Film review of the silent movie starring Lillian Gish about an innocent girl forced into marriage in the Texan desert.
Director: Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom). MGM
Cast & credits
Producer: Irving Thalberg.
Writer: Frances Marion.
Camera: John Arnold.
Music: Carl Davis (reissue).
Sets: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Withers.
Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, Dorothy Cumming, Edward Earl, William Orlamond, Carmencita Johnson, Leon Ramon, Billy Kent Schaefer.
A gentle, beautiful and naive Virginian girl (Gish) travels to the wild, wind-ravaged badlands of Texas to visit her beloved childhood friend (Earls) and his family. On the way she attracts the attention of a caddish type (Love) and a rough-hewn cattle farmer (Hanson). When Earls wife (Cumming), jealous of the attention Gish is receiving, asks her to move out and choose one of the suitors vying for her attentions, Gish reluctantly marries simple cattle farmer Hanson. But the union is stale and she finds it difficult to adjust to married life. Still pursued by Love, she does nothing to reject his advances. During a vicious storm Love tries to rape her. Killing him in self-defence, she buries him in the sands, only to have the ever present and judgemental winds uncover him. Slowly, she starts to go mad.
The fate of this luminous and dazzling last gasp of the silent movie ironically mirrors the downward depressive tone of the story. The death knell of the silents had already been struck in October 1927 with the release of the first sound on film movie, The Jazz Singer. Work on The Wind had been wrapped mid-way through that year, but jittery US studio heads decided to delay the release of their remaining silent works just to see whether sound was merely a passing fad. Which of course it most certainly wasn’t.
It was also ironic, if not tragic, that at the same time the silent movie had just reached the pinnacle of technical sophistication as an art form, in terms of camerawork, acting and editing (some, like The Last Laugh, didn’t even use title cards to describe the action) when the rug was unceremoniously pulled from under it, but at least it’s master craftsmen managed to produce a few last gems like this.
Based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough and developed by workhorse star Gish as a vehicle for herself, it is exactly as she described in an interview later in her long life as being “…pure motion”.
She is ideally cast in the role, but manages to subtley broaden her range from her usual unerotic, virginal roles she was lumbered with, with a performance of flirtatious, simmering female sexuality. Here she is fully aware and takes full advatage of her feminine charms. She whips up an acting tornado that drives men wild, yet again signalled by the undoing on that long, flowing hair. Of course, in time honoured Hollywood, patriachal hypocrisy, she pays the price for this transgression with sexual violence.
Although the support cast back her with well-judged turns as a spiteful nemesis (Cumming), comedy suitor (Orlamond), predatory love interest (Blue) or salt of the earth partner (Hanson), the other star turn is director Seastrom.
Celebrated in his native Sweden (where he was known as natural name Sjostrom), he was lured to the states by MGM with a lucrative contract and made a string of successful films, including the first one produced by the young studio (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924). This was his second collaboration with Gish, after The Scarlet Letter and the two continue to explore themes of social isolation and redemption in extreme environments.
He is a skilled director at evoking memorable visual motifs: the wild horse bucking across the sky to represent the wind as an omnipresent, untamable force. There is stark, unrelenting imagery: the sand that gets into everything including the food, the ramshackle home buffeted by the ever present wind, the blisters on Gish’s worked hands, the carcass of a steer swinging ominously as Cumming’s strips its innards that later becomes a meagre meal that Gish picks at. Stern Cummings, stained with blood and offal, is rejected by her children to embrace the clean and saintly Gish. His direction of his leading actress is so assured she pours emotion into every frame.
The only detractions are unaccountably silly moments. To fend off her assailant, Gish tips a table over into the middle of the room, nowhere near the door he’s trying to force open. The least said about the awful happy ending the better (it was forced on the producers by exhibitors who reasoned audiences would not react well to a moody conclusion, in which Gish wanders into the desert after a breakdown). The tornado also clearly illustrates the lack of money in the special effects department.
Davis’ evocative, tingling score adds oodles of atmosphere.
Filmed in the stifling heat of the Mojave Desert, with airplanes used to blast the actors with sand, Gish later claimed to have lost the skin on one hand after trying to open her dressing room door after it had baked in the sun all day. She carried on filming – dedication you won’t see from the stars of today.