Hurricane, The (1937) - full review!
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by John Ford, this James Norman Hall/Charles Nordhoff novel was adapted by Oliver H.P. Garrett and features a screenplay by Dudley Nichols that was rewritten by Ben Hecht (though he didn't receive a screen credit). One of the early disaster movies, following San Francisco (1936), it still preceded Oscar's Special Effects category by a couple of years. It did win Thomas Moulton an Academy Award for Best Sound, Recording and its Score earned Alfred Newman his first nomination (though he'd concurrently received a nomination for his The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) Score). The titled event, which occurs more than 75 minutes into the drama and lasts for approximately 15 minutes, is pretty spectacular, giving one a pretty good idea of what it would be like to experience the high winds and storm surge that up until recently, because of 24 hour cable news, was unimaginable.
The melodrama itself is rather average, and even provides a mild indictment against the rule of law. On the other hand, one could think of "the hurricane" as an act of God against the story's sinners. From the beginning, we know that the fictional island of Manukura (or Manakoora, as the song became known), said to be 600 miles from Tahiti, will be devastated - Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell, who earned his first Academy recognition with a Best Supporting Actor nomination) tells a fellow cruise ship passenger (Inez Courtney) that the strip of sand before them was once a vibrant island. In flashback, we learn the story before the storm.
Raymond Massey plays the island's French Governor Eugene De Laage, a caricature of unyielding principles who believes justice must be meted out at all costs, regardless of the circumstances. As stern as he is paranoid (which conjures up Humphrey Bogart's performance in The Caine Mutiny (1954)), he provides a vivid contrast to the "live and let live" islanders whose native ways are supported by everyone else including his wife (Mary Astor), his drinking doctor (Mitchell), and especially the moral relativist priest Father Paul, played by C. Aubrey Smith. Top billed are relative unknowns, Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall (born Charles Locher), whose characters’ (Marama & Terangi, respectively) love story forms the basis of the non-disaster part of the plot. John Carradine plays a typically sadistic prison warden and Jerome Cowan plays an ethically challenged boat captain, Nagle. Al Kikume plays the natives’ island Chief, Mehevi.
After a short scene which helps to establish the Governor's, the doctor's, and the Chief's punishment philosophies, the flashback features Nagle’s ship coming into port, guided through the reefs by Terangi, a popular native who represents the island's free (as a bird) spirit. It's his wedding day, and after Father Paul performs a Christian service to marry Terangi & Marama, the two proceed to Mehevi, who performs the native ceremony. The whole island celebrates, but the newlyweds’ time together is short-lived, Captain Nagle must set sail for Tahiti and the boat doesn't go anywhere without its navigator. On Tahiti, Terangi gets in a fight with a white man (William Davidson), whose nose Terangi breaks. Because of this, the Judge (Spencer Charters) sentences him to 6 months. Naturally, Nagle protests that this is unfair, that Terangi had been provoked, but the Judge promises to allow the native to work outside and that the time will pass quickly. Seeing his ship sailing without him, however, prompts Terangi to attempt to escape, to swim to the ship. But Nagle doesn't see him and Carradine’s character, who had whipped him earlier, recaptures him. Attempting to escape adds a year to Terangi’s sentence and further attempts add more time until it totals 16 years.
Of course, everyone on Manukura, save Governor De Laage, feels this is unfair. They urge the Governor to intervene on Terangi’s behalf, have him transferred to their island (anything!), but he refuses. Eventually, Carradine’s character becomes the warden and Terangi fakes suicide to escape yet again. This time he's successful, but he kills a guard (with one punch) by accident in the process, so he's a murderer. Miraculously, Terangi is able to make it 600 miles across the open ocean to Manukura to be reunited with Marama and their (6 year old?, wedding night conceived?) daughter. Actually, Father Paul, who'd been fishing offshore, helped Terangi make it the last ten miles in his canoe. De Laage accurately suspects per the natives’ celebrations that Terangi is back on his island ... right about the time the storm winds start blowing in.
*** SPOILERS ***
De Laage goes out with Nagle (on his boat) to find Terangi. Dr. Kersaint has to deliver a baby, Marama’s sister's, and actually goes out into the storm on a canoe with her and some others. De Laage’s wife goes to the church with most of the others to be with Father Paul, who's decided to sing (until the end), like on the Titanic. Terangi lashes his wife and child up in the biggest tree he can find, and then goes to the church (with a rope tied to the tree) to get others to join them. De Laage’s wife is the only one that makes it. The storm destroys everything! Afterwards, Dr. Kersaint finds himself washed up on the sandbar that is left. The baby was born successfully. De Laage and Nagle are seen on his battered boat; they rendezvous with the doctor but decide to go out looking for other survivors. Terangi, his wife, child, and De Laage’s wife survived on the tree; they find a canoe and make their way to another sandbar. Terangi sees Nagle’s boat coming and decides to leave with his family in the canoe, but starts a smokescreen so that De Laage can find his wife. When De Laage arrives, he embraces her, and then sees the canoe in the distance, seeing clearly (with his binoculars) what it is (e.g. Terangi escaping with his family), but agrees with his wife's pleading conjecture that it's just a log.