Release Date(s)1937 (November 24, 2015)
Studio(s)United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A
Two years before Stagecoach would inaugurate a new phase of his career that would include many of his richest, most famous works, director John Ford created one of his early classics when he made the extraordinary disaster film The Hurricane (1937). Disaster films weren’t as common then as they became in the 1970s, or in the recent post-Roland Emmerich age of CGI-inflected spectacles, making Ford’s achievement all the more singular and innovative. Just as the disaster films of the 1970s (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, etc.) were responses to post-Vietnam and Watergate anxiety, The Hurricane reflected the unease felt in the wake of The Depression; also like the epics that would follow in later decades, The Hurricane was a groundbreaker in terms of special effects, most of which hold up surprisingly well today.
After an early career as a prolific silent film director, Ford became, in the 1930s, an A-list helmer of a wide variety of prestige projects, of which The Hurricane was one of many. Many of these films have become slightly undervalued in recent years, as the scholarly emphasis has shifted toward the director’s later Westerns and more overtly personal films like The Grapes of Wrath and They Were Expendable, but in fact Ford was never merely a gun for hire – even his glossiest studio assignments expressed his complex, sometimes idiosyncratic world view. The Hurricane is no exception. It tells the story of a pair of native lovers on a Pacific island under French colonial rule who are torn apart by racism and legal bureaucracy after the man is wrongly sent to prison. By the time he escapes and makes his way back to his lover, the disaster of the film’s title arrives to destroy the island entirely, bringing a sort of Biblical vengeance to the martinets who have persecuted the lovers and despoiled the island.
The fourteen-minute hurricane is the film’s main selling point and a spectacular set piece, but the movie is compelling as an interpersonal drama right from the start. Working from a novel by Mutiny on the Bounty authors Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Ford and screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Oliver H.P. Garrett craft a rich ensemble story in which the audience really gets to know the community on the island; by the time the hurricane hits, the storm means something because the filmmakers have taken the time to create a vivid, well rounded cast of characters. Ford deftly juggles scenes involving the young lovers, the upper class prig who runs the island, and a variety of characters from various social strata in between, exploring one of his favorite themes: community and its ability to either come together or break down entirely. The movie also represents an early example of Ford’s sense of aching nostalgia as he documents a culture in transition; time and time again he would return to this notion of a past slipping away before our very eyes, and The Hurricane is as entertaining and moving a manifestation of this idea as any Ford would ever direct.
The cinematography and special effects are extraordinary, and mostly well served by Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray transfer, which beautifully preserves the delicate interplay between light and shadow at which Ford excelled. The one place where the disc goes a little wrong is in trying to replicate the grain structure of the original film; the transfer goes so far in this direction that it loses something in terms of sharpness and clarity in many scenes, where the edges around the characters seem to dissolve into indistinguishable clumps of pixels. On the plus side, the DTS-HD mix is crystal clear and allows the listener to fully appreciate the film’s layered, evocative sound design. The Blu-ray also boasts a supplement that singlehandedly justifies its purchase, an audio commentary by Ford biographer Joseph McBride. McBride, who is not only our greatest writer on Ford but one of our greatest film historians and critics period, provides a dense but accessible crash course in Ford’s key themes and techniques and how they apply to The Hurricane, making this disc an essential purchase for anyone who cares about Ford – which means anyone who cares about cinema in general.
- Jim Hemphill