Friday, October 16, 2009

The Wind Cannot Read

Did I say I was running out of material with 'The Mind Benders'?

Scratch that.

'The Mind Benders' is freakin' 'Rashomon' compared to 'The Wind Cannot Read'.

Directed by - it's that man again! - Ralph Thomas from a novel by Richard Mason, 'The Wind Cannot Read' is the kind of they-don't-make-'em-like-that-anymore melodrama that perfectly demonstrates why they don't make 'em like that anymore.

The title is from a Japanese poem which states:



A decent metaphor for a narrative about transience, uncertainty and those twists of fate which blow us off course and against which it is as futile to struggle as a rose petal against the wind.

And if you think my emphasis of the title is heavy-handed, wait till you see how Thomas gets stuck into it. He structures the opening sequence - which, to be fair, contains some effectively grim imagery of emasculated survivors, the bones of the not-so-lucky and the dark shapes of the vultures who have picked them clean - around the retreat from Burma, RAF pilot Michael Quinn (Dirk Bogarde) and two of his fellow airmen almost at death's door by the time they make it to safety. They stumble upon a beautifully cultivated garden with - yep - a sign urging them not to pick the flowers. Thomas slaps the poem over this image, then follows it up with the title in letters so big and garish they fill the entire screen.

Later, just for good measure, he includes some husky-voiced crooner singing "the wind cannot read" at the exact moment that Quinn first lays eyes on Sabby (Yoko Tani). Our boy's been sent to India by this time, studying Japanese while he recuperates so that he can be useful in an intelligence role. It's here that he crosses swords with up-his-own-arse officer type Fenwick (Ronald Lewis). Predictably, Sabby just happens to be the class's new instructor. Equally predictably, it's Fenwick who discovers Quinn and Sabby's taboo-busting, definitely-against-regulations cross-cultural romance.



The ensuing complications are interrupted when Quinn gets orders to return to Burma. It gets even more melodramatic than that, but on the slim chance you're keen on seeing 'The Wind Cannot Read' (word of advice: have a book to hand; maybe some knitting), I won't spoil it for you. Just don't say the title didn't tell you so when it finally lumbers to an end. Oh, and look out for a young Donald Pleasance in the last sequence.

Quinn and Sabby's romance - progressing from tentative courtship to marriage - occupies two thirds of the film and is played out against a tourist board vision of India where everybody wears bright colours and mostly ride on elephants, the beggars are clean and Thomas shoots the Taj Mahal from every conceivable angle during a pointless scene that seems to have been concocted purely to accommodate this barrage of National Geographical style shots.

Actually, a back copy of National Geographical would probably hold more interest than 'The Wind Cannot Read' - you'd at least learn something about the countries visited and there's always the off-chance of some bare-breasted tribeswomen.

But I digress.

What makes it worse is that 'The Wind Cannot Read' could have been, Mason's tortuous narrative notwithstanding, an interesting project.

David Lean began pre-production on 'The Wind Cannot Read', under the auspices of producer Alexander Korda. He wrote a screenplay in colloboration with Richard Mason and began scouting locations. When Lean discovered 22-year-old Japanese actress Kishi Keiko, he was convinced she was perfect for Sabby. Determining to capture the real India on film - as well as telling a passionate and poignant love story - Lean's enthusiasm was running high. Then came a series of conflicts with Korda - over the script, over casting - which remained unresolved when Korda died in early 1956. By this point, Lean was already in talks with Sam Spiegel for 'The Bridge on the River Kwai'. Everything fell through and the property passed to the Rank Organisation; Lean turned his attention to 'Bridge'; and Keiko - who had been brought over to Britain in a storm of publicity and talked up as the next big thing - was robbed of a potential breakthrough role for western audiences and returned home.

When the project passed to them, Thomas and his partner/producer Betty E Box worked from Lean's script (although the credits suggest Mason wrote the script single-handedly) as well as using some of the locations Lean had already scouted. But Ralph Thomas was no David Lean (his pedestrian direction sucks the life out of scene after scene) and it's impossible to watch 'The Wind Cannot Read' without a frustrating curiosity nagging away at you as to what might have been.

Although Lean would certainly not have cast Bogarde (Kenneth More was his preferred choice), it's certainly down to Bogarde's popularity that 'The Wind Cannot Read' was a box office hit. In his magnificent biography of David Lean, Kevin Brownlow records that the director's response, when he saw the eventual film, was to ask Thomas for a share of the profits.

1 comment:

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