Filmsite Movie Review
The Wind (1928)
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The Wind (1928) is one of Lillian Gish's greatest achievements in a powerfully dramatic silent film - her fourth and last MGM film and the last of her silent films. She had previously collaborated with Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (billed as Victor Seastrom in his American films) for Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic The Scarlet Letter (1926). This visually poetic, melodramatic silent western film, from Frances Marion's adapted screenplay, was based on the 1925 novel by Dorothy Scarborough.

Sjostrom was a longtime Swedish film director whom MGM signed to do films, such as He Who Gets Slapped (1924) with Lon Chaney, The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Divine Woman (1928) with Greta Garbo. This was his final American film. He later returned to Sweden to act, most notably in Bergman's classic Wild Strawberries (1957) as lead character Professor Isak Borg, an elderly professor facing his mortality and revisiting his past.

The director's last surviving silent film (and MGM's last major silent) was essentially a dust bowl tale of a vulnerable young woman's plight in an alien and fearful environment (of ever-present male sexual advances and violations by the wind) - it could therefore be called the progenitor of all 'women's pictures'. It was filled with sexual metaphors, including semi-incestuous desire, jealousy, seduction, frigidity, virginity, off-screen rape by a brutal male attacker, insanity and sexual aversion leading to homicide - a predecessor to Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965), and sharing many similarities with Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940).

The film's main themes were the violating penetration of the wind, a woman's innate fear of assaultive and corruptible men (symbolized by the aggressive and violent wind in nature), the metaphor of the fantasized image of a stampeding, wild white stallion tied to the cruel norther' wind, and the vanquishing of feminine fears leading to ultimate freedom.

In the intensely-told, psychological drama, Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) - a "proper," fragile, sheltered, naive and young Southern belle suffering from impoverishment, traveled by train from Virginia to the frontier West, presumably in the 1880s. She had been invited to relocate and live with her male cousin Beverly or "Bev" (Edward Earle) in a dust-bowl town at his Sweet Water ranch. The sophisticated and egocentric Eastern native would soon suffer the howling and inhospitable Texas prairie wind that relentlessly blew severe desert sandstorms, and ultimately confront her paranoid madness in the face of misdirected passion.

While taking care of the three children at the Sweet Water ranch, Beverly's suspicious, hardened, and hard-working pioneer wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) became intensely jealous of the young, pretty, dainty and demure interloper. While conflict with Cora was developing and increasing, the delicate Letty was being courted by two neighboring ranch cowboys: the uncouth cowboy Lige (Lars Hanson), and his dim-witted, comic sidekick Sourdough (William Orlamond). Also in the love triangle was an amoral, smooth-talking, flirtatious, already-married cattle salesman from Fort Worth named Roddy Wirt (Montagu Love) who first met her on the train journey. He arrived in town and hinted or implied that he was proposing marriage (but really wanted her to be his mistress).

Desperate because she had received an ultimatum to leave Cora's household when regarded as a sexual threat, Letty had no choice but to accept a marriage proposal from Lige when it was revealed that Roddy was already married. However, she had no love for Lige, and cruelly and contemptuously rebuffed consummation of her marriage with him on their wedding night. Later in the story, while Lige was rounding up stampeding wild horses with other ranchers, Roddy returned to Lige's isolated cabin to assault the still-virginal Letty, who had been left alone and turned half-crazy due to the constantly howling, remorseless tempest wind. He attempted a brutal attack and rape (implied off-screen), and then insisted on taking her away with him the next morning, but she resiliently resisted him. As he held onto the end of his own gun's barrel that she was wielding for self-defense, she shot him at point-blank range into the heart, and he crumpled to the floor - dead, but with his eyes momentarily open. Then, she guiltily and laboriously dragged his body outside and attempted to bury it in the uncooperative, shifting sand.

