THE WIND, 1928
Starring: Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, Dorothy Cumming, Edward Earl, William Orlamond, Carmencita Johnson, Leon Ramon, Billy Kent Schaefer.
A gentle and beautiful Virginian girl (Gish) travels to the wild, wind-ravaged lands of Texas to visit her beloved childhood friend (Earls) and his family, on the way attracting the attention of a caddish type (Love) and a rough-hewn cattle farmer (Hanson). When Earls wife (Cumming), jealous of the attention Gish is receiving, asks her to move out or choose one of her suitors, Gish reluctantly marries Hanson. But the union is stale and she finds it difficult to adjust to married life and is still pursued by Love, advances she does not reject. During another vicious wind storm Love tries to rape her. Killing him in self-defence, she tried to bury him in the sands, only to have the ever present and judgemental winds uncover him. Slowly, she starts to go mad.
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The death toll of the silent movie had already been struck with the release in October 1927 of the first sound on film movie, The Jazz Singer. Work on The Wind had been wrapped mid-way through that same year, but its release was held-up for over a year as what was anticipated in some quarters to be a passing fad became a blockbuster sensation and jittery US studios decided what to do with their remaining silents, either finished or in production.
The silent movie had just reached the pinnacle of technical sophistication as an art-form (some, like The Last Laugh, didn’t even use titles to describe the action) when the rug was loudly and unceremoniously pulled from under it, but at least it’s master craftsmen managed to produce a few last gems like this glowingly beautiful drama.
Based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough and suggested by star Gish as a vehicle for herself, it is exactly as she herself described in an interview as being “...pure motion”.
She is ideally cast in the role, but manages to broaden her range further than the usual saintly and virginal roles she played with a performance that resonates with untapped and yearning, even dangerous, female sexuality that has explosive consequences. Gish is no longer the toy of unscrupulous men, but has less scruples herself.
Although the support cast back her with well-judged turns as a spiteful nemesis (Cumming), comedy suitor (Orlamond), slimy love interest (Blue) or salt of the earth partner (Hanson), the other star turn is director Seastrom.
Seastrom, a celebrated director in his native Sweden (where he was known as Sjostrom), had been lured to the states by MGM with a lucrative contract and had made a handful of successful films, including the first one produced by the young studio (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924). This was his second collaboration with Gish, after The Scarlet Letter and the two continue to explore the themes that interested them: social isolation and redemption in unforgiving and extreme environments.
He manages to whip up a blistering visual feast here and the motif of the wild horse bucking across the sky to represent the wind is an enduring one. The film also features some of his starkest imagery; the sand that gets into everything including the food, the blisters on Gish’s worked hands and the carcass of a steer swinging ominously as Cumming’s strips it of its innards. His direction of his leading actress is so assured she pours raw emotion into every pulsing frame.
Filmed in the stifling heat of the Mojave Desert, with airplanes used to blast the actors with sand, Gish later claimed all to credibly to have lost the skin on one hand after trying to open her dressing room door after it had baked in the sun all day. She carried on filming - now that’s dedication.