Directed by John Ford
Written by Dudley Nichols, Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, and W.P. Lipscomb (based on the novel by James Norman Hall and Charles Nordoff)
In 1936, MGM's San Francisco had been one of its year's biggest hits, and while 30s box office data is scarcely reliable, it seems that it was outgrossed only by another MGM picture, The Great Ziegfeld, reflecting Metro's dominance and perhaps making 1936 the very peak of that studio's market power. Surely it must have sent its rivals to the drawing board to try to reverse-engineer a piece of MGM's disaster film success for themselves. Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, cleverly enough, eventually just cloned the damn thing with 1938's In Old Chicago, replicating San Francisco in shockingly fine detail ("no, no," said Zanuck at the time, "it takes place in Chicago and is about a fire"), but to its credit improving on those details. In the meantime, the film that really confirmed the disaster genre as a small but real trend for the latter half of the 1930s was Samuel Goldwyn's production of John Ford's The Hurricane.
The novel it was based on began serialization only several months after San Francisco's premiere (its authors were expats in Tahiti and almost certainly could not have seen it), so perhaps it's mere convergence that its film adaptation bears the similarities it does; there are only so many ways to structure a story around a catastrophe. Let's just say, then, that Ford's Hurricane replicates the basic plan of its forebear (that is, a melodrama concluded with the deus ex machina of an apocalypse that exists principally to provide external closure to character arcs that otherwise would never have bent, for disaster movies in the 30s were not yet, as they would become in the 70s, survival thrillers), but neither its proximate inspiration nor its genre siblings come close to the thematic and narrative seamlessness of The Hurricane's combination of melodrama and disaster, to the extent that The Hurricane might've been a great film even if it didn't have a hurricane.
With that hurricane, though, it's an outright masterpiece: an acknowledged masterpiece of pure 30s-style (hell, 20s-style) "why fake it when we can just brutalize the actors?" special effects, yes, but also one that's unparalleled amongst the disaster cinema of its era not solely for experiential thrills but how powerfully those thrills serve as a climax and conclusion for the story that's being told, with portent so undisguised you can barely call it "metaphorical," rather than amounting to just a bunch of gnarly, expensive-to-film scenes with a bunch of soapy characters whose story had previously been about other things entirely.
The Hurricane begins long after its story is over, in fact, with only dissolute medical doctor Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell) to remember it on our behalf as his ship passes a bleak and devastated pile of sand in the Tuamotu Islands. Almost weeping, he tells an oblivious fellow passenger that this isle is called, or was called, Manakoora. This had been his home, and it had been the most beautiful and unspoiled land in Polynesia, if not the whole world.
He drifts back and recalls the last days of Manakoora, beginning when its greatest specimen of manhood, Terangi (Jon Hall), returns from one of his voyages with Capt. Nagle (Jerome Kowan). Having served as Nagle's first mate for years, the purpose of their trip this time has been to fetch Germaine (Mary Astor) to bring her back to her husband, Manakoora's French governor Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey). It's a joyous homecoming for Terangi, too, for Terangi is to marry Marama (Dorothy Lamour). They wed—first in a Christian ceremony at the island church, undertaken by Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith), and immediately thereafter (and, one suspects, in a more binding and meaningful way) in a Polynesian ceremony officiated by Marama's father, Chief Mahevi (Al Kikume). Terangi and Marama spend a splendid night together, marred only by a premonition of disaster visited upon Marama in her dreams. Her premonition will, eventually, come true: their honeymoon is cut short by another voyage, and this voyage will last many years, for on Tahiti, when Terangi defends himself against the insults and assault of a white man who happens to be the relative of someone important back in France, he is sentenced to hard labor for six months. As the penalties for his repeated escape attempts stack up, those six months become the greater part of a tortured decade. Despite the entreaties of Dr. Kersaint, Father Paul, Capt. Nagle, Chief Mahevi, and even his own wife, De Laage refuses to intercede—even when Marama gives birth to Terangi's daughter—firmly committed to his stiffnecked conception of duty and unwilling to offer what he perceives as special treatment; in this long meantime, Manakoora is poisoned against him, and, perhaps, he against himself. At the last, Terangi succeeds in escaping anyway—killing a man in the process—and makes a desperate and uncertain trek back home across hostile waters. Following Terangi, however, is a great wind, and the beginning has already told us what wind and water shall make of Terangi's island.
