' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Hurricane (1937)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Hurricane (1937)

The last movie I watched before John Ford's “The Hurricane” was “Sunshine Superman”, a documentary about the godfather of BASE jumping, Dan Boenish, who gregariously declared that he and his fellow parachuting adventurers were beholden to the laws of nature, not the laws of man. That’s the sort of line that might make a certain sort of American wretch, but then you watch “The Hurricane” and realize that for all the bitching and bellyaching and filibustering up there on Capitol Hill, and even just down the road from your City Council hearing where everyone takes the previous week’s minutes so very, very seriously, all these regimented policymakers and rule-declaring authoritarians are just spitting in the wind. Every man, woman and child is beholden to the laws of nature first and there ain’t a damn thing any of us can do about it.


At the heart of “The Hurricane” is, of course, The Hurricane, referenced right away in the truly righteous opening sequence setting up the flashback to recount the story. As a passenger ship passes the desolate remnants of a one-time tropical paradise known as Manukura, a naive tourist who believes every word she reads in the travel folders wonders what happened to it. Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell), requisitely alcoholic on account of his obligatory humane cynicism, responds, wondrously, ominously, “It made the mistake of being born in the hurricane belt.” And when the storm arrives in the third act, Ford, working in conjunction with effects expert James Basevi, does an immaculate job escalating the tension, the wind picking up, the shutters rattling, before unleashing holy hell. Initially you marvel at the filmmaking achievement, the authenticity and audacity with which they concoct a storm onscreen, until eventually you realize the very real terror of the moment has foisted itself upon you. The storm doesn’t just tear down trees and flood beaches, it sends so much water crashing down on the church where natives cower and say their prayers that walls crumble and people are swept away. Even the faithful are not spared. There is no judgment passed. Spiraling tropical storms pay no mind to righteousness or depravity.

The story revolves around Terangi (Jon Hall), a convivial native, marrying Marama (Dorothy Lamour), and despite her obligatory premonition of doom and gloom, he proceeds to board the boat of Captain Nagle (Jerome Cowan) for whom he works as First Mate and sets sail for Tahiti. There, at a seedy watering hole, when a racist old fart taunts him, Terangi throws a punch and sends the racist old fart toppling to the floor. He gets six months in the slammer, a harsh penalty for anyone but particularly for an islander used to wide open spaces. He tries to escape. And he gets caught. He tries to escape. And he gets caught. He tries to escape. And he gets caught. Etc. And each escape attempt results in additional years added to his sentence.

Back on Manukura their imprisoned son’s fate ignites untold conversations regarding the penalty’s fairness; how the law must be upheld regardless; how the law is wielded willy-nilly by men playing god, and so on. In fact, there might be a few too many of these discussions, each one covering the same ground as before, absent fresh insight. Yet this repetitiveness makes its own point, illustrating the expanse of time men and women fritter away squabbling over semantics, trumping themselves up as the arbiters of all what is Right and Wrong.

This, of course, would seem to indicate The Hurricane's inevitable arrival as a harbinger of God’s justice, a Lordly slicing of all the red tape, a Fatherly smack to all the pompous officialdom, like The Great Earthquake in “San Francisco” for which Mr. Basevi also did the magnificently frightening effects. Yet such a viewpoint would discount the otherwise innocent natives of Manukura, those forced to submit to jurisdiction of the French when they turned up and imposed their rules. Right and Wrong and Good and Evil and Everything in-between, it doesn't much matter when the laws of nature choose to cash in.

That’s what makes this film’s happy ending feel less contrived than most. It isn’t the unwavering Laws of Hollywood demanding at least a few smiling faces so much as it is the random luck of the draw. And the concluding shot, a joyous swim into the sunset, takes a time-honored coda and twists it, reminding us that for all the terror nature inevitably unleashes, we cannot help but revel in its beauty.


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