by Allan Fish
(USA 1928 75m) not on DVD
The dreaded Norther
p Lillian Gish, Victor Sjöstrom d Victor Sjöstrom w Frances Marion, John Colton novel Dorothy Scarborough ph John Arnold ed Conrad A.Nervig m Carl Davis art Cedric Gibbons, Edward Withers cos André-Ani
Lillian Gish (Letty Mason), Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower), Montagu Love (Wirt Roddy), Dorothy Cummings (Cora), Edward Earle (Beverly), William Orlamond (Sourdough),
“This is the story of a woman who came into the domain of the winds” the opening captions read and, if ever a film could be described as tempestuous, it’s this one. One of the last great silents of the American screen, along with The Wedding March, The Crowd and Docks of New York it represented the final zenith of that soon to be outmoded art form. The coming of talkies seemed predestined to arrive in time for the post 1929 depression, and the cinema would once more push art aside in favour of entertainment.
Letty Mason is travelling from her Virginia home to her cousin’s small ranch at the desert post of Sweet Water (did this influence Leone’s like-named ranch in Once Upon a Time in the West, where Claudia Cardinale is travelling by train in the opening sequence?). Arriving, she immediately causes her cousin’s stern wife to grow jealous, the latter accusing her of trying to lure her cousin from his wife. Letty is proposed to by two local hicks, Lige and Sourdough, though she rather prefers the attentions of scoundrel Wirt Roddy (anagram of ‘dirty word’). But when she shows up to marry him, he tells her of his previous marriage and she is forced to marry Lige. However, in refusing to allow him to consummate their marriage, Lige is driven to desperate measures to raise money to send her off back where she came from. Roddy, meanwhile, has designs of his own.
With the possible exception of the finale of Greed, no other silent film was shot in such harsh surroundings. Shot on location in the Mojave Desert, the shooting took its toll on both the cast and crew. Sjöstrom, Gish, Hanson and Marion had previously collaborated on The Scarlet Letter in 1926, but The Wind is in every way a superior film. No other film has so depicted the violence of the eponymous weather out in the desert, the loneliness, the unbearable noise that the wind creates (remarkable, considering it’s a silent). Indeed John Arnold’s photography is quite amazing, considering the difficulties that the shoot would create. There’s a true sense of the dusty, windswept barrenness of the desert that cannot be described, only seen. Yet this visual atmosphere is only the flake on the 99, the real power coming in the emotional maelstrom that forms the centre. Gish may look the same frail girl of the Griffith films over a decade earlier, but there’s a sense of the frontier spirit to her Letty, the same resilience as would drive on her matriarchs in the likes of Duel in the Sun and The Unforgiven. Despite actually being 31 at the time of shooting, Gish is quite wonderful as young Letty. The numerous shots of her holding her arms up to her face, almost stretching the very fabric of her physiognomy to suggest real terror and frustration at her surroundings, is breathtaking. It’s her greatest performance, dominating the film from start to finish. Even so, it would be too easy to forget the contribution of Sjöstrom. It’s a crying shame that, if asked to name Sjöstrom’s greatest contribution to film, 90% of film buffs would wax lyrical about his monumental performance in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Too many forget he was one of the major directors of the old Swedish cinema and directed this true masterpiece of the late Hollywood era. There’s a sense of true majesty at the power of nature, unforgettably symbolically represented by Gish’s numerous visions of the Norther wind as a ghost horse that lived in the clouds (as dreamt by the native Americans) and depicted in an incredibly dramatic sandstorm in which Roddy returns to the lone Letty and tries to rape her (uncannily recalling the rape of Susan George in the later Straw Dogs). And though many might complain at the weakness of the tacked on happy ending, in the end one is too awestruck to really mind. One should petition Ted Turner immediately to get his studio bosses off their derrières and restore this on DVD to a grateful world.