp. The camera switches to a huge bull gator, lurking on the shore, menacing. The men pole over and find what they’ve been looking for, another boat, flat bottom up.
Finding the boat, one man says, “No need to look no fu’ther.” Another adds, “No, they was gator-et.” (Eaten by gators.) All they find is a hat. As they paddle away, a sneaky, shadowy head looks out from the bushes. (It’s Walter Brennan, as Tom Keefer, a fugitive from a trumped-up murder conviction.) On the way home Ben’s dog sees a deer, jumps in the water and disappears after it. After they get back to civilization, Ben decides he has to go back in, to find his dog.
But first he has to tell his father of his plans. His father yells, “You be careful, and stay clear of that swamp!” After more argument he yells again, “stay clear of that swamp!” Ben says that’s where his dog jumped out of the boat, so he has to go back in. A big fight follows. His father says to be back tomorrow night and a third time, “stay clear of that swamp!” After yet more argument the father yells, “You be here tomorrow night or don’t come back at all!”
Before going back into the Swamp, Ben stops by a general store to get shells for his shotgun. Asked where he’s headed, he says, “Okefenokee.” The men in the store all turn around and look at him in stunned silence. The clerk says, “You mean you’re goin’ in alone?” (I went in alone three times.) Various insults follow. One man makes a production of checking out Ben’s hat. He says he wants to see if it’ll fit him, because “that’s all they’re going to find of you.”
There’s more in the scene with Tom Keefer’s daughter and a sackful of cats two men are supposed to drown, but that’s not relevant here. I have to focus on that unity-and-coherence “stuff” that real writers are supposed to do, so back to Ben heading into the dreaded Okefenokee. He poles down what appears to be a side channel, and the camera shows a gator slinking into the water, menacing. He poles into some thick trees and brush, blows his horn, and hears his dog off in the distance. He jumps in the water, leaving his boat and supplies and goes floundering toward the sound of his dog. The first thought that came to me: “What are you, an idiot?”
Meaning: No one in his right mind in the Okefenokee would jump out of his boat and go floundering around in the water, looking for some lost dog. Sure enough, Ben soon finds himself in a predicament. After what seems an eternity of floundering around in the muck, he finds dry ground. (Relatively speaking.) In the next scene night has fallen.
Ben sits hunched over. He has his shotgun, but nothing else. (He has however been able to light a fire.) He hears fierce growling in the not-too-distant. (Something I never heard.) He tries to stay awake, but soon falls asleep and Tom Keefer sneaks up behind and bops him on the head. In the morning he sees his dog barking and whining, happy to see Ben. He also sees that his hands are tied behind him. He sees a man with his back to him and asks, ‘Who are you?” The man slowly turns and for the first time we see Walter Brennan’s face full on.
In the dialog that follows, we learn what happened to the two missing trappers. Tom tells Ben, “Them was cottonmouth bit.” He also tells Ben, “You’re in the Okefenokee for good.” With his conviction for murder – trumped up or not – Tom can’t afford to let Ben go free, despite Ben’s promise not to tell anyone that Keefer is still alive. Tom also says that without his help, Ben could never find his way out of the Swamp. (Of course, if Ben hadn’t left his boat?)
Tom turns his back on Ben, to get some coffee. Ben gets a big stick and sneaks up, but in the ensuing confrontation Tom tosses the hot coffee in Ben’s face, then throws him to the ground with a judo throw. He talks again about how hard it is to find your way out of the Swamp, then says. “You’re in here for life.” Then comes the really creepy part.
That night Tom goes to get a drink of water. As shown in the image below, the camera shows a lit-up cottonmouth off to the viewer’s left, coiling and smiling. (Evilly?) After the snake bites Tom on the cheek, he recoils, eventually stumbles back to the campsite, and falls to the ground.
Next morning, we see Ben digging a grave. He gets up and prays, looking up, before going back to the campsite to get the body. He arrives only to find Tom alive, well and sipping a cup of coffee. Explanations follow. For one thing Tom says, “Just made up my mind to get well.” More to the point, “I bet I been cottonmouth-bit a dozen times.” (And apparently built up an immunity.) Ben has Tom’s knife, which he used in part to clear brush and help dig the grave. But he adds, “I cut that snake bite, to make it bleed.” Tom thanks Ben and says, “You can have your gun back.”
In other words, Tom is grateful that Ben helped save his life, and Ben starts to believe that Tom is innocent. To see the rest of the story you can check various reviews, but that’s as far as I watched. (To the part where Walter gets “cottonmouth bit,” and a bit beyond.)
