It’s peak Gish as MOMA’s tribute series to Mary Lea Bandy — the late, longtime director of the museum’s film department — gets to Victor Sjöström’s elemental silent classic.
Lillian Gish stars as a Virginia belle uprooted to west Texas, where civilization has just barely fastened itself to the flatland. As you’d expect from the title, the wind howls and punishes all who dare live there; as you’d expect from Gish, the hair, once let free, whips and soars, even as her character, fruitlessly married, edges near madness.
That wind comes from airplane propellers, hauled out to the Mojave for the shoot, and if it all seems a little much, just remember that this is how it feels to Gish’s luckless bride. There’s great hardscrabble beauty, and some marvelous flourishes from Sjöström: Dig that bronco in the sky, a metaphor for that bucking north wind. But for all the twisters and panicking crowds, this is a face-and-character piece built around Gish’s most subtly pained performance and well-observed bursts of naturalistic life: New to town, Gish’s fancy gal plays got-your-nose with a Texas kid, only to get popped in the kisser.
Later, suspicious pioneer wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) guts a steer carcass and then looks annoyed that her kids prefer to hug Gish rather than their grim-faced, bloody-aproned, gore-fingered mother. Between The Wind and King Vidor’s The Crowd, 1928 proved an oddly excellent year for forward-thinking yet already outmoded silent masterpieces pitting luckless everypeople against a life so pitiless it could best be captured in terrifying abstraction.