Friday, March 13, 2015

The Dangerous Embrace of Tentacles

"It's more than a ship. It's home. It's a world. A breathing thing. Nothing holds it back. The wind takes it and carries it for ten thousand miles and in those miles you're free . . . You run before the wind, you never want to stop." So Captain Ralls tells the woman he loves in 1948's Wake of the Red Witch and while it sounds lovely the film explores the kind of madness that might overtake one for such a feeling of freedom. An exciting adventure film with a satisfyingly morally grey John Wayne at the lead, this film of thwarted love and greed is captivating.

It bears a peculiar number of similarities to 1942's Reap the Wild Wind. Both take place in the first half of the nineteenth century, both star John Wayne as a ship's captain involved in a love triangle and a tangle of doubles crosses in business, and both feature some rather effective giant cephalopods, a squid in the 1942 film and an octopus in the 1948 film.

I had a hard time getting bad screenshots of Wayne fighting the beast. Each one I took seemed to come out as an interesting configuration of tentacles and struggling John Wayne.

Despite the fact that Reap the Wild Wind has a much better supporting cast and was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Wake of the Red Witch, directed by the not particularly illustrious Edward Ludwig, is a much better film. Partly because it lacks the displays of misogyny and racism (see my review for Reap the Wild Wind) but mostly because Wake of the Red Witch is a more complex and poetic story.

The film begins on deck of the Red Witch, a ship hauling an enormous cargo of gold bullion commanded by Ralls (Wayne) who we see coolly watching one of his men being flogged as a disciplinary measure.

This shocks a new crewman named Rosen (Gig Young) but he soon comes to Ralls' side when he's offered position of first mate. Yet, for most of the film Rosen is a figure of plain, dull virtue in contrast to Ralls' willingness to break rules and ethics.

Ralls has a strange relationship with the owner of the shipping company, Sidneye (Luther Adler), who intensely hates Ralls even as the two men have a respect for each other as fellow wolves. Both, we learn through a long flashback story, were in love with Angelique (Gail Russell).

Told largely through the point of view of Rosen as he struggles to understand the world of the two enemies, we come to see a reality shaped by a desperate thirst for dominance as a key to freedom. A kind of thirst that sees no alternative between death and complete impunity. I love the fact that the ship is called Red Witch, a name that implies violence and magic and, as the title suggests, most of the film takes place after she's sunk, a nice association between lust and death.

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