Film Review: Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

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Cecil B. DeMille is considered to be one of the founding fathers of Hollywood and the most iconic personalities of its entire history. His reputation was built during very long and prolific career during which he directed many epic or “larger-than-life” films which proved to be immensely in tune with audience, providing commercial success that had eluded his more celebrated and critically acclaimed colleagues. One of such successes was 1942 period adventure Reap the Wild Wind.

The film is based on the eponymous novel by Thelma Strabel. The plot is set in 1840 Florida, at the time when sailing ships provided most of the commerce and transport between Atlantic Coast and Mexican Gulf coast. Those ships had to pass through treacherous waters of Florida Keys, which provided excellent business opportunities to locals willing to take part in marine salvage. Protagonist is Loxi Clairborne (played by Paulette Goddard), young woman who inherited salvage business from her late father. Her main competitor is King Cutler (played by Raymond Massey), whose crews always seem to be ahead of hers, and Loxi and everyone else suspects that he has been deliberately wrecking ships. When a sailing ship Jubilee is wrecked, Cutler goes away with salvaged cargo, while Loxi rescues Jack Stuart (played by John Wayne), ship’s captain with whom she fall in love. Jack dreams about commanding Southern Cross, new steam ship which is pride of his employer’s fleet. The wreckage of Jubilee makes this unlikely, but Loxi travels to Charleston where he would try to plead his case with the management of shipping company, which includes lawyer Steve Tolliver (played by Ray Milland). He falls in love with Loxi, which would create serious complication when Tolliver comes to Florida Keys to confront Cutler. Tolliver and Stuart would soon develop bitter rivalry over Loxi, which would lead to spectacular and tragic consequences.

Released shortly after United States entry into Second World War, Reap the Wild Wind was prime example of Classic Hollywood’s ability to deliver escapist entertainment, although few lines of dialogue about America’s need to protect its waterways from nefarious character served current war propaganda well. For DeMille it was his second film made fully in colour and it could be argued that he tried to show that he could deliver his own version of Gone of the Wind. There are some similarities and connections between two films. Both are set in antebellum South and DeMille used large budget to lovingly reconstruct the period (including location shots in Charleston, where local authorities temporarily removed all telephone poles, power lines and modern fire hydrants from the streets in order to make locations look exactly like they looked a centur ago). In both film protagonist is strong independent woman who nevertheless gets torn in her romantic feelings towards two very different men. Paulette Goddard and Susan Hayward, who plays Loxi’s cousin Drusilla, were both trying to land role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind and both actresses in the roles of Southern belles try to compete with Vivien Leigh’s performance.

Comparisons between two films, however, show that DeMille delivered something very different. With only two hours of running time, Reap the Wild Wind is more compact and less epic, although in this case it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Comparison between Leigh and Goddard are clearly in favour of former, while the script has certain issues with characterisations of two main male characters. Tolliver, played by Ray Milland, looks like a Southern gentleman, but for the most part behaves like a bully and stalker, and the viewers with today’s “politically correct” sentiments would be revolted with the scene in which the heroine receives spanking and other sorts of physical mistreatment by him. Impression is only saved by John Wayne who plays Stuart as very complex character, someone who begins as traditional hero only to gradually reveal his dark side before getting the moral redemption near the end. The rest of the cast is also very good, including young Robert Preston and dependable character actor Raymond Massey as Cutler brothers. Reap the Wild Wind also features very good cinematography by Victor Milner and William Skall, as well as effective music soundtrack by Vic Young. But the most attractive element of the film are Oscar-awarded special effects which, together with some fine underwater photography, deliver exciting and memorable scene featuring wrecked ship and giant squid near the end. Although some of today’s viewers might see this film as little melodramatic at times, it can still be enjoyed not only as work as great director but great display of Hollywood’s craftsmanship from its golden age.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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