In the electrifying conclusion (real or hallucinatory?), she watched in horror as the wind kept exposing his face and hand. She went hysterically insane when she realized that the wind was uncovering evidence of his corpse. At first, she curled up in a fetal position, shook and cried and was desperate to block out the wind. Then, when Lige arrived home, she was ultimately able to reconcile with him - she confessed the killing to him and he explained how the sand (via the wind) had justly covered up the corpse. She also reconciled herself with the wind - as she reaffirmed her love and triumphantly faced her major fears. The married couple lovingly embraced in the doorway of their cabin, to face the wind together.

[Note: The original script idea (based upon the novel) called for a tragic and downbeat ending - after suffering rape and committing homicide, the heroine Letty wandered blindly into the middle of the sandstorm and disappeared - to presumably die for her crime. There were 'rumors' that MGM filmed a tragic ending and then did a reshoot, but that did not occur. MGM's producer Irving Thalberg reportedly was the one who insisted that the film have a happy, conciliatory and romantic ending between the two leads (although female scripter Frances Marion protested), and all existing original drafts of the film shooting script reflected that resolution.]

The 74 minute film was a box-office failure, due to the advent of the "talkies" a year before, but its indelible images yet remain. John Arnold's impressive cinematography was taken under difficult circumstances - the temperature during the shoot in the Mojave Desert (near Bakersfield) was often over 100 degrees F. The relentless sandstorm was created by projecting sand from wind machines and/or multiple airplane propellers.

Plot Synopsis

The Title Credits:

After the opening title credits, a very literate inter-title introduced the film, emphasizing how it would be futile to try and subdue the primordial forces of Nature. A second inter-title presented a condensed version of the film's central story line:

Man - puny but irresistible - encroaching forever on Nature's vastnesses, gradually, very gradually wresting away her strange secrets, subduing her fierce elements - conquers the earth!

This is the story of a woman who came into the domain of the winds -

The Opening Dusty and Desolate Train Ride:

The film opened with a distant establishing shot - a view of a train crossing a prairie ("the domain of the winds"), with dust and smoke trailing behind. Two main characters were introduced in the interior of one of the train's passenger cars:

  • Letty Mason (Lillian Gish), a dainty, sweet young lady from Virginia, with a frilly lace shoulder piece and bonnet
  • Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) - sitting behind Letty and gazing at her; a western cattle rancher wearing boots

He approached Letty's seat, paused to brush sand from his sleeve (a repetitive gesture copied by many of the male characters), and then continued on. He turned toward her and smiled. Another exterior shot showed the train engulfed and surrounded by large clouds of sand. Gusts of dirt, dust and grit suddenly intruded into the passenger compartment through Letty's open window. Roddy rushed to her aid to help her close the opening. He flirtatiously assisted her in brushing off the dust on her clothing. He summoned over a fruit vendor, carefully placed a napkin on Letty's lap, and bought two apples and bananas. After he sat down next to her and shined up an apple (to remove the dust) before presenting it to her, they introduced themselves to each other:

My name's Wirt Roddy - I trade cattle up and down this line - -
My name's Letty Mason - I've come all the way from Virginia -

More views of the framed train window showed the incessant wind driving sand and dust against the outer glass, obscuring the view, and piling up on the window sill. Bothered, Letty naively complained about nature's wind and wished it would stop blowing:

Letty: My, this wind is awful, isn't it? I wish it would stop -
Roddy: You're goin' to wish that a-plenty, little lady, if you're out here for any stay - (He bit into a peeled banana)
Letty: I've left Virginia for good - I'm going to live at my cousin's beautiful ranch at Sweet Water.

The train continued on into the night through the desolate frontier prairie, taking the impoverished Letty westward from Virginia to her male cousin's Sweet Water ranch in Texas. More sand battered the window to Letty's left, forcing her to direct her attention to Roddy on her right. The framed, sand-blasted window dissolved back to a two-person shot of the couple, when Roddy told her about the desolate wind-blown countryside. He predicted that her future rested in the 'land of the winds' (where the ghostly Native Americans used to live) - a place that would likely cause her to go mad. He leaned forward, put his hand on her knee, and prophesied a dark future for her:

Injuns call this the 'land o' the winds' - it never stops blowing here -
- day in, day out, whistlin' and howlin' - makes folks go crazy - especially women!

