So I caught this old John Ford film the other day, DVRd off TCM, and I was very impressed with it. Point number one: The titular hurricane doesn’t show up until the final half hour or so of the movie. So that was a bit of a downer, because then you had to wade through predictability and stereotyping and whatnot to get to it. But man, what a payoff!
Marama (Dorothy Lamour) and Terangi (Jon Hall) are natives on a South Seas island; they love each other and wed, and then Terangi has to ship out on a schooner that travels to and from Tahiti. Once in Tahiti he gets into a fight with a Very Important White Man, and Terangi’s subsequently locked up for six months, then longer, as he keeps attempting to escape.
Meanwhile, the governor of his own island, De Laage (Raymond Massey) refuses to intercede on the behalf of his citizen, mostly because he’s a big jerko he insists that the law is the law and there’s nothing he can do and so on. De Laage’s doctor (Thomas Mitchell, who earned an Oscar nomination) and wife (Mary Astor) try to persuade him to see the light, to no avail.
Up to this point, the underlying theme is that islanders should have the same rights as white people. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the theme as intended by the film’s creators, but it’s easy to see here in 2008. Oddly enough, though, the two main natives are played by white folks – Lamour, later famous for the Hope-Crosby Road films, was from New Orleans, while Hall was Californian. In fact, had the point not been explicitly made in the movie that Terangi was, in fact, not white, I wouldn’t have figured it out. That’s one of the few downsides to black-and-white films; it’s perhaps a little harder to see subtle differences. But what’s strange is that everyone else in the movie acts as if Terangi is so, so, so different from the white people, when to the untrained eye (i.e., me) he looks just like them.
Anyway, all this is just filler until we get to the storm. And oh my goodness, what a storm. Apparently $150,000 was spent to create the island village, and $250,000 was spent destroying it. Anyone who’s seen the devastation that Hurricane Katrine wrought can sadly identify with the last reel of this film. A church, made of stone, is destroyed. Trees are uprooted – not saplings, but huge trees with gargantuan trunks. It’s an awesome, jaw-dropping spectacle – a tremendous feat for 1937. Back then, there were no Academy awards for special effects, but clearly The Hurricane would have received at least a nod.
It’s almost a pity the film’s in black and white, too, because the idyllic paradise island simply looks less inviting than it should – the photography makes it look almost stark and barren, not rich and lush as the imagination would have it.