Victor Sjostrom is probably best remembered today for his starring role as professor Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s classic Wild Strawberries. However, Sjostrom — or Seastrom, as he was rechristened by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for American consumption — was also a powerful filmmaking pioneer whose directing (and acting) career dates back to 1912 in his native Sweden.
Sjostrom’s work, especially The Phantom Carriage, ensured that he would eventually be invited to Hollywood. Once in Tinseltown, he would helm several fine films, including the first-ever MGM release, He Who Gets Slapped, which ranks as perhaps the finest film Lon Chaney Sr. ever made (even outdistancing the star’s work with the legendary Tod Browning). Unfortunately, a second such collaboration, The Tower of Lies, has been “lost,” while only one tantalizing reel of Sjostrom’s only movie with Greta Garbo, The Divine Woman, is known to exist, and another of his MGM works, Confessions of a Queen, also seems to be lost.
However, Sjostrom’s final silent film and penultimate U.S. production is, happily, still with us. Though The Wind is marred by a forced happy — or at least, hopeful — ending, it nonetheless remains a masterpiece, one of the finest of all silent movies.
In fairness, The Wind wouldn’t be without a few troublesome spots even were its original ending restored. Too many narrative points are slightly perplexing. We’re never told, for example, just why Letty (Lillian Gish) travels from Virginia to the most singularly grim part of Texas, where the titular wind blows nonstop — except during moments where the folks are besieged by cyclones, or a really nasty air current called a “norther.” For that matter, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would live in this part of the world.
Yet these are not the details that interest Sjostrom, who’s more concerned with civilization’s intrusion into the natural world — something he illustrates from the onset with the image of the train making its way through a blinding sandstorm as it brings Letty westward toward her new life. Letty is totally unprepared for the harsh world that awaits her, even though she puts a brave face on things when an apparently friendly traveling salesman (Montague Love) warns her that the wind has been known to drive people — especially women — mad.
This is ultimately the crux of Sjostrom’s film, his second with Gish: Letty’s mental disintegration brought on by the merciless wind. What begins as mere fancies — envisioning the Indians’ belief of a ghost horse in the sky, for instance — slowly turn into ever-more-disturbing imaginings. In this regard, The Wind might almost be classed as a horror picture. Yet it’s much more than that; it’s a finely drawn character study incorporating some of the most accomplished filmmaking in any film from any era — just check out the scene between Letty and her new (and unwanted) husband, Lige (Lars Hanson) on their wedding night.
While the happy ending blunts the film’s power — The Wind was originally to have concluded with the insane Letty wandering off into the sandstorm, to her death — it’s not quite the sell-out it might have been (the film has taken pains to suggest that Letty is growing ever more fond of the originally despised Lige). A singular and amazing work in any form, The Wind is a true cinematic classic.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Cinema in the Park presents The Wind on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2004 at dark (about 8:30 p.m.) in Pritchard Park. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Aaron Price and River Guerguerian.]