Letty smiled uneasily - trying to appear unfazed and to hide her apprehension about his dire warning that women were driven mad by the constant winds in the area. She looked askance at him and tried to remain unnerved: "You're not scaring me a bit, Mr. Roddy - - I'm looking forward to - - everything!" But she hardly believed her own words when she glanced toward the window being blasted by sand and a look of fright crossed her face.

The Arrival and Ride to Sweet Water:

The train conductor announced that the train was arriving at the station - and Roddy helped Letty disembark by carrying her luggage. In the darkness of the night, and obscured in the swirling dust and blowing wind, the two emerged onto the platform. Barely visible were two other unrefined, rough-looking men claiming to have been sent by Letty's cousin Beverly to pick her up - they were two neighbors:

  • Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) - younger cowhand
  • Sourdough (William Orlamond) - older, balding sidekick

While holding up a lantern next to his buckboard, Lige introduced the two of them: "I'm Beverly's nearest neighbor, Lige Hightower - he asked me to get you - . Me and my partner, Sourdough, live fifteen miles from your cousin." A bit apprehensive by the appearance of the two scruffy men, Letty fled back into Roddy's arms for reassurance, and the urbane cattle rancher promised to check on her: "I'll stop off on my way back to see how you're makin' out - ". He gave her his business card.

Lige offered Letty assistance up onto the buckboard's open front seat: "Hop my paw, little missy!" The two men squabbled about who would sit next to her ("We'll shoot fer the seat o' priv'lege"), and who would ride in the back. Both took aim at a lantern, and Lige won the contest. The losing Sourdough groused: "Gee, but I'm unlucky!" Letty forlornly waved goodbye to Roddy as the train pulled away, and Lige remarked: "I've seen that galoot before - travels fer a packin' house, don't he?"

On the long ride to Sweet Water, her cousin's ranch, dawn arrived as they rode along. A group of wild horses galloped by, sending up more plumes of dust, as Lige informed Letty about how they had been spooked. He told her about the more frightening and violent "norther" winds - a second association made between the Indians and the forces of nature - when the horses were sent into a frenzy:

Them's wild hosses - when a norther blows, they tear down the mountain like the divvil was arter them! Mighty queer - Injuns think the North Wind is a ghost horse that lives in the clouds.

The unnerved Letty imagined in her mind, via an inserted cutaway, an image of a white stallion (the "ghost horse") galloping up into the clouds - a frequent subjective vision in the film. She asked about the winds, and he confirmed that the most destructive winds were yet to come - forces that panicked the mustangs and could rip appendages off one's body:

Letty: Is this one of those - northers?
Lige: If this was a norther, you and me 'ud be jest arms an' legs - - scattered over the prairie!

Sweet Water:

They finally made their way to the Sweet Water - a desolate cattle ranch with a wooden shack - her cousin's home:

After endless miles of wind and sand and empty far-off sky -

Letty's cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) happily greeted her and carried her over the threshold as if she was his bride - he warmly kissed his female relative. Delighted with her arrival, he called for his wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming), a tough pioneer woman, to welcome his cousin ("Cora! Letty's come!"), but she was less than thrilled to greet Letty, as she was tending to the three young children. She coldly replied: "What's the hurry? She'll be here a long time!" There were already signs of jealousy developing. Letty brushed the sand from her hair, as Beverly continued to fawn over her, but explained how his respiratory health was poor:

I'd have sent for you before, honey - but it's been a mighty hard year - and my cough isn't much better.

Letty caused further consternation when she asserted to Cora that she and Beverly were like brother and sister, because they were both raised by Letty's mother (" - you see, my mammy raised Bev - we're like brother and sister"). The three children entered the room - and Letty made an attempt to be friendly to them:

  • Cora's Child (Carmencita Johnson) - the youngest girl
  • Cora's Child (Laon Ramon/Leon Janney) - the oldest boy
  • Cora's Child (Billy Kent Schaefer) - the youngest boy, suffering from an earache

