Cast & Crew
While Ben Ragan and a search party are combing the outskirts of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia for two lost trappers, Ben's hound dog, Trouble, runs away. When Ben does not find Trouble at home, he decides to return to the swamp, despite the protests of his stern father Thursday. Ben bids farewell to his sweetheart, Mabel McKenzie, then enters the dangerous swamp. After he makes camp that night, he is struck unconscious by an unseen assailant. Upon awakening in the morning, Ben discovers that he is being held prisoner by Tom Keefer, a local man who escaped from prison five years previously after being convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff. Tom tells Ben that he is innocent but refuses to let the young man go for fear that he will find his way out of the swamp and reveal Tom's hiding place. Ben convinces Tom of his sincerity, however, by helping him tend to a snake bite, and the pair decide to become partners. Ben agrees to give Tom's half of their trapping proceeds to his daughter Julie, who is being reared by general store owner Marty McCord and his wife, and after two weeks, Ben returns to town. Ben sells the furs then goes home, where he quarrels with Thursday, whose anger overcomes his relief at his son's homecoming. Tired of Thursday's domination, Ben moves into a shack on McCord's land, where he becomes better acquainted with Julie. Ben tells her that her father is safe, and that he wants her to use the money to go away to school. While Ben continues his trapping and courts Mabel, who grows suspicious of his absences, Thursday's beloved second wife Hannah is pestered by a cowardly former suitor, Jesse Wick. Believing Jesse's intimation that he can get bullies Tim and Bud Dorson to harm Thursday, Hannah does not reveal Jesse's identity to Thursday when he almost catches Jesse during one of his secretive visits. Thursday grows cold to Hannah, who he believes is being unfaithful, and Ben also is upset when Mabel refuses to go to a dance with him. Ben instead attends with Julie, whose unkempt appearance has been transformed by a new dress. Ben realizes that he is attracted to Julie, and after getting her consent to court her, sees the Dorson brothers stealing McCord's pigs. The next day, Ben accuses them of the theft, but when Mabel reveals her suspicions that Ben is trapping with Tom, the townsfolk believe that Tom is the thief and that Ben is protecting him. The Dorsons nearly drown Ben while questioning him, but Ben is rescued by Thursday, who finally reconciles with him. When Hannah tells Ben about her trouble with Thursday, Ben guesses that Jesse is her tormentor and confronts him. Ben also concludes that Jesse perjured himself at Tom's trial to cover up for the Dorsons, and forces him to confess to the sheriff that the Dorsons are the real killers of the deputy. After telling Julie that he will return with her father, Ben goes to find Tom, but is followed by the Dorsons. At first, Tom believes that Ben is leading him into an ambush, but when the Dorsons try to shoot Ben, Tom leads them into quicksand, which claims Bud. Tom lets Tim go, however, telling him to survive in the swamp as he was forced to do. Fearing that he could not adjust to living among people again, Tom hesitates about returning with Ben, but Julie appears and takes him home. Soon after, at another dance, Hannah and Thursday have reconciled, and Tom watches approvingly as Ben dances with Julie.
Fleeter, A Dog
Joseph C. Wright
Darryl F. Zanuck
Vereen Bell's novel first appeared as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post (23 November-28 December 1940). The following written epilogue appears at the end of the film: "The actual photography of scenes in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia was made possible through the cooperation of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge for which appreciation is hereby expressed." Although the Motion Picture Herald review notes that the film was released in sepia tones, the viewed print was in black and white.
Swamp Water marked the American debut of noted French director Jean Renoir. According to a January 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item, French-born producer André Daven was assigned to help Renoir prepare for the project, but the extent of his contribution to the released film has not been determined. Although a May 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Irving Pichel was initially hired as dialogue director to help Renoir with language difficulties, a May 1941 memo from executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck, contained in the Jean Renoir Collection, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, notes that Pichel was responsible for shooting most of the exterior footage in the Okefenokee swamp. According to an August 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item, Pichel also took over direction of a second unit to complete the production in time for the November 1941 trade showings. For his extensive contribution to the project, Pichel was given the producer credit, according to an October 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item. Materials contained in the Twentieth-Century Fox Legal Files, also at UCLA, add that some location shooting was done at Sherwood, Forest, CA.
Materials contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also located at UCLA, and in Renoir's autobiography disclose that the director clashed with Zanuck over the production. In his autobiography, Renoir stated that Zanuck opposed traveling to Georgia to shoot exteriors, preferring instead to build the sets on the Fox lot. Dana Andrews was the only cast member to accompany the crew on location. In a July 30, 1941 memo from Zanuck to Renoir, Zanuck criticized the director for being "too slow" and suggested that he was wasting too much time on "non essential details" and in "moving his camera too much on the dolly or on tracks." Lucien Ballard was replaced as director of photography by Peverell Marley because Zanuck believed that Ballard was contributing to Renoir's slowness. A August 1, 1941 reply from Renoir to Zanuck, reprinted in a modern source, reveals that the director and Zanuck also disagreed over Walter Huston's portrayal of "Thursday Ragan." In frustration over their differences, Renoir offered to resign from the project. By mid-Aug, Renoir was notified by production manager William Koenig that he was being removed from the project because of his slowness, according to an August 18, 1941 telegram from Renoir to Zanuck reprinted in a modern source. In his autobiography, Renoir stated that on the night he was notified of his termination, Zanuck called and asked him to continue directing the film. Renoir terminated his contract with the studio after completing Swamp Water.
According to a November 1940 Variety news item, Henry Fonda was first announced as the star and Nunnally Johnson as the producer of the picture. According to materials contained in the Scripts Collection, Fritz Lang was first considered to direct the picture. A May 27, 1941 Los Angeles Examiner news item stated that Jean Gabin was being considered for the starring role. In June 1941, Hollywood Reporter reported that Linda Darnell was to play "Julie" and Mary Beth Hughes was cast in a top role. Memos from Zanuck reprinted in a modern source disclose that the studio chief tested Dean Jagger for the role of Thursday and suggested John Shepperd to play "Ben" and Lillian Gish to play "Hannah." A December 1940 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that Zanuck also considered Gene Tierney for Julie and Laird Cregar for Thursday.
Swamp Water was reissued by Fox in 1947. The 1952 Fox film Lure of the Wilderness, directed by Jean Negulesco and starring Jeffrey Hunter and Jean Peters, was also based on Bell's novel. For the 1952 film, Walter Brennan reprised his role as the wanted man living in the swamp.