THE WIND is one of those films that I am always meaning to watch but somehow never do. I see previews for it or spot an upcoming showing on TCM and make a mental note to watch it…and then I don’t. So when The Essentials was showing THE WIND earlier this month I made sure to DVR it and then WATCH it!
Spoiler Warning! This will be an overview of the film and while the ending will NOT be revealed some major plot points will be. If you don’t want to know stop reading and go watch THE WIND, then come back and read!
A young woman, recently impoverished, makes her way by train west from Virginia to meet her cousin. The young woman, named Letty (Lillian Gish), is traveling to live in Sweet Water with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle). While onboard the train she meets a charming cattle rancher called Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) who tells her tales of women being driven mad by the constant and wild winds in the area. Letty pretends to be unfazed by Roddy’s strange way of flirting but the battering gusts and clouds of dust just outside her window make it difficult to completely ignore his words. Once the train arrives in Sweet Water, Letty is met by two men claiming to have been sent my Beverly to retrieve her. The younger man is named Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) while the older is called Sourdough (William Orlamond), and they are Beverly’s nearest neighbors living about fifteen miles outside of Sweet Water. Put off by the less than refined manners of these two men, Letty turns back to Roddy who assures her that he will return soon to check in on her.
As the trio sets out the two men fight like schoolboys over who will sit next to the pretty newcomer. Letty, as a Southern belle, is less than enthused by this and she is becoming more and more disturbed by the wind. Lars assures her that this wind is nothing compared to a “norther” which can tear men apart and send wild horses into a frenzy. Not surprisingly, this does not help Letty’s nerves and neither does the appearance of Sweet Water Ranch. Her cousin Beverly is thrilled to see her and welcome her into the little shack he calls home. His wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) on the other hand is less than pleased, especially when she notices the particular shine Beverly takes to the pretty young thing. Cora spends her days caring for the children and doing much of the work around the ranch as Beverly is not in the best of health. During dinner the men continue to fawn over Letty, much to Cora’s dismay, and Letty continues to be unnerved by the wind.
Frontier life is nothing like Letty has ever experienced before and she is not well prepared for it. She tries her hand at ironing for the family and develops her first set of blisters. Cora is not sympathetic as she is too busy gutting a cow in the living room. Cora can hardly contain her hurt and anger as she watches her own children and husband flock to Letty with open arms, while ignoring or rejecting her altogether. Some time later the town holds a dance and while Cora is busy caring for the entire town’s children, Letty is having a grand time as the belle of the ball. She slips away from Lige and Sourdough, who are continuing their adolescent pursuit of her, when she spots a familiar face. Roddy has returned as promised and he sweeps Letty onto the dance floor.
Lige and Sourdough meanwhile, have found Cora and have each declared to her their intentions to ask Letty to marry them. Unsurprisingly Cora is all for this plan. Roddy is wooing Letty, declaring that he came back just for her, when the warning comes that a tornado has been spotted. Roddy and Letty take shelter below with Cora, the children, and other members of the town, while Lige and Sourdough stay above to brace the doors and windows. Pressed together, Roddy tells Letty that she must come away with him because he loves her. Letty hesitates and Roddy advises her to think it over as he will be in town until the next day. At this point the threat of the tornado has passed and the party continues on. Roddy takes his leave, and this is the moment that Sourdough and Lige decide to pop the question to Letty. Unfortunately for them both, Letty cannot believe that they are serious and just laughs at them. Besides, Letty has the love of a cultured man like Roddy so why would she ever marry a rough person like Lige or Sourdough? When she shares the joke with Cora, she learns that Cora doesn’t see it as funny. She warns Letty that she had better decide which man she will marry because she is no longer welcome at Sweet Water. She knows that something is going on between Letty and Beverly, and she will not let her destroy their family. Beverly overhears this and tries to come to his cousin’s defense but is brought down by a racking cough. Cora rushes to her husband’s side and as the two embrace, Letty decides that she must fend for herself. She tells Cora not to worry, she knows where she can go.
Unfortunately, Roddy is not quite the stand up guy she thought he was. Turns out he actually has a wife so he won’t be marrying Letty any time soon, but if she would like to become is mistress… Letty leaves in disgust and is now forced to tell Cora that her plans have fallen through, Cora stops short of just leaving Letty in town but does tell her that since she has two men who want to marry her, she had better pick one and quick as she will not be spending one more night at Sweet Water Ranch.
Letty and Lige are quickly married and return to his bachelor home, which he happens to share with Sourdough. The place is quite a mess and the wind blows great piles of dust into the home. Lige tries to make Letty feel welcome by offering her a cup of coffee, which she secretively disposes of in the wash basin, and the two share some awkward conversation and even more awkward first kisses as man and wife. Lige leaves to give Letty some privacy and as soon as she is alone, Letty’s demeanor crumbles and her nerves leave her. The wind is driving her up the wall and she is terrified at the prospect of a wedding night with a man she doesn’t love. Lige is pacing in the next room, unsure of how to react to his new wife’s strange and distant behavior. He finally can take no more and returns to Letty, this time trying more forcefully to stir the desires of his new wife. This pushes Letty too far and she tells Lige that while she didn’t want to at first, she now hates him. Lige realizes that Letty did not marry him to be his wife, to work with him, live with him, and love him, but that she married him simply because she had no where else to go. Lige promises Letty that he will never touch her again and as soon as he has enough money saved he will send her away from the wind, the ranch, and from him.
