John Ford Feature #2 – The Long Voyage Home (1940)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_The_Long_Voyage_HomeThe Long Voyage Home (1940)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on The Moon of the Caribees, In The Zone, Bound East for Cardiff, & The Long Voyage Home by Eugene O’Neill)
Starring: John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfrid Lawson

1940 was an incredible year for film, and a very noteworthy one for John Ford.  His film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famed novel The Grapes of Wrath was released and immediately became a smashing success, winning Ford an Oscar for Best Director, and picking up six other nominations including Best Picture.  His second film released in 1940, The Long Voyage Home, was released at the end of the year, and managed to be a big hit in itself.  While not as successful as The Grapes of Wrath – which is widely regarded as one of the best films of its time – The Long Voyage Home still managed to pick up six Oscar nominations of its own, competing with Ford’s other, arguably better film for Best Picture.  Also released in 1940 were Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture winning Rebecca and also his Best Picture nominated and criminally underrated Foreign Correspondent Charles Chaplin’s magnum opus The Great Dictator, George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, and Powell & Pressburger’s The Thief of Baghdad.  Though the film is set during World War II and features the war prominently, it was released just one year before the United States, and John Ford himself, would enter into the war. While The Long Voyage Home was fairly successful at the time (and was even one of John Ford’s favorites), the film has been somewhat lost to time.  The film is only remembered for picking up several Academy Award nominations, starring John Wayne in something of a supporting role, and for featuring the cinematography of the great Gregg Toland.  Toland is perhaps best known for shooting Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane the very next year, and also had a hand in the photography of Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Best Picture winning The Best Years of Our Lives, and 1939’s Wuthering Heights, for which he picked up an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (black and white).

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Ward Bond as Yank in one of The Long Voyage Home’s more touching moments.

The Long Voyage Home sees a band of misfits aboard a British steamship, travel from the West Indies to Baltimore, and then back home to England.  Notable characters aboard the ship include their leader Drisk (Thomas Mitchell), young Swede Ole Olsen (John Wayne), the steward Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald), Smitty (Ian Hunter), and the strongman of the gang, Davis (Joseph Sawyer).  The crew of the SS Glencairn love to drink hard, party harder, and generally seem to make the best of their long stretches at sea.  Soon after a visit gone wrong by a group of beautiful young local ladies, the crew sets off to pick up some valuable cargo for their return trip home.  They soon discover that the cargo is in the form of high explosives, and the crew quickly descends into chaos after the reveal.  They are soon coerced into continuing their mission by their captain, and head for the dangerous and war-torn waters that will get them home.  After an accident caused by rough seas late one evening, a member of the SS Glencairn’s crew is severely injured, and eventually dies.  The death causes the men on the boat to lose a great deal of morale, and eventually the men start to suspect that one of the crew members among them is a German spy.  After restraining the suspect and discovering what his secrets truly are, the ship is suddenly attacked by an enemy German plane.  Will the motley crew of the SS Glencairn ever make it home from their long and treacherous voyage, or will the paranoia and dangers of the second Great War get the better of them?  Find out in John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home.

After seeing some of John Ford’s most famed and beloved films and enjoying them a great deal, I began to see that one of his largest criticisms (or praises, in some cases) is that his films never seem to focus entirely on the story at hand.  Instead, Ford turns his cameras on his characters and the settings in which they inhabit.  For better or for worse, his lack of storytelling applies fairly well to The Long Voyage Home.  While there is an overarching narrative told through the film, we are simply dropped onto the SS Glencairn to observe the behaviours of its crew, and from there we are expected to pick keep up with the story and piece it together as we go.  The photography throughout the film is beautiful, dark, and foggy.  The atmosphere is thick with tension during any scene taking place at night, and we really feel like we’re inhabiting the SS Glencairn ourselves.  The musty old ship almost becomes a character unto itself, and I even began to feel oddly sentimental about it.  Thomas Mitchell’s outing as Drisk is very strong, and his performance becomes one of the highlights of the movie.  John Wayne’s performance as the young, hulking Swede Ole Olsen isn’t particularly remarkable or noteworthy, but it’s very fun to watch him play against type.  Normally Wayne speaks little, and his characters are brooding and mysterious, but in The Long Voyage Home, Wayne’s Ole just seems like the gullible young farmer that he is.  I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but what I will say is that it’s surprisingly dark and dour at times.  The endnote is a particularly tragic one, and left me genuinely shocked when the credits rolled.  The reveal of the supposed “spy” and subsequent attack by the German plane is incredibly tense, and as a result really effective.

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John Wayne as the young Swede Ole Olden in 1940’s The Long Voyage Home.

While I can’t call The Long Voyage Home a masterpiece by any means, I can absolutely say that I enjoyed my time with the film.  The cinematography is terrific, the raucous drinking scenes with the crew are fun to watch unfold (if only to see how chaotic they might get), and the characters and ship itself become genuinely sympathetic and relatable in the film’s best moments.  It may not be John Ford’s greatest achievement, but there’s no reason in my mind why this film has been forgotten the way it has.  The Long Voyage Home is recommended.

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