Lillian Gish plays an innocent girl thrust into the harsh elements of the American West. The unceasing wind batters the landscape and begins to unravel her sanity. Beautiful direction from Victor Seastrom and intense acting from both Gish and Lars Hanson. Silent cinema at its finest. For goodness sake, see it!
The Wind, the West and Me.
In the interest of full disclosure: before starting this review, I should probably share something: The Wind has long been one of my favorite silent movies. So, please excuse me if I get a bit gushy. Can’t help myself!
(Oh, and since there are a ton of rumors attached to this film, from the mythical “original ending” to the weather conditions the cast had to contend with, I wrote an entire article of The Wind myth-busting. Enjoy!)
The Wind is a strange, eerie, wonderful piece of cinematic art. At its heart are such subjects as love, lust, madness and murder. It is intense and moody, truly artistic yet completely accessible. A psychological drama wrapped in western trappings. Ready? Let’s go!
Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) is a sweet Virginia lass bound for her cousin’s ranch in Texas. On the train, she meets cattleman Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love). Roddy knows how to treat a lady. He tells her about the countryside and helps her get the dust off her clothes. There is a lot of dust in the air, the wind seems to blow constantly.
As Roddy wipes every speck of dust from Letty’s lunch, he explains that the wind is known to drive people insane. Letty tries to laugh off his warning but the sand blasting against the train window does seem a bit unnerving. But she is sure that she will be fine when she reaches her cousin’s beautiful ranch, Sweet Water. (If you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s spaghetti classic Once Upon a Time in the West, you will know that a ranch named Sweet Water is not a good omen.)
Letty’s train arrives at the station. The sand is swirling in the wind. Letty can barely see but she makes out the form of a man. She throws her arms around him but then jumps away. It’s not her cousin. Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) and Sourdough (William Orlamond) are her cousin’s nearest neighbors, they live 15 miles from Sweet Water. Her cousin asked them to pick Letty up. Letty is put off by their rough ways. She runs back to Roddy, who tells her that he will come back the same way soon to see how she is faring.
In contrast to the urbane Roddy, Lige and Sourdough are positively primitive. They tussel like kids over who gets to sit by Letty in the wagon and finally decide it with a shooting contest. A smirking Roddy watches Letty begin the last leg of her journey.
Letty is growing steadily more unnerved by the wind. Lige doesn’t help matters by telling her that the wind storm they are experiencing is nothing compared to a “norther”, which panics the mustangs and can tear a man limb from limb.
As threatened, Sweet Water ranch is a board hut in the middle of the desert. Letty’s cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) is thrilled to see his cousin. His wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) is less so, especially when she sees that Letty and Beverly are literally kissing cousins. Beverly has a bad cough and Cora has to do much of the work as well as care for their three children.
Lige and Sourdough’s frat boy antics continue over the dinner table. Letty, meanwhile, is still nervous of the wind. She tries to tap dust off of her bread and compulsively wipes her hands with a sandy handkerchief.
Letty’s life is nothing like she had imagined. Still wearing her Virginia finery, she begins to develop her first blisters. Meanwhile, Cora guts a steer. She watches with anger and pain as her husband and children flock around the dainty Letty. Cora is tough, a frontier woman, and she is not about to let all this pass. Something has got to give.
At the town dance, Letty is the belle of the ball. She is enduring the attentions of Lige and Sourdough when she spots a welcome face. Roddy is at the dance. Meanwhile, Sourdough and Lige announce to a delighted Cora that the plan to propose Letty that very night.
Roddy tells Letty that he came back just for her. Before he can say more, a warning comes. A cyclone is coming! Roddy takes shelter with Letty while Lige and Sourdough stay upstairs bracing the doors and windows.
Roddy tells Letty that she has to leave with him. He loves her. The cyclone passes and the unflappable Lige announces that the party is back on. Roddy asks Letty to think it over. He will be in town until the next day.
With Roddy gone, Lige and Sourdough make their proposals to Letty. She laughs them off. They can’t be serious. Why would she look at them when she has the love of a man like Roddy? Cora does not see things the same way. She tells Letty that she had better take one of her suitors seriously. She wants Letty out of her house. She will not let her take over her family.
Beverly tries to defend Letty but he is doubled over by his cough. Cora rushes to him and they kiss. Letty realizes that she must fend for herself. She draws herself up and tells Cora that she has a place to go.
The next day, Letty calls on Roddy and tells him that she will marry him. It seems, though, that Roddy is not thrilled with the idea of actually marrying Letty. She quickly finds out why: Roddy is already married. But the position of mistress is open. Letty leaves in disgust and is forced to confess to Cora that she cannot go to Roddy. Cora is enraged. Then she tells Letty that two men want to marry her. She needs to pick one because there is no way she will let her return to Sweet Water.
