An impoverished young woman named Letty Mason (Lillian Gish) travels west by train from Virginia to live at her cousin Beverly's isolated ranch in Sweetwater. On the way, she is bothered by the constantly blowing wind. Fellow passenger and cattle buyer Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) makes her acquaintance and tells her the wind usually drives women crazy.
Upon arrival, she is picked up by Beverly's closest neighbors, Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) and the older, balding Sourdough (William Orlamond), who live 15 miles from her cousin. Wirt assures her he will drop by occasionally to see how she is doing.
After endless miles in sand and wind, they arrive at the ranch. Beverly (Edward Earle) is delighted to see her, but his jealous wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) gives her a cold reception, despite Letty saying she and Beverly (who was raised by Letty's mother) are like brother and sister. Cora is further angered when her children seem to like Letty better.
At a party, Sourdough tells Lige that he intends proposing to Letty. Lige explains he was planning to do the same. After Wirt drops by, a cyclone interrupts the festivities. Most of the guests seek shelter in the basement, where Wirt declares his love for Letty and offers to take her away from the dismal place. After the cyclone passes, Lige and Sourdough talk to Letty in private. When they flip a coin to see who will ask for her hand in marriage (Lige wins), Letty thinks it is just a joke.
Afterward, Cora demands that she leave Beverly alone and that she has to leave the ranch. Because she has neither money nor a place to go, she decides to go away with Wirt, but then Wirt reveals that he wants her for a mistress, informing her that he already has a wife. She goes back to Cora, who tells her to choose from her two other suitors. She marries Lige.
When Lige takes her home, he kisses Letty for the first time, but her lack of enthusiasm is unmistakable. Worse for the drink, he becomes more forceful, and this makes her tell him that he has made her hate him, which she did not want to do. Lige promises her he will never touch her. He states he will try to make enough money to send her back to Virginia. In the meantime, Letty works around the house, but is bothered by the ever present wind.
One day, Lige is invited to a meeting of the cattlemen, who must do something to avoid starvation. Letty, terrified of being left alone with only the wind for company, begs to go with him. He agrees. After she cannot control her horse in the fierce wind, he has her get on behind him on his horse. When she falls off, Lige tells Sourdough to take her home.
When the cattlemen return, they bring an unwanted guest, an injured Wirt. After he recovers, Lige insists he participate in a roundup of wild horses to raise money for the cattlemen. Wirt goes along, but later sneaks away and returns to Letty. Out of her mind with fear as she endures the house shaking from the worst wind storm yet, Letty faints soon after Wirt's arrival. He picks her up and carries her to the bed.
The next morning, Wirt tries to persuade Letty to go away with him, but she rejects him. He insists, noting Lige will kill them both if they remain. As Wirt becomes more aggressive, Letty picks up a revolver to defend herself. Confident that Letty will not fire, Wirt grabs the gun and it goes off, killing him. Letty decides to bury him outside. After she is done, the wind uncovers the body, terrifying her.
When Lige returns, Letty is so glad to see him, she kisses her husband. She then confesses she killed and buried Wirt. When Lige looks outside, however, the corpse is nowhere to be seen. He tells Letty that the wind can remove traces when a killing is justified. He has enough money to send her away, but Letty declares she loves him and that she no longer wants to leave. She is no longer afraid of the wind.Lillian Gish as Letty Mason
Lars Hanson as Lige Hightower
Montagu Love as Wirt Roddy
Dorothy Cumming as Cora
Edward Earle as Beverly
William Orlamond as Sourdough
Gish came up with the idea of making a film adaptation of the novel of the same name. Irving Thalberg immediately gave her permission to do so. Gish recalled wanting Lars Hanson as her leading man after seeing him in a Swedish film with Greta Garbo. She also assigned Victor Sjöström as the director herself. Sjöström directed Gish before in the 1926 film The Scarlet Letter.
The film was shot partially near Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert, California.
In the original novel, the heroine is driven mad when the wind uncovers the corpse of the man she has killed. She then wanders off into a windstorm to die. According to Gish and popular legend, the original ending intended for the film was the unhappy ending, but it was changed due to the studio's powerful Eastern office decreeing that a more upbeat ending be shot. It is rumored that this tampering caused Seastrom to move back to Sweden. Mayer's biographer rejects this on account that the "sad ending" is not known to exist in any form, written or filmed. Regardless of whether an unhappy ending was originally intended, in the resulting film the "happy" ending replaced the original ending against the wishes of both Lillian Gish and Victor Seastrom.
The Wind is considered to be a classic, and one of Gish's most brilliant performances. It is the last silent film starring Gish, the last directed by Sjostrom, and the last major silent released by MGM. At its time it was simultaneously panned and hailed by American critics, and its late release at the dawn of the sound era contributed to a net loss for the production. However, the film had significant critical and considerable commercial success in Europe.
When the film first opened in 1928, many critics panned it. Mordaunt Hall, film critic for The New York Times, for example, was very critical of the film and he found it difficult to suspend his disbelief regarding the special effects and Lillian Gish's acting. He wrote, "Yesterday afternoon's rain was far more interesting than...The Wind,...The rain was real, and in spite of the lowering skies there was life and color around you. In the picture, the wind, whether it is a breeze or a cyclone, invariably seems a sham, and Lillian Gish, the stellar light in this new film, frequently poses where the wind is strongest; during one of the early episodes she does her bit to accentuate the artificiality of this tale by wearing the worst kind of hat for a wind. Victor Seastrom hammers home his points until one longs for just a suggestion of subtlety. The villain's sinister smile appears to last until his dying breath."
However, The Wind has gained significant prestige retroactively.
The British newspaper, The Guardian, in 1999 reviewed the work of director Victor Sjöström and they wrote, "And in America his three most famous works - He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928) - each dealt with human suffering. The Wind is almost certainly the best - a silent classic, revived in recent years by producer/director Kevin Brownlow with a Carl Davis score, which gave the great Lillian Gish one of the finest parts of her career...Sjostrom treats the inevitable clash between Letty and her new surroundings with considerable realism and detail, allowing Gish as much leeway as possible to develop her performance. The entire film was shot in the Mojave Desert under conditions of great hardship and difficulty and this was probably the first 'Western' that tried for truth as well as dramatic poetry. One of its masterstrokes, which looks far less self-conscious than any description of it may seem, is the moment when Letty hallucinates in terror at the sight of the partially buried body of her attacker."
In a retrospective of silent films, the Museum of Modern Art screened The Wind and included a review of the film in their program. They wrote, "What makes The Wind such an eloquent coda to its dying medium is Seastrom's and Gish's distillation of their art forms to the simplest, most elemental form: there are no frills. Seastrom was always at his best as a visual poet of natural forces impinging on human drama; in his films, natural forces convey drama and control human destiny. Gish, superficially fragile and innocent, could plumb the depths of her steely soul and find the will to prevail. The genius of both Seastrom and Gish comes to a climactic confluence in The Wind. Gish is Everywoman, subject to the most basic male brutality and yet freshly open to the possibility of romance. As a result, the film offers a quintessential cinematic moment of the rarest and most transcendentally pure art."
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was nervous about releasing the film and did not release it for a full year until November, 1928. By that time, films with sound were being released in theaters, which contributed to The Wind recording an $87,000 loss.
In 1993, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."