Cora announced that dinner was prepared: ("Chuck's ready!") and Lige and Sourdough were invited to the table. After some more squabbling between the two cowhand neighbors about seating positions relative to Letty, she sat between Lige and her cousin Bev. The two rough-hewn, unrefined men continued to compete for Letty's attention during the meal. Letty was more distracted, however, by the constantly-blowing wind seen outside through one of the windows. She also tapped a thick layer of sand off a large slice of bread, and compulsively wiped her hands with a sandy handkerchief, as Lige offered her a platter of primitive frontier food ("Kin I help you to sow-belly and grits, Miss Mason?"). Sourdough also suggested: "Hev some son-of-a-gun, Miss Mason!" Cora described the ingredients: "It's made from the steer's innards - liver, lights, and lungs!" - and Letty promptly lost her appetite. The innocent girl was ill-prepared for inhospitable and harsh western ranch life - nothing was what she had imagined. Piles of sand were growing outside the window due to the unceasing winds.

To help out around the ranch since Beverly was suffering from respiratory problems, Letty (in a light spring dress) volunteered to iron the laundry. In close-up, she looked down at her hands - and saw developing blisters. The contrast (of gender identification) with nearby Cora was unmistakable. The unsympathetic, manly rancher's wife, wearing a butcher's apron, couldn't be bothered as she was slicing open and gutting the innards of a dead steer hanging in the living room from the ceiling. However, the spiteful wife was annoyed and hurt that her own children happily and preferably flocked to Letty and gathered around her with their stereoscope (a viewer device that depicted the illusion of 3-D images), and ignored and rejected their own mother. She wielded her long sharp knife in Letty's direction - a symbol of her intense and jealous anger toward the dainty newcomer.

The Local Dance ('Shindig') - Competing Marriage Proposals:

At the town's dance, while Cora was attending to the young infants and other younger town children, Lige and Sourdough vied for her attention when across the room, she spotted the familiar and welcoming face of Roddy. He was dusting off his clothes and boots with a handkerchief. She slipped away, went to him, and they became reacquainted. He swept her onto the dance floor. Meanwhile, Sourdough bragged to Cora about his intentions - that he was planning to propose to Letty ("I'm goin' to pop the question to Letty tonight!"). Lige upstaged him and stated his own romantic interests: "Are ye, indeed, Mr. Sourdough? Wal, so am I!" Sourdough drew his long-barreled revolver and proposed another shooting contest to decide who would be the lucky suitor. Both targeted a stuffed owl hanging on the wall with identical shots, and they were forced to propose together: "Ain't nothin' to do now - - but pop it together!" They both retreated to a back room to prepare to look their best.

At the same time, Roddy began to woo Letty. He confided that he had come to see her specifically: "Can't you guess, Letty - why I stopped off at this awful forsaken place?" He offered her a mirror - and from a close-up camera angle, her reflection was positioned in the middle of the mirror's frame. Two ranch hands burst through the front doors into the dance with an ominous warning:

Cyclone headin' this way!

Some of the dance attendees raced outside and pointed at the menacing, dark shape of a tornado-twister approaching in the distance, and many began to panic. To prepare for the coming disaster, Roddy and Letty took shelter by entering a trap door into the cellar with most of the town's members, Cora, and the children joining them, while Lige and Sourdough remained on the main floor to brace the doors and windows. Those in the cellar huddled in fear as some of the males upstairs placed tables, a bench, wooden planks and other objects against all openings to the exterior. The wind started to rip apart the outer areas of the building, and sand began to blow into the building as the cyclone struck, but then the danger soon passed on.

As nature's threat diminished, Roddy proposed to Letty, who was pressed up closely next to him in the cellar. He attempted to lure her away with him:

You see, Letty, you can't stay in this terrible country any longer. Come away with me, Letty. I love you.

Lige announced that the party could recommence ("Cyclone blowed over - shindig under way again!"). As Roddy was departing (Lige and Sourdough framed the outer doorway on either side), he advised Letty to ponder his proposal for the next 24 hours:

Think it over, Letty - I'll be in town until tomorrow night -

He again wiped away dust from his sleeve. Sourdough spit tobacco juice at Roddy's feet and struck his boots, while Lige moved closer to Roddy to urge him to leave.

