The makers of The Wind took their content seriously. Filming commenced near Bakersfield in the Mojave Desert where temperatures fluctuated around 100 degrees. Eight airplanes where used to churn up enough force for the effect of swirling sand and much of the crew was forced to wear protective clothing while facing the elements. It sounds like a hardly pleasant experience and yet Swedish director Victor Sjostrom’s project with silent film goddess Lillian Gish proves transcendent to this day.
An early inter-title explains the film’s story of a “woman who came into the domain of wind,” and essentially that sets up this archetypal woman vs. nature story. Gish is our heroine Letty, who has come all the way from Virginia to live with her cousin. Why she would want to live in such nasty conditions is not clear, but she must have had good reasons. Every sequence you are reminded of this film’s title, because hats, hair, scarfs, are always blowing in the wind, no exceptions. Tranquility does not have a place in this film. Vast expanses of desolate terrain reign supreme and the men match the land. The first acquaintance Letty makes on her way out is the forward cattle buyer Wirt Roddy. He warns her of the treacherous country she is about to enter, but she is, after all, Lillian Gish. Nothing will stop her.
When she finally arrives at the ranch of her cousin Beverly, he is delighted to see her, but his callous wife and bratty kids are not so warm with their welcome. Letty also catches the eyes of two ranchers: The rugged Lige Hightower and the aging Sourdough. Both have a hankering to ask for her hand in marriage, and the dance in town seems like the perfect place for popping the question.
But a giant cyclone strikes leaving destruction in its wake, and the general public seeks shelter below ground as the men try and brace for impact. In the mayhem, Roddy declares his intentions and now there are three suitors vying for Letty’s affections. It’s good fun for Letty until the jealous Cora forces her out of the house. She doesn’t want Ms. Sly Boots wrecking her home as she surmises.
Letty needs someone to turn to and her first choice is Roddy, but he always was a grinning conniver, and he finally confesses he’s already married. That won’t do and she reluctantly chooses Lige. Although, since he is so rough around the edges, she doesn’t know how to relate to him. She certainly doesn’t love him, and he catches on pretty quickly when trying to kiss his new bride. Despite, a violent side, Lige proves he does have a grain of decency buried in the sand somewhere. He resolves to get enough money to send Letty back to where she came from and, he soon loses his scruffy beard.
Lige goes out in the elements out of necessity in taking part in a roundup. His wife initially pleads with him to take her along, but the conditions are too adverse and she is left behind, all alone between four flimsy walls which are supposed to defend her from the forces that be. A deadly Northern is coming, personified by a prancing stallion, but that’s not all. Roddy sneaks back to Letty intent on taking her away with him, and between the never-ending onslaught of wind and sand, along with her former suitor, Letty is beside herself. It’s a frantic struggle against the wild forces of nature, not to mention a craven man. However, being the heroine that she is, Lillian Gish find her gun and does what she has to do. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and thus when a jaded Lige gets home, he is surprised to be met by Letty with open arms. They share the original Titanic embrace, with the wind billowing around them, eyes closed, enjoying this moment of pure adrenaline. Even for the 1920s, Gish is a universal beauty, and there’s a pristine magnetism to her. I would never wish any type of harm or misfortune upon her. She has such a sincere face. Or maybe it’s a fragile frame backed up by courageous nature. Her struggles remind me somewhat of The Gold Rush or Steamboat Bill Jr. because in each of these films a character we truly care about is pitted against nature’s wind. These films have different effects, but each is powerful in its own right.