‘It was a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine,’ said one critic of the spectacular 15 minute storm sequence conjured up by the great John Ford in his 1937 film, The Hurricane. The story of how an unfeeling French colonial regime persecuted a free-spirited native man, it won the Oscar for best sound.
But Ford’s storm sequence was a mere taster for the genre where storms would really come into their own – the disaster movie. The special effects teams for Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow had to conjure up hailstones like grapefruit to fell people in Tokyo, a snowstorm in Delhi, tornados to fling cars around in LA, a rainstorm that floods New York City, and so on.
My new book, Storm: Nature and Culture (Reaktion) tells the story of the role played by storms in the movies, as well as examining their place in art, literature, religion and history.
In films, they are often a device for transporting the characters from a normal life to a new, often threatening world. So, in The Wizard of Oz, it is a tornado that whirls Judy Garland’s character up from her Kansas home into the company of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and a wicked witch.
More recently, in Life of Pi, the hero starts a bit less conventionally – sailing from India to Canada with a zoo-full of animals, but things get really extraordinary when a storm sinks the ship and he finds himself in a lifeboat with only a hungry tiger for company.
Another plot function is confinement. In John Huston’s classic thriller Key Largo, a hurricane keeps an increasingly edgy gangster, played by Edward G. Robinson, cooped up in a small hotel with his gang, his alcoholic girlfriend, and the hero, Humphrey Bogart. The tension builds relentlessly until Robinson gets his comeuppance.
The Day After Tomorrow tried to hammer home an environmental message in a way some found crass, but just because a film is packed with special effects does not mean it cannot tell an affecting human story.
In The Perfect Storm, a fishing boat perishes in a long and genuinely scary tempest sequence, but the characters of the captain (played by George Clooney) and his crew are well drawn, and there is an affecting ending when another skipper says the men who died lie in a vast unmarked grave, with no headstones and nowhere to lay flowers, and that their loved ones can visit them only in their hearts and their dreams.