The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937)

I actually think this would’ve worked better as a silent film.  There’re some magnificent images sprinkled throughout this simple little tale of a wrongfully-imprisoned South Islander committed to escaping his Tahitian prison to reunite with his lost love in the wake of an epically destructive storm.  The shot you see above, where Terangi (a most decidedly caucasian, most decidedly NOT native South Islander Jon Hall 😆 ) kneels before his loving wife Marama (Dorothy Lamour), with the musical score understated but emotional, is straight out of a typically great expressionistic silent film…as is a bizarre, and haunting, moment during the dreaded storm where the kindly Father Paul plays the organ as his church crumbles around him.  Terangi’s big escape is thrilling, on par with other prison films of the period like “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” as is a big emotional set-piece involving Terangi in the water, pursued by his captors as his barge, and freedom, are within his grasp.  As the music, typically bombastic for that period, swells, the scene is thrilling and tense – and it’s all about image and music, just like the best of silent cinema.  In fact, little moments like where Marama comforts her sleeping husband, lying shirtless on the ground, reminded me of “The Woman in the Dunes” of all things – a particularly exotic and interesting little moment.  And, perhaps the best shot in the entire film, and one that immediately convinced me of John Ford’s gifted eye, involved the dastardly governor confronting Father Paul (a sympathizer with Terangi) in the Father’s dark living quarters, lit only by a candle, with a giant cross between the two ideological opponents.  Magnificent. 

Did I mention how this would’ve worked better as a silent film?  ‘cuz once you add dialogue and plot to this minor visual feast, it’s a mess.  The de facto villain, the governor of the little island whose refusal to intercede on Terangi’s behalf out of principle turns into an all-out obsession with ruining the poor guy’s life, is little more than an over-the-top Snidely Whiplash.  Dorothy Lamour is cringe-inducing as Marama, Jon Hall…well, good luck just getting past his skin color for starters, and Mary Astor as the governor’s sympathetic wife, is, well, Mary Astor at her overacting-est worst (every painful thing about her performance in “The Maltese Falcon” came flooding back to me as I watched this).  Even if you dismiss the overacting as a product of 1930s cinema (the exaggerated, expressionistic acting another reason why this would’ve worked better as a silent film), the plot and its implications are just way too simple.  It’s your basic “true love = good, letter of the unfeeling law = bad” theme with not an ounce of complexity or nuance.  It’s all just set-up for the big set-piece, the dreaded hurricane.  The sequence, apparently exorbitantly expensive to accomplish, complete with winds, water, and destroying sets like they’re Lincoln Logs, is indeed epic in scope and looks GREAT, and is damned convincing even by today’s standards.  But, it goes on way, way, WAY too long.  If Ford took some time and effort out of the hurricane set-piece and devoted it to character development, who knows, maybe Tarangi would’ve been something more than a hyper-sympathetic (more like just plain pathetic, really) man-child, Marama would’ve been more than your stock worried wife, and the dreaded governor would’ve had SOME kind of nuance to him (I’m sorry, but a sudden, to say the least, change of heart seconds before the closing credits roll does not count as nuanced), and we would’ve actually cared about the lives hanging in the balance during the storm.

On the bright side, though, at least the Natives were portrayed positively in a Ford film, for once.  But then again, even when the Natives of a Ford film are the good guys, they’re still dehumanized, a giant entity with funny customs rather than a group of individuals, and still pretty helpless compared to the more “civilized” white contingent.  Just another instance of lack of nuance pretty much ruining as good-looking a movie you’ll see from the 1930s.


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