1930s, 3/4, Adventure, John Ford, Review

The Hurricane

The Hurricane (1937) - IMDb

#32 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

This was really not what I had expected. Pretty much anything written about this film puts the titular hurricane first and foremost, an exercise in special effects that is really quite impressive. However, it’s really just the final twenty minutes or so of the hundred minute film, the rest being something quite different. Based on the novel of the same name by James Norman Hall (the movie’s star’s uncle), The Hurricane is more of an open conversation on the responsibilities of a colonial government and the people it governs for most of its runtime. I mean…that’s much headier than I expected from what’s primarily billed as a special effects extravaganza.

Manakoora is a remote South Pacific island on which lives Governor De Laage (Raymond Massey), a by the book French civil servant who will civilize the island. He never says explicitly that he will make it French, as French as Paris, but that does seem to be the implication. The island’s doctor Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell) and priest Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith) represent the other view of governance, one where the people are allowed freedom to live as they so wish, not bowing to the letter of the law with strict application.

Into this rides Terangi (Jon Hall), a native of the island returning as first mate on the ship bringing the governor’s wife Germaine (Mary Astor) to live with her husband. Terangi is to wed his betrothed Marama (Dorothy Lamour) upon his arrival. He is quickly off again on another voyage to Tahiti, but she sneaks aboard because she has premonitions of bad things happening if he goes alone. The captain says she can stay but only if Terangi demotes himself to a seaman rather than first officer, so she jumps off and swims back. However, bad things quickly happen when Terangi slugs a white man trying to steal his table in a bar and insulting him. The man was a friend of some high up officials in France, and Terangi gets sent to prison in Tahiti for six months, the captain assuring him that his place is still open to him when he gets out and time will pass quickly.

Things do not pass quickly for Terangi, though. He’s given open air work at the prison, and he quickly tries to escape, getting caught and having a year added to his sentence. He keeps attempting escape until his sentence is sixteen years. In the ensuing eight years of Terangi’s imprisonment, Marama gives birth to their daughter and remains faithful to her husband, waiting for him to return. At the same time Laage continues a conversation with Kersaint and Father Paul about the justice of keeping a man in prison for beyond his original term especially when his original crime was as much a justifiable act as an unjust application of the law through influence. Laage will not budge, though, refusing to offer any kind of pardon for the young native because he must follow the law.

Terangi tries to escape one more time, successfully getting away and onto a small boat that he uses to travel the six hundred miles home at the same time that a hurricane is bearing down on the island. The ending is the intersection of everything up to that point with Terangi returning home, word reaching the island of his escape, Laage deciding that his top priority in the face of a huge storm is the capture of Terangi, especially since he killed a man escaping this time. The intersection of all the characters in the face of the hurricane is the movie at its height in no small part because of the actual hurricane itself.

Using a mixture of massive wind machines on a large outdoor set and miniatures, James Basevi, the special effects supervisor, created an incredibly believable flurry of nature. The miniature work is imperfect (I like to use the word adorable on miniature work that doesn’t quite sell), but it’s still incredibly detailed for what happens, matching rather perfectly with corresponding footage alongside it. The plights of the different characters in this cacophony of noise is clear despite the wind and the rain with each taking different tacts to try and survive the elemental onslaught. Some head to the church, hoping the stone walls will keep out the water, others go to the boats. Nature is an equal opportunity threat, though, and kills almost everyone, leaving some key players to ask the final questions on the importance of the law even in the face of such destruction.

It’s a solid story, though I find the lack of characterization of both Terangi and Marama underwhelming, being portrayed as essentially mere innocents in the eyes of the larger powers, almost like nothing more than playthings to the elite. There’s a point to that, but since the story really does revolve around them to a large degree, the thin characterization feels unfulfilling. And, debates (it almost feels like a running commentary on the film from within the film itself, reminding me of the ending of Ikiru) are not always the most interesting things to hear in film, so the conversations between Laage and Kersaint can delve too deep into the weeds of the idea instead of trusting the story to convey the ideas itself.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a solid entertainment with a surprising amount on its mind. Ford, as always, manages the production really well and the actors equally professionally. Hall is largely a non-entity, but that’s mostly because of the underwritten nature of his character. It’s Massey and Mitchell who carry the film, both very good character actors who can make almost any scene interesting by their mere presence.

Rating: 3/4

3 thoughts on “The Hurricane”

  1. I have vague memories of this one. It may have played on one of those WGN Family Classics Sunday afternoon movies.

    It makes me want to get my Dungeons and Dragons hat on and start musing about the nature of Lawful Neutral verses Lawful Evil…or verses Neutral or Chaotic Good. Because there is a chance to talk about law verses justice. A six month term in jail for socking a guy is a bit stiff but not unjust, I’d argue. But you can’t let people leave jail whenever they feel like it, so there does need to be a penalty for trying to escape. (I’m talking about civil crimes here, not the obligation of military prisoners to try to escape). So adding a year onto a sentence actually sounds reasonable and, again, just. Killing someone trying to escape now…that’s beyond the pale. You take a life, be ready to pay the price.

    I wonder how much, if any, of that plot was ‘borrowed’ from Les Miserables, as it sounds a bit like Jean Valjean’s prison term, where most of of his 18 years were due to attempts at escape.

    So it’s unjust to jail a man 16 years for slugging a man. But…that wasn’t why he was in jail 16 years.

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    1. And that’s very much the side that the governor takes. But then you have the extra bit where the whole thing would have been dealt with as a more minor manner without the guy who got punched flexing his political power and getting the maximum sentence.

      It raises the question of how just it all was in the beginning. A punishment may have been necessary, but the maximum sentence when the guy who got punched arguably had a hand in starting the whole thing? And it was stretched to the maximum because of connections and not judgments of justice? The guy did himself no favors by trying to escape, but his six months of hard labor was injust to begin with.

      And the heart of it is that question of “Lawful Neutral verses Lawful Evil…or verses Neutral or Chaotic Good” as you put it. The movie definitely stands against the governor, but it’s never quite as heavy handed as it could have been.

      There’s stuff to chew on, is what I’m saying.

      And then things go woosh.

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