Lige is the lucky man. He and Letty are quickly married and he takes her back to the bachelor digs he shares with Sourdough. It’s rather a mess (surprise, surprise) and Letty is dazed by the turn her life has taken. Lige can barely believe his good fortune. He is giddy with excitement.
Trying to be a good host, he makes coffee for her (adding much more sugar than she likes). She surreptitiously pours it into the washbasin. Lige thinks he’s doing pretty well, he just can’t understand why Letty seems aloof. She is more interested in combing her hair than spending time with her new husband.
He leaves her alone in the bedroom. Letty’s nerves begin to crumble. She tries to block the keyhole. She panics, pacing the room. Her pacing is mirrored by Lige, who is confused and frustrated.
When he tries more forcefully to come on to Letty, however, he feels the full withering blast of her contempt. She shouts that she hates him. Letty knows she’s hurt him and tries to explain. She only married him because she had nowhere else to go. Lige understands. He wanted a wife and she used him. He promises to never touch her again. He will find a way to send her home to Virginia. Lige leaves the bedroom with calm dignity. On his way out, he notices the coffee in the wash basin. He looks up with a sardonic smile. She even deceived him about that.
Lige sits outside and broods. Letty cries but soon her fear of the wind overwhelms her despair. It continues to blow through the night.
Lige keeps his word and he and Letty continue their awkward truce. The old fun-loving Lige is gone, replaced by a much more serious man. Letty begins to soften towards him. He silently takes care of her. Less polished than Roddy, perhaps, but more practical and much more honorable.
Lige has a plan to send Letty back home to Virginia. He and his fellow ranchers will brave a norther and round up mustangs to sell to the U.S. government. Letty and Sourdough are waiting for Lige to return from one of his mustang trips when an injured man is brought to the house. Letty is terrified that it is Lige. Worse. It is Roddy.
Letty asks Lige why he brought him to the house. Lige says that he had nowhere else to go. A well-aimed barb, no?
Roddy recovers and is soon trying to convince Letty to leave with him. He tells her the wind is driving her mad, he can take her home to Virginia. Lige comes in and Letty throws her arms around him. He is cold, as usual. He tells Roddy that the men are rounding up the horses driven from the mountains by the nother, every man is needed. Roddy agrees to help and goes to saddle his horse.
Letty begs Lige not to go. He says its his only chance to get enough money to send her home. He kisses her and leaves. Letty stands in shock. Then she runs after him, shouting his name. Lige doesn’t hear her over the wind and rides off with Roddy and Soudough. But Roddy has plans too. He doubles back to the house where the wind is driving Letty mad…
The Wind is one of those rare movies where everything comes together. The perfect director for the material, perfect cast, all working together.
The first and most obvious advantage that the film has is the presence of Lillian Gish. One of the greatest screen actress of her era, she excelled at portraying innocents thrust into a harsh world. The Wind gave her a chance to put a more sophisticated spin on the character. Letty is innocent and basically good but she has her share of flaws. At the beginning of the film, she is taken in easily by the superficial. She is a pragmatic character, even egocentric, who goes on her way through life with little regard for the feelings of others, particularly Lige and Cora. These flaws balance the character and make her much more interesting than the usual virginal heroine. It makes her eventual journey to the brink of madness much more tragic and engrossing. This is a real person being driven insane.
Lillian Gish tended to be drawn to darker material and her acting thrives in this film. The climactic scene where she is trapped alone in her house with a norther blowing outside is a brilliant bit of virtuoso acting. Gish excelled in controlled hysteria. Her terror is heart-rending because it is completely believable.
With a talent like Lillian Gish, casting co-stars is a challenge. Even charismatic actors like John Gilbert and Ronald Coleman could be overshadowed by her. Lars Hanson, however, was more than up to the challenge. Intense, brooding and full of talent, he proved to be the perfect Lillian Gish leading man.
Hanson’s performance as Lige is equal in every way to Lillian Gish’s as Letty. Lige is an unrefined Western guy with a heart as big as a house. A real diamond in the rough. His acting is excellent throughout the start of the film but his character really comes into his own with the wedding night scene. When the scene opens, he is a slaphappy bridegroom just dying to please his new wife. Her scornful rejection is like a splash of ice water. He matures before our eyes, realizing that he has been used, that his lovely bride can’t stand him. Hanson plays this part of the scene almost entirely with his eyes. His subtlety is very effective.