After Roddy left the dance, Lige and Sourdough led Letty into the back room to propose to her. Cora enthusiastically informed her husband that Letty might receive marriage proposals - she was fully supportive of the idea. The two men announced their intentions, but Letty couldn't take them seriously and laughed at both of them: "How can I decide? You're both so fascinating."

The two competing men decided to flip a coin (Sourdough: "Guess you'll have to toss for us, then!"), and Lige won the chance to ask for Letty's hand in marriage. He stepped forward and offered an engagement ring to her, but she was uninterested.

Cora's Ultimatum to Letty:

Cora entered the room, and when she realized that both of their proposals had been rejected, she became very hostile. She was worried that Letty would not be leaving her home anytime soon. During a vicious stand-off in order to jealously protect her marriage with Beverly, Cora adamantly urged Letty, who at first joked about the failed proposals, to reconsider and take one of her marriage suitors seriously. She delivered an ultimatum - Letty was a threat to their home at Sweet Water because of her perceived love for her cousin, and must leave immediately:

Letty: (joking) - and for a moment, I thought they were serious!
Cora: (sternly) You're goin' to take one of 'em serious! You don't think I ain't seen through your tricks, Miss Sly Boots! You love Beverly - but you'll never get him away from me - he's mine! What's more - you're gettin' out o' our house - and gettin' out quick! I'D LIKE TO KILL YOU!

Beverly entered the room, wracked by a cough, and overheard their conversation. Letty was left in a precarious position when Beverly started to defend her, but was unable to speak. He doubled over and collapsed to the floor. Cora rushed to his aid, pushed Letty aside, and kissed and embraced him. Wincing, Letty realized that she had to make a quick decision about her future - and was reminded (with a cutaway to a view of the wind and sand outside) - that the cruel world outside was threatening to engulf her. Fearing what might happen to her if she was tossed out of the Sweet Water ranch into the wide-open landscape, she promised Cora:

Don't worry any more, Cora - I know where I can go - !

The next day, Letty was brought (with her luggage) to town by Cora, who remained on the street with their carriage while she met with Roddy in his second-floor hotel room. He reacted with nervous pacing after she agreed to marry him. He then confessed that he couldn't legally marry her, but could take her on as his mistress, and protect her from the wind and other external pressures by whisking her away from her dismal circumstances:

Letty: You're acting awful strange - !
Roddy: Well, you see, Letty - as it happens - I got a wife already - Letty, let me take you away where the wind can never follow!

With a new dilemma facing her, she decided to reject his proposal and turned away. She was forced to sheepishly confess to Cora that her plan had failed. The enraged Cora was tempted to immediately leave town and strand Letty there, but then reconsidered. During their carriage ride back to the Sweet Water ranch, Cora demanded that Letty pick one of her other two suitors for marriage, in order to secure her future destiny:

Cora: You've spent the last night you'll ever spend at the ranch!
Letty: But what's to become of me? I have no money - and no place to go -
Cora: Two men want to marry you - make up your mind which one you'll accept.

The frontal view of the two women in the carriage faded to black.

Letty's Marriage to Lige:

After a fade-in, a close-up viewed a group of anonymous hands during a wedding ceremony - the bridegroom was slipping a ring onto the finger of his bride - in the background was an open book (Bible?) and the chest of the Sheriff (wearing a badge) who was officiating.

A series of dissolves followed - these were perceived to be the first items Letty saw in the bachelor home of her new husband:

  • a pile of dust-covered, dirty dishes in a sink
  • a table-top with a glowing lantern, two dusty bottles (one upright, one lying flat), and some dirty plates of food
  • Letty - isolated and standing in the midst of the shack, while perceiving her new surroundings

Lige was now Letty's new husband - and she surveyed her new modest and messy home. Sourdough congratulated Letty with a handshake, and mentioned how he would have been a better husband for her: ("Wal, if you'd took me - you'd got a better cook!"). Sourdough then commended Lige for winning Letty: ("Well, you're always lucky and I'm always unlucky - ding it!").

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