It has been duly noted that Hollywood’s fascination with the disaster epic correlates to times of great socio-political and economic upheaval; filmdom’s response to a crisis – presenting the audience with a manufactured one to dwarf the hardships already being endured: a classic case of misery loves company. John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937) falls just short of attaining ‘masterpiece’ status; second-tier Ford, undeniably better than first-tier most anybody else. The picture’s tour-de-force is unquestionably its titled fourteen minute tropical storm – superbly staged by special effects master, James Basevi, on a full-scale set built on the United Artists backlot with dump tanks and wind machines tearing to pieces the fictional island oasis of Manakoora. In his review, New York Times critic, Frank S. Nugent heralded this exhilarating sequence as “one of the most thrilling spectacles…a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine, film your eyes with spin-drift, beat at your ears with thunder, clutch at your heart, and, send your diaphragm vaulting over your floating rib into a region just south of your tonsils.” Point well put and taken. Few depictions of Mother Nature’s carnage have been as graphically or as convincingly captured on celluloid; the deluge that rips through paradise, crippling a small village and laying waste to its inhabitants, truly a visceral and harrowing experience – for the audience as well as the stars subjected to Ford’s devilishly enterprising verisimilitude.
Cleverly, yet almost as an afterthought, the screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Dudley Nichols telescopically focuses the bulk of Ford’s opus magnum on the characters about to suffer this natural tragedy; the taut and tenacious, Terangi (Jon Hall); half-caste first mate of the Katopua – a cargo ship captained by Nagle (Jerome Cowen); a curiously sympathetic commander, who goes to bat for his right-hand after a disastrous bar room brawl leads to Terangi’s six month incarceration in a Tahitian prison for striking and breaking the jaw of a drunken bigot. Manakoora’s governor, Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey) will not lift a finger to alleviate Terangi’s sentence, despite vehement protestations from the island’s chronically inebriated physician, Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell) and the more restrained, though no less impassioned and tender pleas of his own compassionate spouse, Germaine (Mary Astor).
Astor once described John Ford as “very Irish – dark, but with a soft side he did everything to conceal.” Indeed, Ford could be classified as a curmudgeonly sadist towards his actors – especially those he secretly admired – in order to will his visions to life. And yet, one need only reconsider the empathy he exhibits toward the characters on the screen throughout his formidable body of work to realize his instinctual humanitarianism; Ford, undeniably conflicted and quite unable to reconcile the Jekyll and Hyde dualities of his public persona and private compassion for the frailty of human life. Perhaps, Mary Astor could relate to Ford’s dilemma. In 1936, she was still reeling from a scandal brought on by a highly publicized divorce from first husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, who insisted Astor’s diary be included as evidence against her at trial. The court ruled in Astor’s favor. However, the diary was later stolen and leaked to the press; its revelations of a torrid sexual liaison, shocking the blue-nosed and more puritanical. Miraculously, Astor’s reputation in Hollywood was hotter than ever afterward, thanks in part to producer, Samuel Goldwyn’s refusal to fire her from his production of Dodsworth (1936). Decidedly, the diary illustrated an entirely ‘other side’ to Astor’s Teflon-coated screen image as the stately and demure lady of the maison.
The Hurricane is based on a best-selling novel by Charles Norhoff and James Norman Hall (star, Jon Hall’s uncle); co-authors of the wildly successful Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. And yet, if anything, John Ford improves upon the rather lackluster depiction of the book’s central protagonist, Terangi; portrayed in the novel as more the stick-figure ideal of the noble savage than as a real man; Ford adding an almost Christ-like patina to this earthy, and queerly ‘virginal’, yet ever so slightly homo-erotic muscle god of the South Seas. In Jon Hall, Ford has the perfect ‘raw material’ with which to play and mold; Hall’s mixed heritage (half Swiss/half Tahitian), coupled with his ingenious interpretation of that ‘noble savage’ transcending most of the usual clichés afforded this architype. Ford’s romanticized allegiance to native traditions is closely aligned to his natural contempt for smug superiority as a self-appointed renaissance man – even in 1936, Ford’s world-view of the past having fallen quaintly out of fashion with contemporary society. His intrinsic harmony between nature and humanity, the latter destined to be torn asunder, not only by the storm, but equally by a clash of cultures that certain characters’ in this film disregard in their futile attempts to overlook mankind’s transience on the sands of time; leaving no more than vanishing footprints – literally – upon these windswept beaches, meant to be wiped clean by the wrath of God. Few film makers have struck such an indelible impression or offered as rare, blatant and impassioned a social commentary. Once asked by a well-meaning reporter if he believed in infusing his movies with a highly personal social conscience, the caustic Ford’s curtly replied, “What in the hell else does any man live for?”
