The Long Voyage Home Review

Mike Sutton looks at “The Long Voyage Home”, part of Warners’ John Ford/John Wayne Collection. This is the first of seven reviews of films from an excellent set.

John Ford met John Wayne in the summer of 1926 and they first worked together on a minor film called Hangman’s House. Well, that’s not strictly accurate; Ford met a 21 prelaw student from USC called Marion ‘Duke’ Morrison who was working at Fox as a propman during the summer vacation. It was a charmed meeting, right from the moment when Morrison kicked Ford and hit him in the chest following some of the director’s customary macho provocation. It was four years before Marion Morrison became John Wayne – the name given to him by Raoul Walsh – but the young man made quite an impression on Ford and the two quickly became friends, Wayne being inducted into the close group of comrades and drinking partners who made up Ford’s second family.

Beginning with Hangman’s House, in which Wayne appeared uncredited, the two men worked together on 22 films and 3 television shows. Out of the 14 of these in which Wayne was top-billed, 11 were Westerns and it’s undoubtedly in the Western genre that the partnership blossomed most spectacularly. But there are also some very interesting anomolies in the list and The Long Voyage Home is perhaps the most fascinating. It’s certainly out of the ordinary for the Ford/Wayne partnership and at first sight it’s a very unusual film for Ford to have made at all; a sea-based drama largely filmed in a couple of sets and concentrating far more on character than action or narrative. But if you place it in the context of his work at the time, it’s clear that it can be seen as the culmination of his attempts to establish himself as not merely a “Director of Westerns” but as a serious cinematic artist. There’s a fascinating irony here; Ford disdained the idea of the director as artist, particularly in his later years, yet he continually yearned for the recognition of the East Coast critical establishment and was known to wonder why he didn’t get the acclaim in America that he received in Europe.

The Long Voyage Home, based on three plays by Eugene O’Neill, is about as arty as Ford ever got, at least in terms of single-minded ‘artistry’. The Fugitive from 1947 comes close but is far less successful and comes across as pretentious rather than artistic. Of course, there’s just as much ‘art’ in The Searchers or My Darling Clementine as you’ll find in this movie but in those films it emerges naturally out of the filmmaking. In The Long Voyage Home, artistry is imposed on top of the film and there’s no way that the viewer can fail to notice it. I don’t regard this as a flaw – certainly not in the way that David Thomson does when he says that the film is “as senseless a display of beauty as Hollywood every achieved”. Fundamentally, it isn’t senseless because the beauty is used in support of a central idea; that life at sea is desperately beautiful when you look at it superficially but, underneath, is often bleak and terrifying. In other words, the beauty is ironic, albeit done with sledgehammer subtlety.

The gorgeous visuals, which are often so potent they overwhelm the senses, are the work of Gregg Toland, a cinematographer of such importance that he can be considered central to the development of visual style in American cinema. He began his career at the age of 22 with The Bat and during the thirties became hugely successful with films such as Mad Love and the one for which he won an Oscar, Wuthering Heights. Toland died young, at the age of 44, but during his last decade he developed the technique of deep focus cinematography which became his trade mark. He didn’t originate deep focus – Von Stroheim and Renoir played around with it during the 20s and 30s, the latter using it memorably in La Regle De Jeu – but he did much to popularise the style and The Long Voyage Home is like a deep focus textbook. To put it simply, deep focus cinematography involves a very large depth of field so that both the front, middle and back of the image are all in focus. This allows, for example, the audience to see the expressions and actions of a character in the background as clearly as those of one in the foreground. Deep focus offers two great things and they are paradoxical. On the one hand, there is a realism and presence, a depth to the image. On the other, there is a slightly hallucinatory quality, an immediacy which seems to transcend realism and awaken a kind of sixth sense in us. This latter quality was used to devastating effect in Citizen Kane – probably Toland’s masterpiece – but Ford uses the quality of presence very cleverly in The Long Voyage Home and, to a lesser extent, in The Grapes of Wrath. It seems to somehow put us in amongst the men on the ship and makes us a very aware part of their world. It also creates a very specific, unusual visual poetry – the film doesn’t look like anything else you’ve every seen, from the almost expressionist opening to the vivid storm sequences.

