The French flag is the symbol of colonialism in this movie. We see it at the beginning and we see it at the end, when it is being ripped to shreds by the hurricane. The movie was released in 1937 and directed by John Ford, who is best remembered for his Westerns and was often interested in themes of racism. The Hurricane is an interesting movie, very much of its times in how it blends a paternalistic attitude of the native people of the South Sea Islands with an attempt to expose the cruelties inherent in colonialism.
The biggest problem with Ford’s view is that the native islanders are portrayed as children that should be treated with the indulgence you would afford children. The other issue often mentioned is Ford’s decision to cast his two lead characters – both Polynesian – with Caucasian actors; however, I feel that the practice of casting white people in various non-white roles is such an old and long lasting problematic practice (it even occurs today) that it is unfair to single out Ford in this instance.
The plot is a bit like Les Miserables meets disaster film. Terangi (Jon Hall) is a popular and free-spirited young man from the island of Manakura. He is first mate on a merchant ship and is engaged to marry the chief’s daughter, Marama (Dorothy Lamour). Everyone loves and admires him, even the governor and his wife. However, on a trip to Tahiti, a white man insults him and tells him to stand in the presence of his betters. Terangi is angry and knocks him out. He is sentenced to prison for six months, despite Manakura’s resident doctor (Thomas Mitchell) appealing to Governor De Laage of Manakura (Raymond Massey) to intervene.
Terangi doesn’t really understand what is going on and he can’t bear to be in prison and away from his new wife and tries to escape. He is caught and his sentence is upped to two years. The guards are cruel, he repeatedly tries to escape and the years pile up on his sentence. After six years of imprisonment, he has accumulated 16 years of prison time.
Meanwhile, his family and friends are bitterly resentful of the governor’s contined refusal to intervene. Governor De Laage says that he must uphold the law, whilst his friend the doctor, his wife (Mary Astor), his priest (C. Aubrey Smith) and Terangi’s captain (Jerome Cowan) maintain that in this instance the law is unjust. Finally, Terangi succeeds in escaping for real and is reunited with Marama and their child. Her family are preparing to help them escape to another island when De Laage begins to get suspicious. However, before anyone can do anything else, a hurricane hits the island.
And I must say that the special effects are truly impressive. There are fifteen minutes, without music and only the church bell ringing, of rain and storm and water while people try to escape. It looks great…and all the better for not being CGI. When the actors were being hit with water and high wind and Mary Astor said in her book, A Life On Film, that the wind and the water hit their faces so hard that they would have little pinpricks of blood all over their faces.
In a way, the hurricane acts as a deus ex machina, but not in any way that anyone could have wished. It solves everything only because it is so terrible an event that the previous concerns no longer matter. The hurricane wipes the slate clean and those who are left must start afresh.
Although the movie was marketed as a romance between Terangi and Marama – and a lot of time is spent with them – the most interesting character is Governor De Laage and one’s enjoyment of the film seems to partly rest with whether or not one can sympathize with or at least handle Raymond Massey’s portrayal of the character. No one can play implacable to the point of harshness quite like Massey.
Andrew Sarris has an interesting view of the film, in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949. He writes that because Terangi and Marama are portrayed as Hollywoodized innocent victims, “the film’s dramatic focus shifts therefore to the Europeans, and particularly to one of the most fascinatingly civilized of all movie couples – Raymond Massey’s Governor De Laage and Mary Astor’s Mrs. De Laage. The Hurricane is ultimately their story as they argue with exquisite delicacy and tact the conflicting claims of the law and the heart.”
In fact, Mrs. De Laage seems to feel, unlike any other character in the movie, that she can appeal to De Laage’s heart. She always approaches him by addressing his heart rather than his reason (the doctor repeatedly appeals to reason without any effect) and he always responds by saying that it is not fair for her to attack him where he is vulnerable, as if the two of them have some secret knowledge that he is actually sentimental at heart even though no one else can tell. We do see it a little, at the beginning and the end, how much he loves his wife, as much as Terangi loves Marama, but he is more reserved about it. Massey and Astor do not have much time together, but it is still an intriguing relationship.
Sarris also argues that De Laage is far more subtle than sometimes supposed, not the cruel sadist and legalist that he is often called. It seems like he has trapped himself. He feels that he must uphold the law, not so much for the sake of the law but because if he does not act in solidarity with his fellow governors and lawmakers, then he is tacitly undermining the very principles of colonialism. If it is an injustice for Terangi to be put in prison for not knowing his place, then what business do the French have ruling over these people if they are not beneath them?
The result, unsurprisingly, of stubbornly and rigidly standing his ground is alienation and what the author of Jane Austen: Game Theorist, Michael Suk-Young Chwe, would call cluelessness. He alienates himself from his friends (the doctor and priest) and from all the people of the island, and one cannot help wondering a little about the state of his marriage (they seem a little tense together). As a result of his refusal to bend, he cuts himself off from everyone and he is the last one to know anything, such as when Terangi finally escapes from prison.
This cluelessness is brought about by a refusal to put oneself in the place of others, which means you cannot understand them, their motives, or what they are capable of doing. By standing firm in keeping Terangi in prison, De Laage shows remarkable cluelessness in not understanding the people he governs. For one, as my sister pointed out, it is a very small island and everyone’s probably related – like one large family – so when Terangi is wrongfully imprisoned, they all take it personally. He is basically trying to apply cold law meant for nations to a family, and it is not clear that the people of Manakura fully understand the whys and wherefores of the laws of the French.
There is a scene at the beginning when De Laage is reprimanding one young man for “stealing” a canoe (to take his sweetheart on a moonlit trip). The doctor argues for clemency because the young man had all the excuse in the world – moonlight – which isn’t the point, I think. What is probably going on is that, if the islanders are all family, they might be used to borrowing and sharing their possessions. A family member borrowing my car, even without my permission, is not the same as somebody I don’t know in a large city, taking a joyride. In this instance, De Laage is attempting to apply European laws to a situation that does not merit them. It is the inherent cluelessness of colonialism.
The doctor is an interesting character, because I think we are meant to agree with him, though I rarely wanted to. He is perpetually drinking and loves the island and never wants to go back to Paris. He is also one of the loudest voices against De Laage’s actions, or inaction. However, it is through him that we get most of the paternalistic arguments about how the people of Manakura are like children and need to be free like a bird. It is he who repeatedly makes bad arguments for good causes and although he gets along well with the native people of the island, he doesn’t seem to understand them better than De Laage. One can’t help but wonder what his past is and how much of his statements have to do with wish fulfillment, especially regarding being free like birds.
Ironically, all of these arguments, disagreements, suffering and misunderstandings go for naught. The hurricane hits and it essentially puts those who survive back at square one. In a way, it highlights the futility of human interactions in the face of nature. Nothing matters once an act of God occurs but survival; everything else seems petty. It’s like the flood of Noah in how it wipes away all else.