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.
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.
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.
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.
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.