I was drawn to watch Jean Renoir’s Swamp Water because I read it was filmed in the Okefenokee, a huge swampland in Georgia, not far from where I grew up. I’d been there once as a kid with my dad on a canoeing trip and we saw lots of gators. It’s an eerie, desolate, and inhospitable place. But in Renoir’s film a character, Tom Keefer, manages to live there. We first see him lurking around in the shadows, watching a group of trappers traveling through, looking for game. One of the trapper’s dogs gets spooked and runs away. Its owner, a young man named Ben, goes into the swamp to find him. Keefer assumes Ben is trying to track him down and knocks him out. When he comes to, Ben explains that he was just looking for his dog. He lives in the town Keefer is from, and heard stories about Keefer having murdered someone and broken out of jail, so when he figures out the identity of the mysterious man who kidnapped him, he is naturally very scared. He says everyone in the town thought he ran away to Savannah. It’s inconceivable that anyone would live in the swamp, and the danger isn’t just the cotton-mouths, gators, panthers, and bears, but the danger of getting lost. The Cyprus trees form an enormous, disorientating labyrinth. Keefer tells Ben, “You can get lost, and go plain crazy trying to find your way out. And you gotta know the things that live here before you can get along with them.” Keefer has become immune to these dangers, because he’s one of these epic characters who has been wronged and lives beyond fear. He adapted himself to the harsh, inhuman climate after being spit out by a corrupt society; he was falsely accused of murder by the the two men who committed the murder themselves. He explains that the reason he stays in the swamp instead of running away to another town is to be close to the daughter he was forced to leave behind.
The film was mostly shot in a studio, but Renoir insisted on shooting a few scenes on location. This was one of the concessions Renoir was given by the executives at Fox. It was the first film he made in America. He later disowned the film, claiming it was “was Mr. Zanuck’s film, not mine.” He wasn’t allowed to have a hand in writing the screenplay, was only able to cast a few actors for the roles he wanted, couldn’t choose the music, was reprimanded for lagging behind schedule because his directing style took too long, and had zero say in the editing process. The studio system was very different from what he was used to in France, and the executives there were nothing like the bourgeoisie of his homeland. Fox wanted him to make films about the French, but he insisted on making a film about Americans, and was given the opportunity to direct Swamp Water. He went to Georgia to scout locations and make research photographs for set designs. The people living there were the first Americans he met outside of Hollywood. He felt a great affinity with them and wrote fond and sincere stories about his encounters in his autobiography. They reminded him of the peasants in Brittany “Georgians think of Hollywood as a much more bizarre and distant place than France.” He respected how rooted they were in their homes; “The families have no idea of leaving their wooden farmhouses. The tree which shades the porch has been planted by some ancestor. There are peaceful conversations while swaying on the swing hung by ropes from the beams of the flat roof.” Southerners can be hostile to outsiders, I’m surprised anyone talked to Renoir. They clearly must have sensed the deep humanism within him.
The only shots he was able to make in the Okefenokee were with Dana Andrews, who played the character of Ben. Renoir and his cinematographer, John Peverell Marley, shot Andrews poling his canoe around while looking for his dog, deep in the thick of the cypress trees, just before stumbling upon Tom Keefer. There is a realism to the images in these scenes, a realism beyond the scenography and acting. Zanuck later reprimanded Renoir: “You are wasting entirely too much time on non-essential details in your background.” But for Renoir the background wasn’t a superfluous geography to give a local accent to otherwise universally applicable stories. And shooting on location wasn’t just about the visual authenticity of the place, either. There was the dream of cinema being able to represent something essential; a linkage between a people, a place, and a time. This relationship was being undermined and uprooted by the movements of industry, and films couldn’t put back together the pieces torn apart themselves, but they could at least make its alienation felt. Ben and Keefer reflect on the mystery of the place they found themselves in after making peace with one another. They’re sitting by the campfire and looking into the night sky: “Like another world in here, ain’t it?” Ben asks. Keefer responds, “I heard tell that stars is other worlds too. Big, shining rafts a-floating in the ocean of God’s night. With living things on every raft, just like there is on this one they call the Earth. Living alone in this swamp’s just like living on another star.” Swamp Water, in its failure, embodies Renoir’s conviction to craft a story with a commitment to a place, and to render this place as strange and beautiful and complex as though it were another planet in another solar system revolving around a distant star.