Saturday, 15 March 2014

Stormy weather… The Wind (1928)

Three of my silent period favourites all in one film: The Wind couldn’t really fail… but there are questions.

Lilian Gish chose the vehicle, a novel of the same name by Dorothy Scarborough concerning a Virginian woman driven to mad extremes by the forces of nature in the wilds of Texas. Gish put together her own four page treatment and asked Frances Marion to adapt for the screen... She then lined up Victor Sjöström (here Americanised as Seastrom) to direct having already worked with him on The Scarlett Letter and obviously seen his native examinations of human nature sculpted by natural extremes.

Lars Hanson
Sweden’s leading man, Lars Hanson, was picked upon the basis of his appearance with Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling – although he had also starred in The Scarlett Letter as well as Flesh and the Devil, Captain Salvation and other Hollywood films.

Hanson makes for a great lead, handsome as heck and able to convey an earthy vulnerability alongside his more heroic qualities. He’s a good match for Lillian who, 35 at the time, plays a slightly more mature, vaguely manipulative, character than in many of her earlier films: she toys with affections and makes fun of others and amongst all of her vulnerability is made from stern stock.

Lillian Gish
The Wind is a white knuckle ride of emotion and Gish plays hers close to camera – watching her is always to suffer at least some degree of transmitted anxiety: she doesn’t let the audience have an easy time. Some, like my wife, find that a little goes a long way, but it’s this very quality which makes Lillian one of the first great screen actresses: there was undoubtedly madness in her method and it’s an intense visceral disturbance to those of us safe in our seats just watching... She personalises the on-screen drama, drawing you in with a unique connectivity, to the anxieties driving us all.

It’s hard to think of anyone better to direct this most intense, inward film than Victor Sjöström, the man who made The Phantom Carriage and Terj Vigen – Scandinavian epics that were unflinchingly aimed at externalising inner torment. There’s pathetic fallacy and then there’s The Outlaw and His Wife who live lives as rugged and uncompromising as the terrain where they make their home.

Montagu Love and Lillian Gish
For all that, Lillian Gish’s Letty Mason is not a typical Sjöström leading lady: city-soft and with airs and graces for all her timidity… she has some way to go.

Letty is heading out to Texas to stay with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle). As she sits eating fruit on the train, she is approached by a self-assured man, name of Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love), knowing glances are exchanged and it’s clear both know what they’re about. Dust swirls all around the carriage blown with incessant force by the never-ending plain winds… it frightens Letty yet Wirt swaggers around absent-mindedly brushing dust off his jacket.

He introduces himself just as the window blows open to give Letty a blast of dust… he comes to her aid and bullies the dozing steward into replacing her food – surely Letty can see what we see: an over-bearing mean man of means?

Wirt explains the relentlessness of the local wind currents – likely to drive many mad, especially women (of course…) and, already she is scared of the force she cannot control although she tries to put on a brave face.

Letty is greeted not by her cousin but his neighbours, the rough-hewn Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) and Sourdough (William Orlamond) who immediately start fighting over the new arrival’s favour even though the odds look to be pretty long.

Cora is less than impressed with the new arrival...
They duly deliver Letty to her cousin who greets her with the kind of warmth that makes it clear that they’re not blood relatives - he was adopted by her mother. Their enthusiasm for each other runs deep which explains the cold-blooded reaction of Beverly’s wife, Cora (Dorothy Cumming)… this is a harsh land of few certainties in which desperation drives many a decision.

Letty is pursued by Hightower and Sourdough at the local dance and plays them along, even though the former at least has scrubbed up quite well. Then with an eager glance she notices that Wirt has arrived… and, acquaintance renewed, an assignation is arranged. But Wirt is not quite the man he seems and can offer Letty only the empty future of life as his mistress: he is already married.

The lads look on as slimy Wirt impresses Letty
She returns to her cousin’s house were her options are brutally spelt out by Cora – she must find a man to marry and be taken off their hands and the options are limited to Hightower and Sourdough. Choosing the former she seems doomed to a life of loveless drudgery but Lige is a man of honour who, recognising that she doesn’t share his love, determines to work as hard as he can to return her to her natural world. He’s more than she deserves.

Spoilers ahead… Lige and his men brave dangerous winds to capture as many wild horses as they can as the ranchers face starvation. Wirt – arriving still in pursuit of Letty - is enlisted to help. All the while the winds grow stronger and the deadly “norther” gets closer and closer. In a film crammed with symbolism, there’s none clearer than the representation of the wind as a giant ghostly white horse (has anyone read DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow?). As the weather and human passion reaches a peak will Letty be crushed or will she find clarity?

The film’s most iconic sequence happens towards the end and it is debatable how much this represented actual events or just the state of Letty’s mind – or both? Best decide for yourself... it’s harrowing and open to interpretation.

In an introduction filmed in the 80’s Gish says that the film’s ending was imposed by the studio but I can’t think that the alternative she suggested would make any better sense. As it stands the film has a clear narrative structure that sees Letty’s character evolve rather than simply run out of options: she doesn’t deserve that and it doesn’t appear to be signalled by the style or the structure?

Gish gives a nuanced, full-throttle performance and her character has depth and shades of grey. Sjöström directs with coherent invention putting his actors through their paces out in 120 degree desert sands across which he had a rank of airplane propellers blowing at full power. Gish described it as her toughest gig which is really saying something.

The Wind did not prove a success at the time but is now widely regarded as a late-period classic and screened every year or two in London - this week at the BFI. It could do with a DVD release incorporating the Carl Davis soundtrack I heard – dating from the Thames Silents restoration – which enhances the action with elegance and energy: a mighty wind!

Until then there’s a Spanish DVD available on Amazon with a different and inferior score and less than optimal image quality - still worth getting mind if you haven't seen the film.

What is Letty thinking?

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