The spectacular Technicolor epic “Reap the Wild Wind,” released by Paramount Pictures in 1942, seems like a cross between a pirate movie and “Gone With the Wind.” It also adds an extended courtroom scene and an underwater special effects battle with a giant squid, while balancing a love triangle among Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard) and serious suitors Captain Jack Stewart (John Wayne) and lawyer Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland). The film comes across as a high-production combination of genre elements put together in great style by director Cecil B. DeMille.
In 1840’s Key West, Florida, entrepreneurs could earn great profits in the marine salvage business. Always on the lookout for ships floundering in storms, companies in competition with each other rushed to scuttled ships to help unload cargo. For that, they received a percentage of whatever the ship carried. Reap the Wild Wind opens as Captain Jack Stewart’s ship slams into massive rocks near the shore. Loxi, seeing the wreck from her balcony onshore, rushes with her team to salvage the cargo, but the gangsterish King Cutler (Raymond Massey) arrives first with his henchmen and claims 50% of the salvage. It already appears one of Cutler’s men, working as a mate on Captain Stewart’s ship, caused the wreck, but Loxi can’t prove it.
Loxi nurses the injured Captain Stewart back to health, and in the process, the couple fall in love. But the shipping mishap puts Stewart’s future in doubt. Loxi compulsively goes to Charleston, South Carolina, to meet the ship’s owners and plead Stewart’s case for a new appointment. This is the “Gone With the Wind” part of the film, as we see proper southerners engaging in their usual pastimes, such as throwing fancy balls. Loxi meets Steven Tolliver, the son of the shipping owner, who falls madly in love her. She plays along but only to help advance Captain Stewart’s position.
As in any triangle love story, a massive amount of confusion ensues that clouds the motivations of the romantic leads. Loxi remains intelligent and decisive, but she seems to misunderstand things at the most critical moments. Massey’s King Cutler turns out to be a very nasty villain, with a desperate need for comeuppance. But all the rigamarole surrounding the love triangle puts revenge or redemption in serious jeopardy.
A considerable amount of comic relief comes in the form of Louise Beavers, who plays Maum Maria, a slave working as a maid in Loxi’s house. In scene after scene, she warns Loxi to keep out of trouble, but that advice is never heeded. The rest of the supporting cast impresses as well, including Susan Hayward as Loxi’s love-struck cousin Drusilla Alston and Robert Preston as King Cutler’s brother Dan. I should also mention the giant animated squid that menaces the male leads at the climax of the film. The film won the Academy Award for “Best Visual Effects,” and even though the squid model may seem hokey by today’s standards, I think the squid scenes provide good dramatic tension.