“My name is John Ford and I make Westerns,” so the legendary filmmaker once declared. As has been pointed out (by Martin Scorsese among others) that statement in a sense discounts the great director’s non-genre works, like the four features for which he won Academy Awards: The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). But with more than 140 directing credits on his résumé, it also sidesteps many lesser known, though quality, Ford films, those that either fall into the middle of the road category or those that are very good, if not quite great. That’s where his 1937 romantic drama The Hurricane comes in.
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, directed by Ford (two years after The Informer and two years before his groundbreaking Stagecoach ), and written by Dudley Nichols, himself an Oscar-winner for his writing The Informer, The Hurricane obviously has talent behind it. This to say nothing of a cast that includes Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, Mary Astor, C. Aubrey Smith, Thomas Mitchell, Raymond Massey, and John Carradine, who all do a fine job, even if they are essentially playing standard types. Further credit of note also goes to James Basevi, Ray Binger, R.T. Layton, and Lee Zavitz for their special effects work, not a common point of recognition in 1937. While there is a satisfying story for about three-quarters of the film, at the end of the picture it is the titular storm that steals the show (and it better, having cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and taking more than five weeks to shoot). A little clunky at times, and with some visibly flimsy back projection, this final disaster sequence is nonetheless successful and certainly looks exceptional by such early standards.
Technical achievements notwithstanding, to get to The Hurricane’s emotional poignancy there has to be a worthwhile story and engaging characters, and here, we have both. The story essentially revolves around newlywed South Sea natives Terangi (Hall) and Marama (Lamour), who must part not long after their wedding, as he sets off to his work on a schooner and is soon thereafter imprisoned. A central conflict is with the pitiless French governor, Eugene De Laage (Massey), who is joined on the island of Manakoora by his more sympathetic wife (Astor). Then there is the drunken Dr. Kersaint (Mitchell), serving as something of an arbiter between the island natives and the governor.
When Ms. Laage first arrives, greeting her generally unfeeling managerial husband, there is a clear love between the two, so we know De Laage is not totally callous. But it is a romance with far less evident passion than that between Terangi and Marama. Is this distinction due to the comparative youth of the two locals, or is it something inherent in their uninhibited culture? Aside from being compared to children (insofar as innocence on the plus side and ignorance on the negative), the other most common point of reference as far as how the French occupants view the natives is that they are akin to animals, in the way Terangi swims, for example, or the way he moves about the boat. It is rather demeaning, and even the understanding Dr. Kersaint, who respectfully identifies with their way of life, still regards their simplicity as childish. On a more positive note, this analogy also suggests the instinctual ability of the native people and their natural vitality. Terangi, who is held in high local esteem for his personality as well as his good looks, is also repeatedly acknowledged for his physical prowess—at one point, we see him wrestle, kill, and gut a shark, all while in the water…and then he eats it, raw.
In any case, there is a pronounced disparity in how the indigenous people live and view the world and the way they now grapple with the rules and regulations of the “civilized” foreign governance. Further contrast is clear just after the wedding ceremony. As Terangi and Marama make their way out of the church, a clamoring throng of natives, who are yelling, running, jumping, happily and playfully celebrating the occasion, quickly abduct the somber wedding march and turn it into a buoyant party. There is a markedly more lighthearted liveliness in their existence, which will fly in the face of expected convention.
Such instinctive energy is also why it is so difficult for Terangi to remain incarcerated. After getting into a scuffle that quite unwittingly carries political ramifications, Terangi is subsequently locked up in Tahiti. The situation may have resolved itself with reasonable due process, but Terangi, the wildly free spirit, refuses to stay put (further spurred on in part by the injustice of his confinement to begin with, and in part by the knowledge of Marama’s pregnancy). Each time he attempts to escape, his sentence grows longer and his punishment more severe. His initially minor penalty is eventually increased to 16 years in prison, eight years into which he again tries to flee and this time succeeds. Unfortunately, during this jailbreak his situation goes from bad to worse as, with apparently a single blow, he kills a guard on his way out.
As Terangi makes his way back home, the impending storm coincides with the growing tumult on the island. Contributing to the animosity while Terangi has been away is the fact that De Laage held in his hands the ability to bargain for the captured hero’s release. His heartlessly law-abiding refusal sets him at odds with nearly everyone. Once Terangi returns and is promptly hunted down by De Laage, the hurricane makes landfall, which sends everyone into a death-defying panic.
Though they first appear as the washed-out, storm-damaged leftovers of a former paradise in flashback, the South Sea islands that serve as the film’s primary setting are shown in their pictorially resplendent beauty, more in line with what the travel folders would say, as Dr. Kersaint puts it. It is key that the islands are presented as such, for while there is the main character-driven drama of the film, the movie is just as much, if not more, about the islands themselves and their aboriginal inhabitants. Ford thus includes a number of sequences showcasing details of cultural flavor. Sure, it may be a generally Hollywood-ized take on the setting (filmed predominantly on a massive Goldwyn set), but for someone who knows next to nothing about the authenticity of the location and its citizenry, like myself and presumably much of the film’s 1937 audience, it is attractive and effective.
Few have ever been able to compose a shot like John Ford, but in a film of this lesser caliber, while nothing is necessary displeasing, some of the interiors are rather underwhelming, shot adequately but nothing more (though Ford’s filming of Lamour might rank just below his treatment of Maureen O’Hara as the finest of his glamorous female depictions). Once outside, however, Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon, who would shoot other films for the director like Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Wagon Master (1950), and Rio Grande (1950), really seem to let loose. Not to the extent of his authentic Western locations, but with a similar flair for the majesty of environment, Ford’s imagery in these sequences is outstanding; the second unit footage from the shooting on genuine South Pacific locations sets the visual scene and is incorporated nicely into the perception of naturally appealing regional realism.
While the end of The Hurricane is, in some ways, still a happy one, it is mostly unbelievably so, being built from a series of lucky coincidences and absurdly fortunate chance. There are also a few sequences in the film that falter under hokey sentimentality, occasionally setting the picture back for a moment or two (as when the local priest acknowledges God’s ultimate judgment, which is then followed by some wondrous sky-gazing and the sounds of angelic harmonizing). Still, for a film by a master who was perhaps not at his best—having already established high expectations—this is a solidly entertaining motion picture.