After the most powerful Japanese volcanic eruption of the century happens, Hollywood premiers a disaster movie about it.
Nothing unusual about that, except that the year is 1914, and in spite of the era’s technological limitations, this movie is so well done, it’s still fun to watch today.
The First Volcano Disaster Movie
Sakura-Jima, this week’s Sunday volcano, had been an island out in Kagoshima Bay until January 12, when a VEI 4 eruption began that eventually welded it to the bay’s shore. During this process, 28 people died, hundreds were injured, and over 2000 homes were destroyed.
In Hollywood, they decided to make a movie about the cataclysm.
The Wrath of the Gods thus is the leading contender for the title of first volcano disaster movie (Cabiria debuted a month earlier than Wrath and did show an eruption of Mount Etna during Roman times, but it wasn’t the central event).
For Wrath of the Gods, a silly-sounding plot was dreamed up. IMDb sums it up nicely – “An American sailor falls in love with a fisherman’s daughter and convinces her that Jesus is more powerful than the gods who have cursed her.”
Don’t worry. This is a very secular movie.
In fact, with a Japanese cast featuring Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki, as well three good writers and a director (Reginald Barker) who wanted to show what he could do with this, his first feature film, the resulting story – which was filmed in California – is complex and absorbing.
The characters are believable and all have decent motives. Basically, they just want to do the right thing, but massive conflict and horror result.
The villagers want to be safe in an unpredictable world; the young girl is trying to find true love and justice; the father is working hard to make a good life for his daughter; and the sailor has accidentally landed in paradise and wants to make it permanent. They can’t all have their way, and in fact, no one does.
Then the volcano erupts.
The less said about the typhoon effects in Wrath of the Gods the better. They were in this for the volcano, and boy did they deliver!
Audiences of 1914 probably reacted to Wrath’s eruption sequence the way modern audiences responded to that combined action shot of all the Avengers in 2012.
There are a very few set shots that don’t look too great, but Barker rapidly edited and cut around those, including plenty of outdoor scenes of ongoing volcanic destruction that were probably filmed in Inceville where something this big could be handled. The result is so realistic, I wonder if he was working from photos of the actual disaster.
Yes, Reginald Barker filmed a believable volcanic eruption in Santa Monica.
Here’s a mash-up of scenes from this part of the movie that someone posted on YouTube, but it only conveys a little bit of the human and natural drama that’s exploding on the screen at this point. What’s missing is the power of that editing and fast cutting in and out of different views of the eruption.
There’s a superficial religiosity in The Wrath of the Gods, especially at the end, but to any thoughtful viewer, the whole movie is really about how messed up the world is.
The “my God is better than your god” theme is used sparingly and only to show the sailor’s character. Interestingly, the sailor ignores the very obvious fact that the curse came true (Buddha doesn’t do curses, by the way).
There are undertones of racism, colonialism and culture clash, as well as plenty of graphic violence (PG-13) once the mob forms as the girl and the sailor wed (not a spoiler).
Barker treats these ugly parts of human nature just as realistically as the eruption. It’s all very credible, and therein lies the horror.
He closes the movie with one big, rather patronizing bromide on the last title card that’s aimed directly at 1914 American sensibilities, but then the camera returns to the main characters.
They just sit there, the ash and stones still raining down over them, a bit shell-shocked and very grateful that they’ve survived a D. W. Griffith Intolerance-level event (without the preachiness) as well as a major volcanic eruption.
You’ll enjoy this movie. However, finding it may be difficult. The only online source I found is in Russia, I think at the equivalent of Google Sites (it’s Yandex). I had no problems and no AV warnings while watching it here but do want to give you a heads-up ahead of time about the host.