It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, transformative sense of cinematic self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as invested in film for the sake of film itself.
It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than anyone else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything).
What is new and interesting, then, and today, is Victor Sjostrom’s western-horror The Wind, and so is returning it to the level of major classic it absolutely demands but has seldom been afforded. Surely, many consider it a mostly forgotten minor classic and those who really cut through the hits to fall in love with the album cuts of silent cinema would consider it well worth watching. But seldom has its peculiar blend of raw psychosis, alluring imagery turned primal and combative, and unchained, combustible acting been matched in the annals of cinematic history, silent or otherwise. It is a major work by a major, albeit often forgotten, director at the peak of his form.
That director: the aforementioned Victor Sjostrom, most famous for the hypnotic Swedish horror The Phantom Carriage, who manages to bring his nebulous, foggy overcast to the world of American prestige picture filmmaking almost thoroughly undiluted. Sure, this is not a fable of a superimposed, translucent devil’s caravan off to take a man on the edge of sanity to hell, but it’s much closer than you might imagine (silent American production companies were far more eager at this point in time to explore left-field artistic endeavors than at any time since). The story he chooses to tackle, actually brought to him at the behest of star Lillian Gish and from the mind of Dorothy Scarborough, who wrote the book upon which the film is based, plunges deeply and with ambiguity into the mind of its female protagonist, also played by Gish (in a mesmerizingly blunt and jagged performance stripped of artifice and left out cold on the screen for us, making it no surprise that she faced immense mental difficulty with the role). Perhaps more importantly, Sjostrom’s style of performing an internalized psychoanalysis with an eye for visual horror and the overpowering mojo of location and tumultuous natural forces forms the center of this tale of natural terror.
Sjostrom’s work is also perfectly matched to the core screenplay, which follows a young woman, Letty Mason (Gish) out from an intentionally undisclosed form of hellish reality in Virginia as she escapes to the perilous Wide Open West. When she gets there, she is greeted by a form of instant discomfort masked only by superficial civilized gestures. Holed up in a desert cabin with more than one potential male suitor, she instantly becomes an object of affection, and an object of masculine power-play. As the film progresses and Letty struggles to find her place in the Wild West, she realizes that a life of hard work and Protestant individualism (definitely a pet theme of Sjostrom’s), the very things that make up the dreams of the American Western and American society, is incompatible with the harsh realities of grubby human, and specifically grasping male, desire. And that wind outside doesn’t stop, not for her, and not for anything.
At the beginning of the film, a fellow traveler informs her that many say that women go mad in the lonesome, desperate Western heat and scorching, lashing winds. As the film progresses, it can be easily reduced to this sort of nervy commentary on womankind and their infallible lack of place in the harsh wilds away from civilization. On some level, the film follows this through, for its more radical gestures are somewhat masked and open to interpretation. Yet radical gestures are undeniably present. Sjostrom’s tone is not that of a social treatise on gender, but a crushing fable on the perils of humankind and the impenetrable galls and pulsing protectorate desire of nature itself. Throughout, it is not Letty who doesn’t belong, but humankind altogether. The species is driven to loneliness and madness by the wind, by the lost quality of their cramped, sweaty existence hiding from the raw gruesomeness of nature. Sjostrom films people in compact spaces with an eye for how little distance exists between them, capturing the inhospitable realities of mankind let loose in the ungoverned West and given to asserting their dominance onto women around them. Throughout, they make play with Letty, and when the wind gets to her, it is as much a manifestation of men out to get here as it is her flailing under in wilds. If anything, it is not that women aren’t fit for the West so much as that men, whose anxieties are laid bare in the West, recover their self-worth by demeaning the women around them.
Of course, The Wind is not primarily a commentary on gender. Its ethos is a harrowing indictment of both men and women who think they can best nature and overcome. Sjostrom intentionally grants “nature” a sort of implacable, unfathomable quality of the unknown, positing the wind as not nature’s core but an arm lashing out at humans from a body we can never know. The film was shot on location in the Mojave Desert, but almost every shot is a bottleneck waiting to strangle the characters; almost every scene takes place inside, and Sjostrom frames and stokes the temper of nature by depicting it as his characters see it: a primal question mark, viewed mostly from indoors, guarded off pitifully by windows threatening to break and crumple under its all-knowing potency. The small cabin most of the film takes place in has the air of purgatory, with these characters plucked up by a writer and director and placed here to exemplify society’s woes and ailments. It’s a cruel work that gives us absolutely none of the mythical romanticism we might expect from the wide location shots that extend past the screen. It is a resolutely closed-off film, a work where even the outside shots gesture toward the expansive West only to be thwarted and pushed back by the wind itself, always cutting through the screen and coating it in its mystery.
The net effect is not quite an anti-Western, but it comes shockingly close for one of the cinema’s most famous early films in the genre. The West, as it is depicted here, is anything but a pleasant space where men and women can live unencumbered by society’s whims. It is, instead, a microcosm of society, with humanity’s nastier impulses left unrestrained, prismatically burst open in every direction by the forces of nature. At the end of the film (in a tacked-on happy ending that shouldn’t work and doesn’t add to the film but doesn’t by any means devour it), there is a suggestion that the wind is a moral force, that it is a savior in harsh times. But if so, it delivers its grace like a fierce beast temporarily saving a slice of prey from a cold death only because it had to spare a moment to throttle another would-be predator, so that it could have the prey all to itself later. Even when Sjostrom briefly resorts to his much-loved superimposition, it is to an effect wholly opposite of its usually translucent, elegiac quality. Here, when a ghostly white horse, as if stripped of color by the wind itself, is superimposed over Gish’s face, it’s downright merciless as the beast seems to trample her with each movement. The Wind is not for the faint of heart, but it is absolutely a work of supreme artistry, sublime and luminous, and it feels as impacting now as it did eighty-seven years ago.