Friday, February 3, 2012

Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

Hollywood may have seen better directors than Cecil B. DeMille but very few have ever equalled him when it comes to pure entertainment and his 1942 production Reap the Wild Wind is a fine example of DeMille at his best.

In the 1840s, before the railroad boom, the prosperity of the United States was dependent on seaborne trade. This trade faced many hazards, few being more deadly than the reefs around Florida’s Key West. Salvage operators made a lucrative but dangerous living retrieving the cargoes of ships wrecked on these reefs.

Few were as brave and as daring as the beautiful Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard). She inherited the family salvage business on the death of her father. The lack of a man to run the business has been no problem - Loxi is as courageous and as determined as any man. But the ships sailing these seas face a far more insidious threat than the reefs - ship-wreckers.

Some salvage operators are not content to wait for a wreck. These land-borne pirates arrange their own wrecks, bribing greedy ships’ captains and officers to drive their own ships onto the rocks. The most notorious of all are the Cutler brothers, King Cutler (Raymond Massey) and Dan Cutler (Robert Preston).

Their most recent victim was the command of Captain Jack Stuart (John Wayne). His first mate Mathias Widgeon was in the pay of King Cutler. Jack Stuart, a brave and honourable seaman, has lost his ship, and possibly his career. He would have lost his life as well had it not been for Loxi Claiborne.

While Jack recuperates he and Loxi get to know each other and love soon blooms between them. Jack fears that the loss of his ship may deprive him of the one thing he wants more than anything else in the world - command of the Southern Cross, a brand-new steamship. Jack knows that steam is the future, and whoever commands the Southern Cross will find himself in line to take over the Deveraux Line when the aged Commodore Deveraux goes to a better world.  

There is another man with ambitions to run the Deveraux Line - their maritime lawyer Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland). Loxi travels to Charleston, determined to use her feminine wiles to save Jack’s career. She flirts with Tolliver but in her mind she dismisses him as a schemer and a milquetoast. It proves to be the most serious error of judgment of her life.

Jack and Steven find themselves in Key West, uneasy allies in the fight against the ship-wreckers. They are very different men. Jack is a rough diamond while Steven is a suave, charming dandy. They have never liked each other and now they are rivals for Loxi’s affections. Jack’s failure to elise that beneath his foppish exterior Steven Tolliver is a brave and honourable man will prove to be a disastrous error of judgment on his part. And King Cutler has plans for the Southern Cross.

There is romance and adventure aplenty here, but there is much more. There is real human drama and complex characterisation. Loxi, Jack Stuart and Steven Tolliver are all complicated people torn by conflicting emotions. They have great strengths and they have real human weaknesses. Even a relatively minor character like Dan Cutler is more than just a stereotype. Faced with such challenging roles all the main players rise to the occasion admirably. 

John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland and Robert Preston are all playing somewhat larger-than-life characters but in all cases they manage to combine a certain amount of over-acting with surprising subtleties.

Visually it’s a typical DeMille production. It’s spectacular, filmed in Technicolor and with some impressive underwater scenes. 

This is over-the-top melodrama but it’s intelligent and superbly made melodrama. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Reap the Wild Wind also shot on location in Charleston SC. There are local newspaper photos of the cast and crew working in front of numerous locations in the historic district.