- Between Two Worlds: The Rains Came and Disaster
Set in India, Clarence Brown’s 1939 film The Rains Came, based on Louis Bromfield’s bestselling novel of 1937, is a mostly conventional melodrama of dangerous passion, unhappy marriage, and the redemptive power of love among the ex-patriot British in the fictional city of Ranchipur. What makes The Rains Came stand out—enough that it received the first Academy Award for Special Effects—is an astonishing series of disasters at the centre of the film: in rapid succession, Ranchipur is subjected to torrential rains, floods, an earthquake, a dam collapse, and an epidemic of what the film calls “plague,” which in turn requires that what is left of the city be blown up or burned down.1 Under the eye of a cast-iron statue of Queen Victoria, however, and with the welcome cooperation of the British, Ranchipur rises from the ruins; relegating “darkness and filth” to history, this time, avers the Maharani at end of the film, Ranchipur has been “built to stand.” The Rains Came thus follows the trajectory of most Hollywood disaster films of the 1930s by portraying disaster as renewing.2 However, unlike 1935’s The Last Days of Pompeii, in which pagan brutality gives way to Christian charity, and unlike 1936’s San Francisco and 1938’s In Old Chicago, in both of which frontier America is purged of corruption, The Rains Came does not ostensibly look to the past for its myth-making; the film is set in 1938, and it appears, initially, to look to the future. Further, The Rains Came differs from those other films both in its surprising multiplication of disasters and in its use of disaster not as the climax of the story but as its turning point. The Rains Came is unique among the 1930s disaster films in devoting more than half of the story to the aftermath. While the other films end with a promise of [End Page 38] renewal, The Rains Came alone depicts a sustained response to and recovery from disaster. It offers, seemingly, a solution.
The remarkable, proliferating (and perhaps overdetermined) nature of the physical disasters inflicted upon Ranchipur works hard to refigure and recuperate the looming political disasters of the coming war in Europe and the simultaneous failure of British imperial rule in India. The Rains Came demands to be read as a pre-war propaganda film. Although some of the promotional material for the film attempted to capitalize on Bromfield’s reputation for having depicted a new, modern India,3 The Rains Came suggests, instead, a pre-war celebration of British traditions and values in which the glory and security of the empire—condensed in the recurring sign of the cast-iron Victoria and elaborated in various manifestations of British pluck—are resuscitated in the face of widespread disaster. While The Rains Came is noteworthy for its positive portrayal of the Indian rulers (see Jones as well as Cople Jaher and Kling, discussed below), the film’s response to multiple crises in India is nostalgia for Britain. In its fantasy of an Anglo-Indian relationship of “cooperation,” one more suited to the already fantastic Gunga Din (also released in 1939) than to a film actually set in 1938, The Rains Came is undone by its very setting in contemporary India. By the passing of the 1935 Government of India Act, for example, which responded to calls for independence by failing to offer even Dominion status, the strength, and justice, of Britain’s imperial hold on India was an open matter for international debate; indeed, the demise of British imperial power in India had been acknowledged in the years following the massacre at Amritsar in 1919 and with the increasing strength of the Indian National Congress (see, for example, Lowe 507–518; McIntyre 194–216). The Rains Came thus proposes a vision of hope by retrieving a false memory of mutual respect and projecting it into the future; in precisely the same move, however, the film pins its hopes for the future on a past already marked by cultural and political failure.
As the film begins, Ranchipur is...