This is, you will almost certainly notice, maybe as anti-colonialist as American movies from the 1930s get, even theoretically (though it pays to remember that a specifically-American brand of anti-colonialism against European powers had existed pretty much since the founding, and once America's out of the conversation, there's none of the "but the cavalry is awesome" ambivalence of, say, Ford's Fort Apache). It's laced with a lot of noble savagery and backhanded compliments about the nature of the Polynesian race, but it's a deeply elemental story anyway, which would scarcely benefit from the imposition of 2020s jargon, attempted nuance, or naturalistic depictions of trauma. It manages certain complexities of narrative, rarely as much in terms of individual characterization as in the white characters' (or the white-coded characters', I suppose) profound feelings of diffidence and impotence before a system that literally all of them agree has treated their friend badly, with every other white man (and the white woman) on Manakoora pleading Terangi's case before their governor, whereas even De Laage initially acts only out of the misplaced sense of obligation that's replaced his personality, the pity being that this locks him into continually doubling-down on "the law" till everybody hates his guts. For his part, Terangi himself meets the other face of colonialism in the form of his warden (John Carradine), the punishments he inflicts on the islander becoming increasingly severe and perverse; and with no need to hide behind "law," Carradine lets us see that, for him, the cruelty is the very point, and the thrill of it almost sexual.
Accordingly, The Hurricane asks for big, bold acting choices, delivered by its cast in big, bold strokes, and that's exactly what it gets, from Massey's customary resort to booming declamation to a performance from Lamour that consists more-or-less entirely of the bride and new mother looking happy for the first act, pensive for the second, and either nervously confused, or confronted with too many special effects to "act" in any meaningful way, for the third. (Mitchell may be the sole actor asked to underplay his character or offer anything remotely resembling an inner life beyond the most straightforward emotions: besides the heartbreaking fragility he brings to the framing narrative and a homesickness that he constantly complains of while apparently enjoying life on Manakoora more than he possibly could life in Paris, there's a certain sarcasm to his delivery of the lines where he describes the Manakoorans as, for example, "childlike," that make them come off as calculated to flatter De Laage's perception of his civilizing mission, as appeals to mere justice don't get anywhere).
However, as you probably anticipated from Pacific islanders being played by people named "Jon" and "Dorothy," the film's big stumbling block as a "racism is bad" parable, and the biggest impediment to it simply being taken seriously, is just how white its Polynesian leads are. Politics notwithstanding, given Hall's introduction aboard a schooner, it takes a minute just to comprehend what the movie's about (that is, not a French sailor and his Polynesian wife). As for Lamour, they put her into makeup, and, as was becoming the usual case for her career at this point, into a tight sarong (a very obviously machine-made sarong, mind you, which is also true of the somewhat more biologically-diverse, albeit not always Polynesian, background players). But Hall... Jon Hall was indeed raised in Tahiti (he was, in fact, the nephew of one of the novel's co-authors). When Hall came to Hollywood, he claimed to be the son of a Tahitian princess. Apparently, this Tahitian princess had traveled to Fresno during her pregnancy, since that's where he was actually born. Whatever the case, somebody must've believed him, since his whole career is one "exotic" role after another. Terangi himself isn't even a brownface performance, though; "brownface" implies some level of material effort. So, whether audiences believed in Hall's Polynesian heritage, I have a suspicion that Ford did not. It's hard not to interpret it as anything but a blatant joke, anyway, when he offers Hall's beaming Caucasian face an extra-close close-up during his recital of a line regarding how his first mate's hat affords him treatment "no different than a white man." On my first watch I had to stop the movie to laugh at the idea that it was the hat.
Once past that (a big "that," but still), Hall is everything required of Terangi, giving a fairly simple performance that's still terrifically vivid, and absolutely the film's most perfect example of that bold, broad acting I was talking about, starting with an inordinately flawless physique—Hall had a pair of serratus muscles on his ribs so chiseled that I half-wonder if he wasn't born with them, or maybe that kind of targeted body-sculpting is older than I think, and other contemporary leading men were just too busy smoking to bother—and physique is matched with a consummate ease in his own skin (ironically or not) that couldn't better suit a character frequently likened to a fish or a bird, so that it's already slightly joyous just to watch him exist while he runs around on boats or beaches, and, in extremis, it's entirely plausible that Terangi would indeed wrestle a shark and win. When Terangi's happy, he's happiness incarnate, carefree and so in-the-moment that he's almost blank; when he's caged on Tahiti, on the other hand, or subjected to thirst and hunger on the open ocean, he's a collection of baleful gazes, eyes full of intelligence and plans to secure his freedom and survival.
