Review: Cecil B. DeMille’s “Reap the Wild Wind,” Starring Paulette Goddard and John Wayne

Ray Milland, Lynne Overman, Paulette Goddard, and John Wayne in
Ray Milland, Lynne Overman, Paulette Goddard, and John Wayne in "Reap the Wild Wind"

For his second film in Technicolor, Cecil B. DeMille turned to the sea with Reap the Wild Wind. His mid-nineteenth century tale of shipwreckers on the coast of Florida features everything the director was known for—lavish sets, miscast actors, overly broad comedy, and expensive set pieces—all part of a film that runs at least half an hour too long.

In 1840, Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard) rescues Captain Jack Stuart (John Wayne) from his sinking ship in the Florida Keys. Stuart’s ship was sabotaged by the greedy and ruthless King Cutler (Raymond Massey), Claiborne’s main competitor, who values a vessel’s cargo over the lives onboard. She nurses Jack back to health, and they fall in love, but Stuart’s shipping company accuses him of gross negligence for the wreck. The company sends Stephen Tolliver (Ray Milland) to find proof of the wreck’s cause, and Claiborne ends up in a love triangle between Tolliver and Stuart, all while Cutler plots against the lot of them.

Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland in "Reap the Wild Wind"
Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland in “Reap the Wild Wind”

The leading men are the film’s main issue—DeMille should have recast or rewritten the roles—maybe both. Stuart is presented first in the narrative, and as the obvious right choice for Claiborne. Charming, modest, and hardworking, they are a good match, while she instantly clashes with Tolliver, a dull society man. It should not even be a contest—who would really ever pick Ray Milland over John Wayne, anyway?—but the film devotes much of its runtime to the drama surrounding these two romances, forcing the idea that Claiborne would warm up to Tolliver somehow (it surely doesn’t help that Goddard and Milland had just appeared together in the dud The Lady Has Plans).

“At spectacle [DeMille] was the master,” Milland explained in his autobiography. “But he didn’t know a damned thing about acting.”1 Milland and Wayne both got along well with DeMille, but Goddard suffered at the tyrannical director’s hand. “After North West Mounted Police, Mr. DeMille swore he’d never have me in a picture again,” the actress later said. “Then he asked for me in Reap the Wild Wind—and we went through the same thing.” Infamously, the director and actress would argue all day on set, where DeMille seemed to purposefully torment her. “DeMille actually used to invite people to come and watch him ‘direct Paulette Goddard,’” she said.2 Goddard outshines her love interests—of the three leads, she fit her part best—but even she struggled with some ludicrous character decisions and contrived dialogue. Other featured players include Robert Preston, Lynne Overman, and famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, her last screen appearance as a character other than herself. But the only one in the cast who really works is Massey, who is a lot of fun as the cigar-chomping villain.

Raymond Massey in "Reap the Wild Wind"
Raymond Massey in “Reap the Wild Wind”

The casting and writing are lacking, but even the spectacle of the film is underwhelming. DeMille’s name is synonymous with the grand displays of The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra, but Reap the Wild Wind is surprisingly underwhelming in its set pieces. The film’s multiple shipwrecks feel embarrassingly small-scale, and a good part of its back half was spent on stale courtroom scenes. DeMille seemed to anticipate this, reportedly going to his writers during production to say, “I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept asking myself what we can offer to match the train wreck in Union Pacific. The opening of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. Because until we’ve got that, gentlemen, we just haven’t got a moving picture.” Writer Charles Bennett came up with the idea for the climax that finally won DeMille over. “The first instant that the divers start to [fight], suddenly you see behind them—rising out of the belly of the dead ship, one great, long red tentacle—and then another,” Bennett told DeMille. “Then, faster than a striking cobra, it sweeps around the body of one of the men. It is—a giant squid! The largest monster of the deep, full of malevolent intelligence. The enemies become allies against this ink—throwing behemoth, this leviathan with glazed yellow eyes and tentacles thick as pine trees!” Stunned, DeMille finally muttered, “Wonderful. And in Technicolor.”3

The giant squid sequence remains the film’s one memorable moment, which isn’t especially convincing, but is admirable in its audacity. The visual effects team, Farcoit Edouard, Gordon Jennings, and William L. Pereira, built the fourteen-foot mechanical squid and operated it above water while DeMille, outfitted in a diving suit that included a special telephone system, directed from below. As a present to himself, DeMille scheduled the sequence to shoot on his birthday, August 12.

It’s unfortunate that DeMille couldn’t include the squid for longer than five minutes, because the other two hours of Reap the Wild Wind are a stale bore. At times the film plays like a parody with its cliched writing: to establish who the audience should root for, DeMille shows our villain toss a poor monkey in the water, having our hero immediately scoop him out. The sets, costumes, and actors all look gorgeous in Technicolor, but DeMille should have known that he would need more to sustain Reap the Wild Wind.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on Amazon

For More on Reap the Wild Wind

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Re-release Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Ray Milland, Wide-Eyed In Babylon (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), 197.
2. Cecilia DeMille Presley and Mark A. Vieira, Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2014), 309.
3. Presley 2014, 307-308.