This little-known, infrequently discussed John Ford picture features what might be the greatest action scene ever filmed. OK, Ben Hur might have it beat, but it certainly has the best action scene you’ve never seen or even heard about.
The Hurricane (1937) dir. John Ford
Starring: Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, Mary Astor, C Aubrey Smith, Raymond Massey
By Alan Bacchus
The scene occurs at the end of this rousing adventure story set in the South Pacific. It’s the colonial era, a passenger ship of British sailors and other imperialists arrives at the fictional Polynesian island of Manikoora to restock on supplies. It’s also the reunification of lovebirds Terangi (Jon Hall), the strong first mate, and Marama (Dorothy Lamour), the daughter of the Tahitian chief. It’s bliss Polynesian-style for everyone in the first act culminating with Terangi and Marama’s wedding – a raucous event filled with lavish drinking, celebration and dancing.
The fun ends when, while celebrating at a Tahitian bar, Terangi is coaxed into a bar fight with a racist white man who resents Terengi’s presence. Terengi is arrested, tried and sent to prison for six months. He is too lovesick to stay put and engages in numerous escape attempts, thus increasing his sentence from half a year to 16 years. The snowball effect of Terengi’s poor judgment in the bar is terrifying.
The journey of Terengi feeds into Ford’s strong themes of resistance, sympathy for the marginalization of people and the tyranny of the imperialist era. These issues fit easily into his body of work and perhaps his personal attachment to the political struggle of his Irish countrymen against their British occupiers.
Terengi is characterized as blindly heroic, accomplishing remarkable feats of strength and courage for the love of his wife. Ford uses this simple motivation brilliantly and increases the stakes and intensity over the course of the film. The time frame expands to encompass several years, which, after Terengi’s dramatic reunion with his wife and daughter he’s never seen, fully realizes the epic scope of this picture.
If the film ended here, we’d all be satisfied. But as the title suggests, The Hurricane ends with a massive Hurricane sequence – a storm of the century teased and foreshadowed to us from the beginning of the film. The sequence does not disappoint. Just as the couple are reunited, the storm hits their island, as if Terengi brought with him all the rage of his imperialist captors.
Of course there’s no computer effects here. Instead, the massive destruction is done in real time with real studio sets and brilliant miniature work. The wind effects alone are unbelievable. Ford blasts his actors and his sets with some of the most powerful wind machines ever used in cinema. Watching Terengi and his family clinging to the palm trees as they bend and sway like straw resisting the force of the wind is astonishing. Ford’s sound design is equally magnificent. The loud roars and whistles of the storm drone on consistently through the entire scene. On a television screen it’s intense. In a theatre in 1937 it would have been something else.
What fails the picture, unfortunately, is Jon Hall’s performance as Terengi, a white person fulfilling a Polynesian role while the rest of the film is populated with real Polynesians. It’s a shame, as Hall comes off as a Tarzan-like cheat on the audience. For the authenticity in all the technical aspects of the film, this cheat on casting is rather shameful. But then again, historical context and cinematic conventions of the time must be taken into consideration.
All things considered, The Hurricane is a remarkable piece of cinema, largely under-appreciated and ripe for rediscovery. A DVD exists somewhere, but it can be seen sporadically on TCM.