The third performer who deserves special recognition is Dorothy Cumming as Cora. The character could have been just a villainess but that never happens. Cora’s motivations are always understandable and believable. Letty irons the ruffles of her skirt and plays with the kids while Cora has to butcher a steer for supper. Letty dances and flirts at the party while Cora wears and apron helps take care of the town’s children. Beverly hugs and kisses his pretty cousin. They may be related but not closely enough to suit Cora. Cora’s own children flock to Letty. Cora feels frozen out of her own home.
Cora is a tough frontierwoman and she sees a threat to her family life. Let’s face it, what woman would be comfortable in her position? So, while her methods in dealing with Letty are harsh, Cora is not an evil person. She is, in her mind at least, defending hearth and home from a sly interloper. Dorothy Cumming portrays this assertive character as a human being with feelings. It was (and still is, actually) all too common for anyone who opposed the protagonist in a film to be portrayed as a soulless villain. Cora never falls into this category.
The rest of the supporting cast is uniformally good. Montagu Love is, as usual, an excellent bad guy. William Orlamond is folksy and charming as the lovable lout Sourdough.
This was Victor Seastrom’s last American film. Seastrom, Hanson and Gish had worked together on the very successful 1926 film The Scarlet Letter. In The Wind, Seastrom stretches the potential of silent film to its limit and beyond. His agile camera and imaginative eye make this a timeless film. While not as dramatic as the German directors of the period, his use of light and shadow adds just the right touch of stylization required for this nightmare version of Texas.
On that subject, The Wind has been criticized for overdoing the weather. Too much sand, too much wind, too much everything. How are people supposed to live in that?
I think that the criticism fails to take into account that The Wind is a subjective, rather than objective, film. This is from Letty’s point of view. The wind is dramatically portrayed because that is how she perceives it. Whatever part of Virginia she is from, the climate is lovely. In comparison, the plains of Texas are nothing but a vast landscape of stinging wind. Too much wind? For realism, perhaps, but it fits the stylized nature of the film quite well.
Another reason for the amount of wind is the very concept of the film: Letty is driven mad by it. That in itself requires more than a few dust storms for the audience to accept. (And, by the way, as a born and raised desert rat, I can assure you that there really isn’t all that much exaggeration in the film’s weather.)
The subjective nature of the film leads me to wonder just how reliable of a narrator Letty is. It is clear from the film that she has an overactive imagination. (Seeing the wind as a mustang, imagining other characters staring at her.) In the famous climax, where she shoots Roddy and then imagines him rising from his grave, I wonder how much of it is real. No one but Letty sees Roddy double back to the house. When she confesses her crime to Lige, he seems less than disturbed. Is it possible that Roddy never came back at all? That the whole sequence was a symbolic manifestation of her delusional terror of the wind?
Another criticism leveled against the film is that the original, tragic ending of the novel was replaced with a happier one. This was done against the wishes of both Lillian Gish and Victor Seastrom. But was it really such a desecration? There is a belief among many critics that sad endings are always better and happy ones are always inferior. I love a tragedy as much as the next girl but it has to fit. The best ending is the one that feels right for the story being told. Period.
In the case of The Wind, the original ending (Letty wandering in the desert, alone and insane) would mean that the theme of the film is as follows: Woman vs. Nature. Woman loses. Boy, did she have a rotten life.
The happier ending, while a bit too pat and lovey-dovey, makes for a more interesting theme. Woman vs. Own Mind. Woman wins.
Frankly, the original ending strikes me as tragedy for the sake of tragedy. To be effective, a tragedy has to have a sense of inevitability. It has to fit. Letty going mad and wandering off smacks of masochism. Plus, it leaves the other characters hanging. How would Lige react? Cora? Beverly? To have Letty wander off into madness and not showing any other character would reaffirm Letty’s solipsism, a trait that her character had already outgrown by this point in the story.
So, while the happier ending is not ideal, to me it is much more satisfying than the original, tragic ending.
(Please note that when I refer to the original ending, I mean the ending of the novel. Despite what Lillian Gish claimed later, original scripts show that a happy ending was always intended for the film adaptation and no tragic ending was ever planned, let alone shot.)
The very fact that The Wind can inspire criticism and comment after so many years is a testament to its power. It is a breathtaking piece of art and truly one of this country’s cinematic treasures.
Where can I see it?
The Wind was released on VHS with a brilliant score by Carl Davis. This score really adds to the movie’s impact. This version is NOT yet available on DVD in the U.S. as of this writing. There are PAL format DVDs available if you are a good movie buff and own a region-free player. But do seek out the Carl Davis scored version, which sometimes is shown on TCM.