Indeed, The Hurricane taps into reoccurring themes familiar in Ford’s body of work: the white European rape of the natural world, man’s unnatural disdain for his fellow man, particularly for any indigenous cultures foreign to his own, expressed with Ford’s clear-eyed scorn for colonization. It’s the French being put under Ford’s critical microscope this time – mismanaging their seemingly peaceful alliance with the Polynesians; turning an innocuous confrontation between Hall’s butch first mate and William B. Davidson’s abusive drunk – into a purposeless cause célèbre; more revealing and potent for Ford’s overriding exposure of racism. Alas, as screenwriter, Dudley Nichols, a superb constructionist, fancied himself as something of a literary wit and playwright, with loftier ambitions to write ‘meaningful’ prose, The Hurricane periodically settles, though mercifully, never sinks, under the weight of a series of heated exchanges between De Laage and Kersaint, rather uncomfortably situated on platitudes instead of passions. “I am not the representative of well-meaning points of view,” De Laage rather apocryphally states, “I represent a civilization that cannot afford to show confusion or conflict to the people it governs.” Later, De Laage’s points of law will grow increasingly intractable, less convincingly to mask his own discriminatory streak and virtually belying all earlier claims that he is not a martinet, when, in fact, he is precisely the worst kind of all; because he allows points of man-made law to be muddled with a more intrinsic force of justice – God, on high, arguably committing the supreme smite to rectify this situation; alas, incurring casualties among the saints as well as the sinners against His natural order.
The Hurricane opens with a rather uncharacteristically ebullient fanfare by Alfred Newman under Samuel Goldwyn’s title credit before falling silent to a howling wind for most of the main titles. Newman’s sparse orchestral underpinnings scattered throughout the rest of the movie are a combination of traditional dramatic score and homages to more indigenous island chants. We open on a passenger steamer sailing past a desolate stretch of seemingly uncharted land, stripped bare of virtually all its natural habitat, with only the dilapidated remnants of a primitive stone structure reaching up toward the sky. A female passenger (Inez Courtney) takes notice of Dr. Kersaint, staring blankly off the port bow, tears welling up in his eyes. She asks him when they will reach the tropical South Sea Islands and he painfully replies they already have, pointing to the barren wasteland passing before them and describing it as one of the most beautiful spots on earth. We regress in flashback to the isle of Manakoora some nine years earlier; the arrival of the Katopua bringing with her cargo two welcomed passengers: first mate, Terangi and the Govenor’s beloved wife, Germaine De Laage. The governor, Eugene and Germaine share a tender moment on the docks.
It is a day of celebration, as Terangi is engaged to marry Marama (Dorothy Lamour); daughter of Chief Mehevi (Al Kikume). Two bridal ceremonies are conducted; the first, rather austere, inside Father Paul’s (C. Aubrey Smith) modest chapel; the latter, an exuberant outdoor festival; the bride and groom, stripped of their colonial duds by the natives and redressed in traditional native garb. Only Dr. Kersaint attends this hedonistic revelry, getting properly drunk in his participation. Ford remains rather circumspect about the wedding night; fading from a moonlit frolic along the beachhead to the early break of dawn. Marama has had a premonition by way of a very bad dream; the wind howling. It is an ill omen. But Terangi will have none of it. After all, he is highly respected by Captain Nagle who, alas, must sail for Tahiti at once and thus cut Terangi’s honeymoon short. In Tahiti, Terangi and some of the other Polynesians shipmates are accosted at the Club Hibiscus by a slovenly white supremacist, who drunkenly challenges Ternagi to leave the premises at once or face the consequences. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose; as Terangi, young and more physically robust, easily knocks the paunchy middle-age drunk senseless with a single punch, breaking the man’s jaw. In retaliation, the man raises charges against Terangi; Tahiti’s Governor (Lionel Braham) and magistrate (Spencer Charters) leveling a hefty 6 months incarceration in hard labor at a nearby mining camp.