Lige and Letty live their lives in quiet separation. Lige has changed and his formerly boyish advances are replaced by a quiet and stoic man, who cares for Letty as well as any husband ever could while never attempting to make any advances on her. Faced with this new treatment from Lige, Letty begins to soften in her earlier aloofness and starts to see Lige with in a new light. Having been scorned by Roddy, she is touched by a man who treats her with honesty and respect, and one who honors his word.
Speaking of Roddy… One day while Letty waits for Lige to return from one of his mustang round ups, the other men come to the home. They have found an injured man and while Letty is at first fearful that it is Lige who has been hurt, her fear turns to horror when she discovers that it is in fact, Roddy who will now be staying with her and Lige while he recovers. Roddy spends his recovery time begging Letty to come back to Virginia with him, once again playing on her fears of the wind. During one such session, Lige returns just as Roddy appears to be making a move on Letty. Letty is so relieved that she runs to her husband and throws her arms around him. Lige is surprised by this affection but does not return it. He tells Roddy that all the men are gathering to take part in a mustang roundup and that includes formerly injured ones. Roddy heads out as does Lige, but Letty stops him and begs him not to go. Lige tells her he has to, as this is the only way he can get enough money to send Letty away. Then, perhaps emboldened by her display earlier, he takes his chance and kisses her as he has not done since that fateful night. This time Letty does not push him away and as Lige rides off into the wind Letty runs out onto the porch yelling him name, but he does not hear her.
Letty returns to the house where she is tormented by thoughts of Roddy, Lige, and the wind. The entire house begins to shake and her terror grows. Little does she know that Roddy has turned back and is heading right for her with plans of his own.
When you mention THE WIND most people will have some thoughts about the ending. Now, I am not going to get into the discussion about whether or not the frequently related story that there was an original “sad” ending is true or not. If you want to read some of the different arguments and theories regarding this view I will include some links below, just in case you want to learn more. What I would like to talk about is whether or not the ending to THE WIND could still be considered a positive and almost feminist one.
Without revealing the major plot points of the ending, I would say that the ending as it stands now not only makes sense in terms of the story that has been created up to that point, but it also is an ending that is quite powerful for the character of Letty. Up until the end Letty has mostly been driven by her circumstances. She has come to Sweet Water because she has no money, she leaves the ranch and her cousin because Cora wants her out, she marries Lige because she has no where else to go, she becomes involved with Roddy because he is offering to save her from the frontier life. She constantly fears being left alone with the wind and the dust. But at the very end she begins to do things not because she is afraid or has no choice, but because she wants to. She takes matters into her own hands at last and finally conquers her fear of the world around her. For his part Lige does a remarkable thing and simply accepts Letty’s actions and thoughts without questioning them or her. He never accuses her, or disbelieves her, never treats her like a child who doesn’t know her own mind. He accepts her as a woman and an adult who has done what she did for the right reasons. In this way, I think that this ending can be looked on as a very powerful one for Letty. Maybe there is a predisposition to discount the ending of THE WIND as too Hollywood or happy to be worthwhile, but I would tend to disagree. If the ending is true to the story being told and the characters created then it is just as valid an ending as an artistically virtuous one.
This is my first time seeing Lillian Gish and I was, forgive the pun, blown away. The things that she could do with just her eyes are remarkable. She can subtly shift her expressions in ways that portray about twenty-five different emotions in the span of two minutes. In her hands Letty becomes a spoiled southern belle, an anxious young woman trying to adjust to a harder life, a woman frightened and alone in the world, and a new wife married to a man she neither knows nor loves in such a way as to allow the audience to feel everything she feels and sympathize with her. She also does all this in just the first thirty minutes of the movie. Needless to say I will be on the lookout for more Lillian Gish.
Her co-star Lars Hanson also deserves a mention because without his portrayal of Lige, THE WIND would not have the emotional impact that it does. In order for Letty’s emotional distress and eventual decisions to have any meaning there has to be a reason or an anchor for us to root for her to survive. Lige starts the film as a goofy and big-hearted country boy but after being rejected by Letty, the woman he had hoped would love him and stand by him in the rough landscape as a wife, he transforms into a quiet and stoic man. We never feel like Lige stops caring for Letty but rather he respects her enough to stay away from her, something he believes she wants, and work to get her away from Sweet Water and back to where she feels she belongs. He never treats her unkindly and we get to see Lige for the man he truly is, just as Letty does.
The other supporting characters are also well done, with special credit due to Beverly and Cora. Beverly could have easily been a throw away character, almost a plot device, but in his few short scenes we see a man who is weaker than he wants to be in every way. Cora could have become a one-dimensional shrewish wife but Dorothy Cummings shows Cora as a woman who has had to become harder and stronger than she wanted to be simply in response to her situation. We get the sense that at one point she was like Letty, young and delicate, but her marriage to a man of weak constitution (in every sense of the word) has changed her and turned her into the “man of the house”. When Letty threatens that by stealing the affection of her husband and children, can any of us really blame her for wanting to remove that threat?
If you would like to read more about THE WIND you can find a great write-up here. If you would like to read about some different theories regarding the “sad” ending you can read them here and here.