Pairing John Wayne With A Giant Squid Proved A Winning Move For Paramount

When was the last time you were truly dazzled by a special effect? Our mainstream media landscape has been consumed by CGI to the point where we don't even think about the logistics of what we see anymore. In the series premiere of "House of the Dragon," Were you awed by the presence of multiple dragons, or did you just go, "Oh, yeah. Dragons. Sure?" Bear in mind, these creatures don't exist in real life and look entirely real.

At a time where effects are more seamless than ever before, we no longer feel their power because entire movies and television shows go by without a single frame using them. Before digital effects, you had to build this stuff by hand and have them ready to shoot on the day. Because they took so much time, money, and manpower to create, productions would focus their special effects on one single thing: a set piece, a creature, or just a moment of magic. While this was usually done for practical reasons, what it did was give these effects more of a "wow" factor, making audiences wonder about how the thing they just saw was done. They couldn't just say, "Computers."

One such instance of this kind of practical effect magic comes from Cecil B. DeMille's 1942 sea-faring adventure film "Reap the Wild Wind," starring Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, and a whole host of familiar faces. That film's climax features Milland and Wayne's characters underwater, battling a gigantic squid. Even today, the creature work leaves you slightly slack-jawed, and it riveted audiences at the time, making it the fourth-highest grossing film of the year. And people were clamoring to know how they made it.

A bathtub thought

When breaking the story for "Reap the Wild Wind," Cecil B. DeMille and his trio of screenwriters, Charles Bennett, Jesse Lasky Jr., and Alan Le May (plus the uncredited contributions of Jeanie Macpherson and Theodore St. John), could not come up with an ending to the picture they were all happy with. As recounted in the book "Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne" by Ronald L. Davis, Charles Bennett, who wrote the screenplays to many of Alfred Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood films, was taking a bath one morning and had his own "Eureka!" moment. His big thought was "Giant squid!" Well, he had a little more than that. He had the whole scene in his head.

Bennett recalls the meeting where he pitched the scene to DeMille:

"I was John Wayne, I was Ray Milland, I was the squid ... I acted the whole scene out in front of DeMille."

DeMille was satisfied, adding that it all needed to be, "In Technicolor." The giant squid was in the picture, and it was going to kill John Wayne's character, a rarity for the actor so often held up as the bright, shining hero of his pictures. His second-billed turn in "Reap the Wild Wind" is for a character who makes some not-so-savory choices, and him meeting his fate at the hands (or tentacles) of the giant squid is his punishment, even if he does save Ray Milland's character's life while doing so.

They had the scene, but they still had to construct how this underwater beast would actually function on film.

Ten days in a tank

In order to have a giant squid, you need a giant set to put it in, or in this case, you need a giant tank for underwater photography. Luckily, Paramount had a gigantic tank on the studio lot ready for them to utilize. Ray Milland says of the massive underwater set that was constructed for the scene:

"The tank was almost the size of a football field and about twenty-five feet deep at the deepest part ... Down there they had built a marine wonderland: the hull of a wrecked ship, strange and jagged rocks, a slowly moving aqueous forest. And caves, dark and frightening."

Then came the giant squid itself. In total, the squid was 14 feet long. The head of the creature was not particularly articulative, and if you watch the scene, it's fairly obvious. The thing was clearly quite heavy, and once they got it in the water, it was going to lay where it lay. That was not the case with the tentacles, which are quite remarkable in their dexterity, able to seamlessly wrap around and grip the two actors. They are so convincing that they cover up any deficiencies the squid's head presents. Its eyes, while clearly fake, do hold some strange menace in them. Cecil B. DeMille said of the creature, "It was truly a marvelous piece of work."

The whole sequence cost $250 thousand, which is a bit over $5 million today. As for the film's box office, it grossed $4 million, or nearly $73 million today. Pretty good return on investment.

Won't say how they did it

As movie fans in the age of home video, we have been lucky to dive deep into the special features on a movie and watch all of the behind-the-scenes documentaries. They have been invaluable for us who have ever wanted to know what goes into the filmmaking process, even if it meant breaking the reality of a film to do so. For some people, finding out this information enriches our love of the medium. For others, though, it makes the film not seem as special as it once was.

For "Reap the Wild Wind," Paramount wanted everyone to be in complete awe of the giant squid. They received letters from people of every walk of life inquiring about how they made the squid for the film (Remember, kids, this was before the Internet). To maintain the air of magic, Paramount's standard reply to this was simply:

"It is the policy of the studio to release no information on technical details of any motion picture because it would detract from the dramatic illusion."

I can't help but respect the whole "Accept the mystery" element of the statement. They have even carried that forward onto the Blu-ray release, which features no "Making Of" documentaries (and that comes to us from Kino Lorber, who are usually pretty good about including those kinds of features).

I also wish that Paramount would do a better job of letting people today see this film. Currently, that Blu-ray is the only way you are able to watch "Reap the Wild Wind." It's not on a streaming service or available to purchase or rent digitally in any way. That is fine for a physical media fiend like me, but Paramount ... let people watch your "John Wayne vs. Giant Squid" movie.