Capt. Nagle goes to bat for Terangi. But it is no use. White justice seemingly must side with its’ equally as lily pale clientele – even those as openly despicable. Terangi agrees to take his lumps; the camp’s Warden (John Carradine) mellifluously torturing him to the point where he makes a daring escape attempt. Unable to reach the Katopua, Terangi returns bedraggled to the penal colony, taken back to prison; the judge now leveling another year on his sentence. With subsequent failed ventures, Ternagi manages to turn a cool six months into sixteen years of hard labor; locked in a dank and squalid cell, living amongst the rats in solitary confinement. He serves eight long years before launching into his most ambitious getaway. This time, Terangi is successful. Alas, in his efforts to regain freedom, Terangi strikes a guard with such force he dies from the assault. Now wanted for murder, Terangi makes his way in a canoe back to Marama and Tita (Kuulei De Clercq); the daughter he has never known. With Father Paul’s counsel, the family lives obscurely right under De Laage’s nose. Kersaint, who early preached and pleaded with De Laage to reconsider his impenetrable stance on Terangi’s incarceration, now condemns him for his lack of humanity. Indeed, it has begun to consume De Laage’s every waking thought; his heart of stone infecting his marriage. Eventually, Father Paul confesses his complicity in Terangi’s retreat out from under the repressive yoke of the law. “You helped Terangi?” a bewildered De Laage inquires, “You helped a murderer?!?” “I aided a man whose heart is innocent,” Father Paul admits, a fine line of distinction that De Laage cannot wrap his head around. “You’ve given aid to anarchy and bloodshed,” De Laage forewarns. “I’ll answer for it,” Father Paul adds.
And indeed, he shall. One of the oddities about The Hurricane is it does not conform to the time-honored Hollywood precept about virtue being its own reward. Ford is casting to type I suppose, Raymond Massey a fairly formidable baddie and C. Aubrey Smith unimpeachable as the devout cleric. And yet, Paul will be sacrificed to the caprices of God’s wrath while De Laage will survive the aftermath of not knowing what has happened to his wife after nature’s catastrophe. The last act of The Hurricane is devoted to a nightmarish spectacle of total annihilation and this aftermath in self-discovery. Unlike most disaster epics, with emphasis squarely placed on the cataclysm about to unfold, Ford has cleverly fleshed out the crisis of conscience within his backstory, shifting the audience’s focus and concern toward what will happen to the characters he has created. As the wind begins to pick up, De Laage learns Terangi, Marama and Arai have been living right under his nose. Terangi intends to launch a canoe with his family to escape De Laage’s fury; De Laage ordering Capt. Nagle to set sail immediately and bring Terangi to justice. This time he will surely hang.
Germaine pleads for her husband’s compassion. Alas, he has none to spare. The Katopua is barely out of port when the big wind strikes the island, whipping up the waters in the bay. The natives are forced to take refuge in their primitive huts; lashing themselves to trees to escape the rising tides. Father Paul hurries his native congregation along with Germaine inside the church while Kersaint climbs into one of the canoes with Marama’s sister who is about to give birth. Bad timing all around as the hellacious gale tears apart ever last stitch of civilization on this small island. Many are killed, crushed and/or maimed; Terangi managing to navigate his boat back to shore and lash Marama and Tita to a nearby tree. Rushing into the church, he begs Father Paul to reconsider his implacable stance to remain at its altar. While Father Paul allows anyone who wishes to leave to do just that, too many put their faith in his man of the cloth and are doomed because of it. The winds pummel and crush the modest church, killing Father Paul and his parishioners. The tree supporting Terangi, his family, and, Germaine is torn from its roots and flung into the raging waters. Miraculously, all survive nature’s apocalypse. By dawn’s early light, the Katapuo limps into port, discovering no sign of life on Manakoora except for Kersaint and Marama’s sister, shell-shocked and still clutching her dead baby. De Laage’s focus now shifts to learn what has become of his wife.
A short while later, Terangi, Marama, Tita and Germaine are found unharmed, thanks to Terangi’s quick thinking. Realizing they will starve if not rescued, Terangi builds a bonfire on the shore, its’ billowing smoke attracting De Laage’s attention. Alas, when De Laage finally arrives, he finds only Germaine waiting for him on the sand; Terangi and his family once again escaped by sea to parts unknown. His heart sufficiently softened, De Laage finally hears his wife’s desperate pleas to give up the search to bring Terangi to justice. Justice has indeed been served by a higher authority; God resetting the purpose of mankind, as Cecil B. De Mille once astutely surmised, “with a blast from his nostrils”. The Hurricane concludes without us ever knowing whether Terangi and his family make it to safety; Ford more concerned with the redemption of De Laage’s once embittered and prejudice heart – presumably, now having been enlightened.