Wikipedia has a short review, with all but the first sentence dealing with the movie after Tom and Ben “form a partnership in which Ben sells the animals hunted and trapped by both until townsfolk become suspicious.” For a smorgasbord of reviews, see Swamp Water (1941) … User Reviews – IMDb. One such review – “Old classic, May 29, 2001 – sounded familiar to me:
I can remember seeing this movie as a kid and getting the bejesus scared out of me. The darkness and uncertainty of the swamp terrified my young imagination and the image of the skull atop a cross touched all my Roman Catholic primal fears. My impression of the swamp, i.e., crocs, gaters and snakes, topped with a dark image of the fugitive played by Walter Brennan, lasted for years.
Which brings us back to that glaring difference between Hollywood and reality. On the first question – Are the waters of the Okefenokee really “sluggish?” – the answer is a resounding No. The city of Jacksonville once proposed a “40-mile pipeline be constructed from the Okefenokee Swamp to the city for drinking water. Natural, pure water from the Okefenokee Swamp is highly valuable and has been sought after for centuries.” Further, old time sailing vessels – called “tramps” – sailed hundreds of miles out of their way to get the water. “This water was found to be healthful and pure, and lasted a long time in wood barrels used by earlier mariners.”
And from personal experience I can say there’s a definite current in the the Okefenokee, sometimes quite strong. That certainly helps to keep the water “healthful and pure.”
As for the movie’s other claims, in a total of four trips into the Swamp – 10 days all told – I didn’t see a single snake of any kind, let alone a cottonmouth. As to people getting gator et, “No alligator attacks on humans in the swamp have been recorded in the last 80 years.” (When they started keeping records.) That’s according to the University of Georgia’s River Basin Center, which adds: “It is important, however, not to feed gators or try to touch them. Habituating gators to human contact makes them dangerous.” No attacks, let alone fatal attacks.
Which brings us to the Fatal alligator attacks in the United States – Wikipedia. One thing to note is that the number of fatal gator attacks has increased dramatically, from one in the 1950’s to eight in the 2010’s. That’s the last full decade, but since 2020 there have been seven such fatal attacks, with seven years left in this decade. Another thing to notice is that most of the attacks are in Florida, followed by Texas, Louisiana and South Carolina. And near ponds close to retirement communities and golf courses. So, with those statistics there’s one logical conclusion:
You’re safer from gator attacks INSIDE the Okefenokee than out in the “civilized world.”
Happy canoeing. And take that Hollywood hype with a grain of salt. (Or maybe a bushel.)
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The upper image is courtesy of Swamp Water 1941 Movie – Image Results. It was accompanied by another review, posted June 19, 2009, by Steve Lewis, who had been “producing Mystery*File on and off since the early 1970s.” See also MYSTERY*FILE ON-LINE:
Devoted to mystery and detective fiction – the books, the films, the authors, and those who read, watch, collect and make annotated lists of them.
The lower image is also courtesy of the Image Results site. I clicked on a photo of a big, hulking bull gator, which accompanied a page linked to California Herps.com. I clicked on “View Page,” and went to a “Snakes in Movies” page with eight photos. The first four showed Walter Brennan’s infamous scene where he got bitten on the right cheek by a Cottonmouth. The photo above is the third of the four. The “Herps” site is a “Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of California.”
Re: Joseph Welch dying at 69. “Born in 1890, he played in Anatomy of a Murder in 1959, and died not long after that. ‘Sixteen days before his 70th birthday, and fifteen months after the release of Anatomy of a Murder, Welch suffered a heart attack and died on October 6, 1960.’” My 69th birthday was in mid-July, and mid-October would be three months after that.
Re: “It all started when I was 10 or 12.” For starters see 2015’s Operation Pogo.
Re: Okefenokee water being “sluggish.” See Okefenokee: The Swamp Next Door That Is a National Treasure. Here’s the complete quote referred to in the main text:
The Okefenokee Swamp produces “black water,” which looks like tea. Organic plant material decomposing in the swamp brews under sunlight releasing tannins that color the water. The “black water” flows to the Atlantic Ocean passing through Cumberland Sound, just north of Amelia Island. This water was found to be healthful and pure, and lasted a long time in wood barrels used by earlier mariners. Old sailing vessels called “tramps” would come hundreds of miles off their course for St. Marys River water. Vessels that docked in the port city of Fernandina could procure barrels of “swamp water” for voyages. Many years later, the city of Jacksonville proposed a 40-mile pipeline be constructed from the Okefenokee Swamp to the city for drinking water. Natural, pure water from the Okefenokee Swamp is highly valuable and has been sought after for centuries.
Another article called the Swamp “the kidneys of the earth, filtering contaminants from the water flowing from the Suwanee and St. Mary’s Rivers.” From the February 5, 2023, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, B5, “Okefenokee: ‘This Earth is us, we just can’t let it get away.'” It reviewed “Sacred Waters: The Okefenokee in Peril.” For more options Google “sacred waters okefenokee in peril.” My local – oldest – brother handed me the article a few days before I headed south to the Swamp.
Re: Gator attacks in the Swamp. The full link: Okefenokee FAQ & Resources – The River Basin Center.
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