Reap the Wild Wind (1942): DeMille’s Spectacle Adventure, Starring John Wayne, Ray Milland, Paulette Godard, Susan Hayward

Paramount

Cecil B. DeMille’s historical spectacle, “Reap the Wild Wind,” was the biggest and most expensive undertaking of John Wayne to date, even if he didn’t play the male lead.

In fact, Wayne received second billing, beneath Ray Milland, who was a bigger name at the time. Ditto for the two women: Susan Hayward’s name was placed below Paulette Godard’s. However, when the film was reissued in the 1950s, Wayne and Hayward, then at the height of their careers, were placed above the title, reflecting the vicissitudes of the film industry.

Wayne plays Captain Jack Stuart, a lusty, flawed type of hero, a man who needs to amend for his weaknesses (usually in the last reel through death). A skillful captain of the Devereaux line, Stuart commands the “Jubilee” in the 1840s era, just before the introduction of steam technology.

Stuart falls prey to a band of pirates off Key West, when his mate knocks him unconscious and drives the ship onto rocks during a hurricane. Led by King Cutler (Raymond Massey), the wreckers seize the cargo, while another salvage ship, run by Loxi (Paulette Godard), a lusty, tempestuous woman, and Philpott (Lynne Overman), arrives in time to save Stuart and his crew.

Predictably, nursing Stuart back to life, Loxi falls for him. Upon learning that he might lose the captain’s position of the new steamship “The Southern Cross,” due to his responsibility for the wreckage of the “Jubilee,” Loxi decided to help him. She treats the company’s lawyer Steve Tolliver (Ray Milland) with contempt, making it clear that she regards Stuart as the “real man” for the job.

Also predictably, Tolliver falls for Loxi, but doesn’t allow personal emotions to taint his “objective” judgment. He volunteers to go to the Florida Keys and find evidence to convict Cutler, taking with him the papers that appoint Stuart as captain.

Meanwhile, Stuart’s morale goes down by his reduction to mate of another ship. His attempt to marry Loxi is thwarted by Tolliver, which creates more tension between the two men. Stuart then finds out that Tolliver is about to be the victim of a fraud and
volunteers to help only to misunderstand the presence of the papers under Tolliver’s control; Stuart thinks that Tolliver deliberately withheld them.

When Tolliver offers no explanation, Stuart takes a sock at him and then challenges Cutler to a fight, mano a mano. Cutler’s response is welcoming: “I’ve been looking for a long time for a man who’s exactly your size of fool.” Playing on Stuart’s sense of macho pride, he discloses that Tolliver has been appointed the new head of the company, and predicts a life of poverty for him and Loxi should she marry him.

Angry and offended, Stuart heads off with “The Southern Cross,” only to be chased by Tolliver in Loxi’s vessel. Loxi then disables the ship, and they all watch “The Southern Cross” goes down.

Stuart is placed on trial, with Cutler as his defense lawyer, claiming that bad seamanship rather than sabotage caused the wreck. Order is further disrupted, when it’s revealed that there was a stowaway on board, Drusilla Alson (Susan Hayward), the girlfriend of Cutler’s younger brother Dan (Robert Preston). Now missing, Stuart volunteers to go down with Tolliver into the wreck and find Drusilla. Drusilla’s body adds murder to the list of charges.

This is, after all, a typical DeMille saga, so the plot continues to pile up details. While underwater, a giant squid attacks the men and takes hold of Tolliver. Faced with a dilemma to desert Tolliver (and the evidence against him) and save his own life or rescue Tolliver and add charges to his case, Stuart acts by his inner conscience, and loses his own life in the creature’s clutches

Tolliver delivers the final tribute for Stuart with the following words: “He could have got away. He stayed down to save my life. It cost him his own.” As I pointed elsewhere, this is one of the few movies in which Wayne’s character dies on screen.

In 1942, Wayne was at his most dashing, cutting a romantic figure that would disappear in the 1950s. His courtship scenes with Loxi, despite the dialogue, are delivered with sincerity. Says Stuart: “Nights on watch I’ll see you like this, Loxi, with your hair catching fire in the sunset and that look in your eyes, ten fathoms deep. You’re in my blood, Loxi, same as the sea.”

The egotistical DeMille was not known as an actors director, and yet all the performances in this picture are good. Wayne cuts a dashing, romantic figure, seldom seen in other films, caressing the spunky Loxi with his words–and with his distinctively husky voice.

If you like Wayne’s type of hero and this kind of picture, you may also like: George Raft in “Spawn of the North,” Robert Preston in “Whispering Smith,” and Fred MacMurray in “Men With Wings.”

Oscar Nomination: 3

Cinematography (color): Victor Milner and William V. Skall
Interior Decoration (color): Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson, art direction; George Sawley, set decoration
Special Effects: Farciot Edouart, Gordon Jennings, and William L. Pereira, visuals; Louis Mesenkoo, sound

Oscar Awards: 1

Special Effects

Oscar Context:

In 1942, the Cinematography Oscar went to Leon Shamroy for “The Black Swan,” and the Interior Decoration to “My Gal Sal.”