- The War, The West and the Wilderness
- By Kevin Brownlow – 1979
- Alfred A. Knopf – New York
- Manufactured in the United States of America – First Edition
The wretched conditions of sand, wind, and drought that characterized the Sundown location were brilliantly evoked in bleak, Scandinavian style by Victor Seastrom in MGM’s The Wind (1927, released 1928). Although more of a psychological than a realistic study, and more impressionistic than documentary in its treatment, The Wind is filled with remarkably expressive detail. For an utterly unromantic view of life on the desert, this film is unequaled.
Lillian Gish plays a delicate Virginia girl who comes to live with her cousin and finds the life intolerable. The wind howls symbolically around the tiny shack, until nerve ends are stretched to the breaking point. Even the children, usually a sentimental high point of a silent film, are treated abrasively; Lillian Gish makes a friendly, playful gesture to her cousin s small child, and receives a slap across the face. The cowboys are equally unromantic, and expectorate on the floor Lillian struggles to keep clean. She braces herself to finding sand in the bread, sand in the water, sand in her bed. She eventually has to wash the dishes with sand. The carcass of a steer hangs in the center of the room, and her cousin’s wife, already jealous of Lillian’s presence, slices unmentionable sections of its interior while Lillian holds back her repulsion.
Her affection for her cousin causes an outburst from the wife, and Lillian is faced with an ultimatum. Two men have asked her hand in marriage: choose one. With breathtaking economy, Seastrom bridges the next shattering events in her life with a series of dissolves: close-up of the ring being placed on her finger … a bowl piled with unwashed crockery … a heap of food waiting to be prepared . and a stunned Lillian, in her wedding outfit. The performance of Lillian Gish is beyond praise, and only the ending prevents The Wind from being a totally satisfying masterpiece. The picture originally ended with Lillian Gish wandering into the desert, insane, after killing a rancher. Eight exhibitors, reported Irving Thalberg, refused to run the picture with that ending, and a new sequence had to be shot showing her acceptance of her life. “It broke our hearts,” said Lillian Gish.
Though the interiors were shot at the MGM studios, Seastrom took the company to the Mojave Desert for exteriors. Katherine Albert, reporting for Motion Picture Magazine, followed them out there, and quickly regretted it. She had to drive one hundred fifteen miles to the town of Mojave, where the company made their headquarters at the country hotel. “To reach the location, one had to drive over awful dirt roads into the sweltering heat-the thermometer was never lower than one hundred and fifteen degrees all the time the company was on location-into the blinding sun, the bleak, barren waste that is the Mojave Desert. That anyone could be active in that scorching heat is almost inconceivable. Yet there were cameras, generators and other studio equipment planted in the broad expanse of wasteland. . . . There were the usual number of workers, all wearing high boots in case they encountered rattlesnakes, and most of them had whitish looking stuff smeared over their faces to keep off sunburn. Goggles, making them look like men from Mars, were worn to protect their eyes from sand.
But there was Lillian Gish in little, low-heeled slippers, hatless and without any protection for her eyes. As I drove up, I heard a frightful noise and in a second the scene was clouded by enormous drifts of sand. The noise came from the giant machines used to create wind. The nine propellers seemed to lift the desert and blow it before the cameras.
It is, without doubt, the most unpleasant picture I have ever made,’ said Lillian Gish. I mean by that, the most uncomfortable to do. I don’t mind the heat so much, but working before the wind machines all the time is nerve-wracking. You see, it blows the sand, and we’ve put sawdust down too, because that is light and sails along in the air, and then there are smoke-pots to make it all look even more dusty. I ve been fortunate. The flying cinders haven’t gotten into my eyes, although a few have burned my hands.’
“I Ieft Miss Gish burying the man she had murdered’ in the sand. I have never been happier to leave anywhere.”***
*** I left Miss Gish burying the man she had “murdered” in the sand. The wind kept blowing the sand away. She covered him over again and again. I have never been happier to leave anywhere. (A Picture That Was No Picnic – Motion Picture Magazine, 1927 – Lillian Gish has something to say about the location tortures accompanying the filming of “The Wind” by Katherine Albert from Motion Picture Magazine, October, 1927)
The Wind – Behind the scenes