Ford's film is really only built with that one thing in mind, though, hammering home the contrast between Polynesian life and the cumbersome French attempt to regiment it to their specifications (he had wanted to shoot the film on location in the Pacific; Goldwyn put a stop to this pretty fast, though a unit did wind up with some pretty gorgeous B-roll, and even the soundstage photography, outside of some truly nasty but thankfully-rare rear projected shots, looks great and remarkably credible thanks to Richard Day and Alexander Golitzen's art direction). Well, despite colonialism being the topic of almost every conversation as soon as the thirty minute mark, Ford accomplishes the vast majority of the argument through visuals alone, with a carefulness that makes me want to watch more Ford films and rewatch some of the ones I already have (though it lacks one Fordian touch, the Godfuckingawful comic relief, perhaps because Manakoora has no Irish). He captures the half-imagined idyll of Manakoora beautifully and romantically; the first gestures of the film establish it as an island paradise (only marred slightly by an insert shot of a Tricolore that has a certain ominousness about it, and which is seen again at the end, only in tatters) that even the colonists can't help but enjoy, even as their country ruins it. (The more-developed Tahiti, by comparison, looks like any old sleazy port.) Of course, when I say The Hurricane could be a great movie whether it had a hurricane or not, the movie I wind up imagining reminds me of How Green Was My Valley, which gives me pause. (It's madness that Ford won Best Picture for that, but wasn't even nominated here.) Then again, The Hurricane Sans Hurricane would, presumably, still have an actual plot (as opposed to boring, disconnected vignettes), and, either way, romanticizing a tropical isle turns out to be easier than romanticizing a dirty hole in the ground in Wales, even if the movies have almost the exact same point about the toll that modernity and globalism take on life and nature.
There's a sense of real betrayal throughout Terangi's trials—he has, after all, done his best to accustom himself to the colonial presence—most keenly in his very first escape attempt, that leans hard on the best effort of Alfred Newman's uniformly-great score, a painful, plaintive four-note repetition on horns that prefigures the endless days to come, and goads Terangi to desperately, hopelessly swim after his captain's ship after it disembarks from Tahiti. I think this might be the most honestly affecting scene of the film prior to its finale, but Ford certainly isn't done yet, kicking Terangi's suffering into overdrive with a slippery montage of his years in bondage, during which his escapes and punishments alike become more baroque, abstract, and weird, with repeated images of the Polynesian chained to a symbolic wheel (John Milius loved this movie, I'd wager) and done up with borderline-expressionist lighting and angles that, under cinematographer Bert Glennon's care, follow Terangi more subtly during his whole stay on Tahiti. The betrayal is reflected, too, in the ideals that De Laage supposedly represents, and this is what I meant when I said how carefully Ford went about constructing The Hurricane, pursuing the colonial master from one end of the film to the other with a Christian cross, at first just in the small detail of his wife's shining crucifix necklace, but ultimately chucking a huge black cross between him and his priest. The Hurricane is damned impressive cinema all the way through.
But it is hard to pull focus from the best disaster film sequence of the 1930s. Whatever else you want to say about 30s disaster movies, they were usually tremendously inventive about putting together depictions of mass death, though Ford—"Ford"—tilts toward the wincing physicality of the San Francisco model (as opposed to the more spectacle-for-spectacle's-sake Deluge or Last Days of Pompeii model). In truth, this isn't much to do with Ford in execution; if it has much in common with San Francisco, that's no surprise, since it was overseen by James Basevi, who'd already designed the 1936 film's earthquake sequence, and who was evidently eager to outdo himself here. And thus he batters the actors with enormous fans capable of generating 140mph winds while strapping them to trees, throws tens of thousands of gallons of water at them, and generally just tries to manslaughter the whole lot. (It netted Thomas Moulton an Oscar for Best Sound Recording, as well. Like many wins in many fields, this was plainly a Most Sound Recording award, but by no means undeserved.) There's less to destroy on this island than there was in Old San Francisco, but what's here is destroyed extraordinarily well, with a great deal of tragedy; and what's destroyed is always more meaningful, too, above all the hoped-for refuge of the church, attacked by the storm with special savagery.
The outcome of the hurricane is shocking for a 30s film, but fully in line with what it's been about all along—not to put too fine a point on it, genocide—only getting it over with all at once instead of playing it out over years. It's both a metaphor for empire and God's wrath upon it. It's also simply about its own sheer awesomeness, the craft of modelmakers, the ingenuity of special effects artists, and the perseverance of actors and stuntpeople in the face of what basically did amount to a man-made hurricane; and the great thing about this film is that, for all its heaviness, it never forgets to be an adventure, too. Then the denouement, besides giving De Laage one last chance to save his soul, takes the elementalism that was the film's defining mode and expands that into something downright mythic, with a hopeful new beginning that we could rightfully call "edenic," but given the novel's authors' time in Tahiti, might really be drawing from specifically Polynesian cosmogony as well (it could be an accident, but might not be, that our heroes' names start with the same letters as Polynesia's own first humans, Tiki and Marikoriko—nor that our heroes' line is continued by a daughter, like their legendary forebears; the caveat is that "Terangi" seemingly isn't a real name at all, and Polynesian languages tend to have only about nine consonants in the first place).
Still, it wins its genre for its decade easily (almost by default, though I do have real fondness for '39's The Rains Came). But more than that, it should be on the shortest possible list of best disaster films of all time, the only two that come to mind as better, let alone better at using their respective disasters to explore deeper themes, being The Poseidon Adventure (and even here, The Hurricane is absolutely competitive) and Gravity. And I don't have the strongest right to say this, but it is also my favorite John Ford film by, like, a dizzying margin.