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Swamp Fire

D: William H. Pine / 69m

Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Virginia Grey, Buster Crabbe, Carol Thurston, Pedro de Cordoba, Marcelle Corday, William Edmunds, Edwin Maxwell, Pierre Watkin

Coming home from the war, bar pilot Johnny Duval (Weissmuller) is a veteran whose return is tinged with a bittersweet quality. He lost both his ship and his men during the war and he’s haunted by the event, so much so that he’s lost his confidence as a bar pilot completely. But he does have the love of Toni Rousseau (Thurston) to look forward to, and the welcome of his friends. Travelling through the swamp to his home at Cypress Point, his row boat is side-swiped by a motor boat being driven by Janet Hilton, a wealthy socialite who lives at nearby Delta Island. With her motor boat run aground, Johnny offers to take her to Cypress Point where she can rent another boat. Once there, she wastes no time in alienating Johnny’s friends, including Toni, before leaving.

Johnny goes back to work for the Coast Guard but he takes a junior role, until one night the bar pilot on his ship feigns an illness that leads to Johnny taking over and seeing another boat through the river’s perilous sand bars. The boat belongs to Janet’s father; she’s also on the boat and makes advances towards him, but even with that and other distractions such as an hallucination from the war, he guides the boat safely through the waters, and regains his confidence. Quickly promoted to a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, Johnny resumes his usual work as a bar pilot. In the meantime, Janet continues to pursue him, much to the annoyance of Toni, and to the satisfaction of Mike Kalavich (Crabbe), a trapper who wants Toni for himself. Johnny decides to marry Toni and the date is set, but the night before, he finds himself persuaded to guide a ship through dangerous fog. There is a collision with another boat, one that leads to the death of Toni’s grandfather (de Cordoba).

Unable to cope with the guilt of what he’s done, Johnny goes away on leave and bar hops until he’s so drunk he stumbles into the path of a truck and is knocked down. He ends up in hospital and is there for two weeks before anyone discovers who he is. The news makes the papers and Toni and Johnny’s boss, Captain Moise (Maxwell), head to the hospital to bring him home. But when they get there they find Johnny has already left – in the care of Janet Hilton. At the Hiltons’, Janet tells them – falsely – that Johnny doesn’t want to see them, or anybody, from Cypress Point. Janet takes further steps to stop Johnny and Toni from contacting each other. With both believing the worst of the other, Johnny and Toni’s relationship falters then fails, until the capture of one of Kalavich’s comrades in poaching leads to Janet’s duplicity being revealed. But while Johnny tries to find Toni, Kalavich, enraged by this turn of events, decides to set fire to the swampland, putting them all in danger.

Swamp Fire - scene

The first of two movies uniting former Olympic swimming champions Weissmuller and Crabbe – the second would be the Jungle Jim adventure Captive Girl (1950) – Swamp Fire is an absorbing, though pedestrian drama that unfolds at a steady, if sometimes soporific pace, and which offers both actors a chance to spread their wings in roles they wouldn’t normally have played. Weissmuller, though as wooden as usual, does his best as the taciturn, PTSD-suffering Johnny, and makes a decent fist of his love scenes with Thurston (he certainly kisses her with gusto). Crabbe has the greater challenge, playing a disgruntled bad guy with a dodgy Cajun accent and a pencil-thin moustache, but it’s a more natural performance, and he seems more at ease in the role than Weissmuller does as Johnny, and the movie gains a noticeable energy whenever he’s on screen.

They’re kept apart for most of the movie, however, leaving room for Weissmuller to romance both Grey and Thurston in equal measure, and to show that his muscular frame still looks good in a T-shirt (he doesn’t go bare chested in this movie, perhaps because of the extra weight he’d put on at the time). The twin romances are agreeable, if not entirely believable. Grey’s character is so stuck up and manipulative that when Toni ends up in the river and at the mercy of an alligator, it’s likely the viewer will be wishing it was Janet in the water. The character vacillates between arrogant, passive and flirtatious (sometimes in the same scene), and Grey doesn’t always know when to move from one aspect to another. Thurston plays Toni as if she were more of a tomboy than a young woman with eyes for only one man, but she’s consistent in her approach to the character and makes slightly more of things than the script – by Daniel Mainwaring (credited as Geoffrey Homes) – would appear to allow. There’s an argument that both roles are underwritten, but the truth is they’re quite stereotypical for both the time the movie was made and its milieu.

In the hot seat, Pine – noted for being a producer more than a director – shows a sure hand in moving the camera around and elicits good performances from the supporting cast, including Edmunds as the local bar owner, and Maxwell as Johnny’s suppportive superior. The Louisiana locations are well chosen for their beautiful scenery, and make for splendid backdrops to the (occasionally) overheated emotions of the main characters (though the amount of rear projection work going on almost negates their effect). As well as being involved in several river collisions, Weissmuller gets to wrestle and kill an alligator – the danger of which he brushes off with manly stoicism – and there’s a catfight between Grey and Thurston that is, sadly, over almost as soon as it’s started. The fiery climax doesn’t look as impressive in the long shots as it does close up, but the emotional undercurrent is brought to the fore, making the denouement unexpectedly compelling, and satisfying as well.

Rating: 5/10 – like a lot of low-budget, modest post-War productions, Swamp Fire is borderline forgettable, but despite its faults, is a pleasant enough diversion for sixty-nine minutes; Weissmuller and Crabbe make for great adversaries, and the plot isn’t as banal as it seems, making this a notch above other, similar movies from the period.