When the Germans invaded France at the beginning of WWII, Jean Renoir had just directed three masterpieces...Grand Illusion (1937), La Bete Humaine (1938) and The Rules of the Game (1939). He escaped to Hollywood with little but an immense reputation and a poor command of English. So what did Hollywood do? Darryl F. Zanuck assigned him to a piece of swamp noir called Swamp Water. Renoir emerged with his reputation more or less intact, but as Zanuck said later, "Renoir has plenty of talent, but he's not one of us."
Swamp Water tells the story of young Ben Ragan (Dana Andrews), who lives in a small community on the edge of Georgia's Okefenokee swamp. The swamp is a fearsome place filled with gators, quicksand, cottonmouth water moccasins, tangled undergrowth and mosquitoes. The menfolk all hunt, trap and fish around the edges of the swamp, and so does Ben with his dog, Trouble.
One day Trouble goes missing and Ben, over the objections of his stern father, Thursday Ragan (Walter Huston), goes into the swamp to find his dog. Ben finds the hound, but an escaped convict, Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), finds Ben. Keefer years ago had been judged guilty of hog stealing and killing a man, but he escaped before he could be hanged. He's been living deep in the swamp ever since. When Keefer is bitten by a cottonmouth, Ben tries to save him. Keefer survives and instead of killing Ben or abandoning him in the swamp, decides he'll trust Ben. He explains to Ben what really happened and that no one will believe him. The two of them agree to become partners. Keefer and Ben will hunt and trap to collect skins. Ben will keep Keefer's secret and sell the skins back in town. Ben can become independent of his father; he'll also save half the money for Keefer's daughter, Julie (Anne Baxter). Julie thinks her father is dead. She’s been raised by others. She is ragged with dirty feet, and works hard.
Things are never simple, of course. Ben has a girlfriend to whom he by mistake shares his secret. She turns out to be a jealous flirt. There are two brothers who are tough, mean and who may be the real killers. There is Thursday Ragan's younger wife, who loves Thursday but longs for more companionship than Thursday is providing. There's Julie, who looks much better after a bath and wearing a pretty dress. And there's Ben himself, well-meaning, honest and naive, whose attempts to do the right thing often lead to more trouble.
What did Renoir manage to make of all this, his first American movie? I wish I could say "a masterpiece," but that would be gilding the corn pone.
Renoir does a fine job of showing us the life of this small community; we get a real sense of a tiny place where everyone knows everyone else and, sooner or later, everyone else's business. He insisted that he go to the Okefenokee and finally Zanuck gave him permission. He took Dana Andrews and a camera crew and came back with enough footage that we get a real feeling for what the swamp is like, especially if you're by yourself in the place. He also created some first-rate set pieces...the opening gator hunt, Ben's search for his dog, Keefer going to drink in the swamp at night and being struck in the face by a cottonmouth, the loneliness of Thursday's wife, the community dance, and Keefer's return with Ben that leads to an ambush in the swamp and an unsettling conclusion for the bad guys that involves quicksand and abandonment.
On the other hand, we have to listen to Andrews try on a Georgia cracker accent. "My dog" becomes "mah doag." Andrews is never just sure of something, he's "plumb sure." And I can't count the number of times he refers to Baxter as a "young 'un" or he is referred to as a "young 'un" by others. The three canny old hands in the movie, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston and John Carradine (in a smaller role) never let themselves be trapped by corny accents; they speak their lines straight and it's much more effective. Good performances are also given by such recognizable faces as Eugene Pallette, Ward Bond and Guin Williams. To add insult to injury, Zanuck himself rewrote the ending and gave this sentimental scene to a hack contract director to finish.
All in all, Swamp Water is a movie Jean Renoir completists will eventually want to own, although I'm not sure how often you'll watch it after the first time. I suspect that when Zanuck said "Renoir has plenty of talent, but he's not one of us," Renoir was delighted and enthusiastically agreed.