John Wayne Vs. The Octopus: A Reap The Wild Wind Review

by Rachel Bellwoar

From the director of The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind is Gone with The Wind if it took place on the ocean. Under normal circumstances, Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard, Modern Times) would never be allowed to run her father’s salvaging business but her father’s dead, and her mother (while distressed by the situation) is no match for her determined daughter. Tossing her petticoat on the stairs on her way out the door, Loxi isn’t just in charge of the business but an active participant and when she spots a shipwreck through her telescope, there’s no rain that can stop her from sailing to check it out.

Loxi’s motives aren’t completely benevolent. There’s a lot about salvaging that could be misconstrued for piracy (benefiting off the misfortune of others — the wind, as the title puts it — by salvaging the cargo of wrecked ships and then charging them for the service). Ensuring the crew gets rescued is part of the job, too, but for salvagers like King Cutler (Raymond Massey, Arsenic and Old Lace) and his brother, Dan (Robert Preston, The Music Man), if the crew dies, they can keep all the cargo for themselves. That’s where the profit comes from and it’s suspected that they may have arranged some of the shipwrecks on purpose.
It’s during the latest wreck that Loxi meets Captain Stuart (John Wayne, Rio Bravo) and after talking to Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland, The Big Clock) on his behalf (Tolliver being the heir to the shipping line Stuart works for) a love triangle is born. Unlike most triangles, though, Loxi has a preference from the start and while it’s a major part of the story, anyone watching the film for the high seas adventures won’t feel short changed. Stuart and Tolliver aren’t like Ross Poldark and George Warleggan (romantic rivals on the TV show, Poldark). They’re not beyond reason, and one of their episodes is certain to appeal to fans of Image Comics’ Shanghai Red.
Set in the Antebellum South, Reap the Wild Wind has both the dresses and racial stereotypes of the period. John Wayne doesn’t flinch when at one point he’s approached to command a slave ship. This is also before Wayne’s star status was cemented, so Milland gets the chance to knock him out (which would’ve never happened later on and is quite the upset if you’re used to Wayne being untouchable). Having a name doesn’t protect you in this movie but it does get you top billing, with both Wayne and Susan Haywood (I Want to Live) listed before Milland and Goddard on the poster (Hayward plays Loxi’s cousin, Drusilla, and while her part is a lot smaller than Goddard’s, she does make every facial expression count).
The fear with a movie like this is that Loxi’s wildness will become a personality trait to be tamed, but that doesn’t happen so much here. Also, is rich people talking through their dogs a thing? Not to reference Poldark again but I thought that was just something Caroline Penvenen did on the show (“Horace thinks,” when she’s actually talking about herself), but Tolliver has a whole ventriloquism act going on with his pooch (except Tolliver tries to sell the ventriloquism and Penvenen only uses it as a pretense).
With a grand finale involving Wayne and Milland going up against an octopus, Reap the Wild Wind more than fills out its two hour and three-minute runtime, and is available on Blu-Ray starting September 10th from Kino Lorber.

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