Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. USA, 1937. The Samuel Goldwyn Company. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, adaptation by Oliver H.P. Garrett, based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall. Cinematography by Bert Glennon. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Music by Alfred Newman. Production Design by Richard Day. Costume Design by Omar Kiam. Film Editing by Lloyd Nosler. Academy Awards 1937.
This excellent John Ford films combines exotic adventure with powerful drama, set on a south sea island governed by French colonial rule under the iron fist of its governor (Raymond Massey). A native of the island, Terangi (Jon Hall) has done well as first mate on a British ship and has come home to visit his girlfriend (Dorothy Lamour), then after marrying her goes to Tahiti with his crew where he gets into a bar fight with a racist patron. Despite having been provoked into the scuffle, Terangi is sentenced to months of jail time, which get extended when he tries to escape and, with his constantly trying to break out of prison, keeps having his sentenced lengthened even more. Massey’s colleagues beg him to see through the letter of the law and understand that, as the most popular man on the island, how Terangi is treated by the French will affect their peaceful future there; Mary Astor lends terrific support as his wife who sees that his blind adherence to legal precedent will estrange him from the will of the people he governs, while Thomas Mitchell hits paydirt as the drunken doctor (the actor’s wheelhouse, one must admit) who advocates wisdom over propriety. All conversations about what is right and wrong are eventually undone by the tempest of the title, an impressive closing sequence to the film that takes up its final act and is memorable for the exceptional special effects that truly convince you that this Hollywood backlot is a tropical island being torn apart by gale-force winds. Movies of this era set in faraway places are without a doubt problematic for today’s viewers, like many of its time this one features a host of white actors playing people of colour (even Hall, whose mother was Tahitian, seems too European for the role); that said, it’s interesting that it also features a dark and critical view of colonialism, one that is abandoned completely in the terrible Jan Troell remake of 1979, which despite being more culturally authentic in effort is actually less astute.