The Wind (1928)

Directed by Victor Sjostrom
Written by Frances Marion

There weren’t too many early entries on my list of Westerns that intrigued me more than Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind. Why? Well, there are many reasons, and oftentimes they’re hard for even me to explain. I, of course, know about Victor Sjostrom, being a tremendous fan of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, though I know next to nothing about his own work as a director. I, of course, know about Lillian Gish as perhaps thee preeminent star of the silent era, though I have not seen very many of her performances myself. In researching this list, The Wind was always a film which stood out as one to be excited about. Perhaps having not really heard of it before helps the mystique I seemed to project upon it. A sort of art house/Hollywood crossover silent western. What could be more intriguing than that?

A young woman named Letty (Lillian Gish) is travelling west to the plains to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) and his wife Cora (Dorothy Cummings) on their ranch. Along the way she encounters a cattle man named Roddy (Montagu Love), who warns her of the incessant winds which wreck havoc upon the plains and, according to Roddy, tend to drive the women mad. After a spat with an overly jealous Cora, Letty sets out to marry one of the eligible neighbors, though neither candidate seems desirable to her. Roddy makes a move to steal her heart, but Letty soon discovers Roddy to already be married, hoping to take Letty as his mistress. After rebuking Roddy’s advances, Letty marries Lige (Lars Hanson) instead, despite feeling no love for the man. Roddy manages to find his way back to Letty, however, after a cattle herding accident delivers him to her doorstep, adding to her already fragile state of mind thanks to the endless and powerful winds.

The Wind seems to tackle a number of different harrowing ideas about the American West and the dangers that lie ahead. First and foremost for me was the hardship faced by Letty as she adjusted to life in the West where there are not very many women, and most of the men seem hardened and less than chivalrous. The wind depicted in the film works as a great metaphor for the struggles of an Eastern woman trekking to the west on her own. There is no letup in the West, as you must be on your toes, ready to defend yourself at all times from those who look to prey on the weak. We even see how hard it must have been on women in the West through the eyes of Cora, who becomes threatened by Letty’s presence, worrying she may becomes antiquated to the new blood. Letty’s safety always seems at risk throughout. Even as we have a friendly meeting on the train with Roddy, I couldn’t help but wonder what his true motives were. Of course, on the flip side we have the sweet, albeit a little dense, Lige, whose intentions with Letty are true.

Sjostrom’s wonderful direction doesn’t end there though, as the film manages to feature a few startling special effects, especially given its production in 1928. The wind becomes a real character in the proceedings, whether showing up as a cyclone during a town dance, or even as it beats upon the prairie house, enclosing the psyche of Letty. Gish too is stellar in the lead role, communicating her horror, confusion and helplessness throughout. But while Letty is a fragile character, by the end she too is hardened by the West and the wind. The evolution of her character is an interesting journey throughout the film, and also a testament to the hard dichotomy between Western life and life in a bustling eastern city. The niceties are no more and people must deal with their issues on their own. The West is not without its reward though either.

While I was watching the film, I will say it felt a little slow and sluggish through parts of it, making the experience just okay. However, it is a film that is chock full of things to think about, and Sjostrom and Gish present them in a somewhat slow burn style which builds and builds to the end of the movie, and even builds beyond within the reflection of the viewer (or at least of this viewer). It is a film that is extremely fun to think about and analyze. I truly wonder what rewards subsequent viewings may offer, as the film is beautifully detailed and nuanced while being easy to follow and straightforward on its surface. I really should seek out more directorial work by Victor Sjostrom. I really should seek out more wonderful performances from Lillian Gish.

*** – Very Good

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