Despite a few narrative flaws, The Hurricane is deftly scripted by Messrs. Garrett and Nichols, and, as magnificently directed by John Ford. Arguably, the hurricane is the real star of the picture. And yet, all three have conspired to give us enough style, substance, and, backstory prior to the storm surge to do more than merely whet our appetites for the welfare of this ensemble. Arguably, we care for some more than others; Terangi and Marama’s survival taking precedent over Germaine and Eugene, despite Ford’s best efforts to shift the focus to them in the final reel. This clumsy shift presents a minor problem for the denouement, since we are expected to invest ourselves in the redemption of Eugene’s soul after nearly two hours of investment in Terangi’s struggle and strife. Worse, the native element is broadly painted in homogenized brush strokes; Ford relying a tad too heavily on the cliché of the ‘noble savage’. While the white settlers are given unique personalities and character traits that make them stand apart from one another as well as the local color, the Polynesians come off as unified, sweetly naïve and benevolent, virtually unaccustomed to such communal sophistications or even capable of any complex thoughts.
Arguably, audiences of the day would not have found such generalizations unappealing. But in hindsight, they hamper our appreciation for any of these characters as real people. Dorothy Lamour, looking positively luminous in her sarong, radiantly captured in the afterglow of the setting sun and/or backlit by moonlight, and, Jon Hall, perpetually bare-chested to illustrate his more primal virility, in stark contrast to the interloping white settler (always immaculately attired in crisp white linens from horn to hoof), are a gorgeous couple to behold. But they remain architypes at best, put forth by a white middle-European perspective for which Hollywood in the thirties was well-known. Ultimately, none of this matters – much – as the plot is more than serviceable, and the star turns from Mary Astor, Raymond Massey, Thomas Mitchell (and to a lesser extent, C. Aubrey Smith and Jerome Cowen) provide enough to sustain our interests until the hellacious squall hits, forever changing not only a way of life, but an understanding amongst its survivors.
The Hurricane comes to us in a new 1080p transfer, provided by MGM/Fox and licensed to Kino Lorber via third-party distribution. While the results are a marked improvement over the way this movie has previously looked on home video, they remain not altogether successful for various reasons; chiefly, I suspect, because no good original elements have survived these 80+ years. The B&W image suffers from weaker than anticipated contrast levels, also some light breathing around the peripheries of the screen and a rather dense patina of film grain, not always looking indigenous to its source, and occasionally, slightly digitized. Age-related artifacts are present, but, for the most part, have been greatly tempered and do not terribly distract. The image definitely tightens up, particularly in close-ups, thanks to the relatively high and consistent bit rate. But whole portions – especially long shots – are too soft and marginally out of focus; much more so than Bert Glennon’s evocatively gauzy cinematography was meant to suggest. John Ford was actually quite disappointed he was not allowed to go on location to shoot the picture; Catalina Island, a poor substitute for Tahiti, and the obvious sets constructed on UA’s back lot, not always a clever amalgam of full-scale buildings, miniatures and matte process and rear projection.
Over time, these disparate elements have degraded at different rates, thus peeling away yet another layer to make their artifice even more transparent. This Blu-ray isn’t atrocious. In fact, on the whole the results are moderately pleasing. But they are far – very far, indeed – from perfection. The audio has fared considerably better; no hiss or pop and clear – its mono, lacking bass tonality – but sounding fairly authentic to what audiences must have heard in 1937. It would have been prudent of MGM/Fox to reconsider a full-blown restoration. Extras are limited to an audio commentary by film historian, Joseph McBride, the author of Searching for John Ford: A Life, plus an original, and very badly worn theatrical trailer. McBride’s voice is shaky, but he nevertheless acquits the casual listener of some very interesting tidbits about the man and this movie, occasionally veering off course, but always bringing us back to the reason such commentaries are invaluable. Cash-strapped or not, movie art of this vintage is deteriorating at an alarming rate and more concerted preservation ought to have been applied here to ensure The Hurricane will endure as a point of study and entertainment for future generations. Bottom line: The Hurricane is a powerful film on many levels. While it may not be one of John Ford’s most easily recognizable, or even as fondly recalled movies, it nevertheless proves an admirable addendum to Ford’s formidable body of work. Highly recommended for content/only marginally recommended for overall transfer quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)