It’s easy to get lost in the visuals because the narrative of the film is distinctly meandering. Dudley Nichols certainly does well with the adaptation of the plays and the central idea of the film is a compelling one. These men are somehow sea-locked, unable to escape a life on board ship and envious of their companions who have homes on land. But without the sea, they don’t have anything and this makes them both clinging and resentful. They also enjoy the terror and the danger of their life on deck – and when push comes to shove, they can’t resist the pull of signing on for just one more voyage… and one more…. and one more. Nothing much happens in the film in terms of action and there’s a lot of rather simplistic melodrama revolving around brawls and drinking. There’s also a lot of stage-Irish sentimentality which sometimes descends into the lachrymose. Some of the sentiment is real and true – the death of Ward Bond’s Yank for example – but some of it is just self-pity. To be fair, I think Ford recognises this in the scene where the drunken men sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with whisky-tears glistening in their eyes – I’ve always assumed this is meant to be funny but I could possibly be wrong.

Yet Ford often transcends the sentimental banality which sometimes threatens the film because of his understanding of male behaviour and his superb work with a fine company of actors. The men are often very funny together, largely because of Thomas Mitchell’s bull-like Driscoll, a drunken wreck of a man whose macho demeanour conceals a heart of purest mush. Mitchell was great in loads of films around this time – reaching his apotheosis as Doc Boone in Stagecoach – and he’s so sheerly likeable here that he dominates the film. But the other men get a look in and Ian Hunter is particularly memorable as the sad, desperate ‘Smitty’ Smith. What’s particularly touching is the absolute determination of the men that John Wayne’s Ole will get on his way home and not sign up for another voyage. Their paternal concern for his future is genuine and affecting, going beyond their otherwise base concerns. It’s not hard to understand their feelings because Ole is a completely good man, touching in his innocence and absolute faith. John Wayne makes the most of the part, one of the most unusual he ever played, and he proves surprisingly adept at remaining in the background, smiling sweetly. It’s the kind of role – like that of Young Matt in Shepherd of the Hills – which demonstrates his versatility, although that’s forgetting the myriad ways in which he was able to ring changes on his Westerner persona, particularly in Ford’s films. When at the end he says, “Like a little boy, I get homesick”, he’s totally believable, rendering the final knife-edge turn of events all the more affecting.

The Long Voyage Home didn’t do particularly well at the box office in 1940. It seems to have confused audiences and critics tended to overlook it in favour of the same year’s The Grapes of Wrath. But it’s an underrated film, not only because of the beauty of its images, but for its deep emotional undercurrents. There’s a vivid sense of the claustrophobia and desperation of life on ship, especially in the scenes where the boat is attacked by enemy aircraft, and an equal uncertainty and rootlessness about life on land. There’s also a yearning for some kind of home – often a non-existent, dream home – which obviously reflects Ford’s own feelings about his Irish roots. It’s a sad, quiet film in some ways and a boisterous romp in others and even if the two sides don’t quite fell, they stretch Ford in some new directions. The mix of comedy and emotional truth became more pronounced in his work as time went on and marks films such as How Green Is My Valley, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man with the stamp of a director in complete control of his effects.

The Disc

A film such as The Long Voyage Home demands a first rate visual transfer and, by and large, it gets one on Warner Brother’s new R1 DVD, part of their excellent John Ford/John Wayne collection.

Compared with Universal’s horribly grainy and artefact-ridden R2 transfer, this is like watching a completely different film. The depth and detail in the image are both spectacularly good and the contrast is top-notch. There’s a small amount of print damage but grain levels are appropriate and well under control while shadow detail is delightfully crisp. This is highly impressive stuff as is the clean and sharp mono soundtrack.

The only extra on the disc is a short featurette called “Serenity at Sea: John Ford and the Araner” – don’t worry, it’s nothing to do with Joss Wheedon. It’s a nostalgic and affectionate study of Ford’s fascination with the sea both through his yacht, the Araner, and his service with the US Navy. Some fantastic home movie footage is included here which has also appeared in the documentary John Ford Goes To War. This is only 13 minutes long but the love for Ford is patent throughout and it’s a delightful little piece. Surprisingly, no trailer is included.

There are subtitles offered for the film but none for the featurette, a typical and regrettable Warner Brothers trait.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jun 27, 2006

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