|Long Voyage Home, The|
|Written by Allan Peach|
|Tuesday, 06 June 2006|
John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home” was adapted from four Eugene O’Neill one-act plays (“The Moon of the Caribees,” “In The Zone,” “Bound East for Cardiff” and “The Long Voyage Home”) by Dudley Nicholls. Nicholls also directed a film adaptation of O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra,” in 1947. Superficially, the film is the story of the crew of the British freighter, “The Glencairn”, shortly after the start of World War II. However, “The Long Voyage Home” is less a story film, than a visual tone poem of men escaping the realities of life on land, through an addiction to life at sea.
In 1927, when F.W. Murnau made his own dramatic tone poem, “Sunrise,” John Ford spent many hours on the set observing the German Expressionist director’s methods. Ford was deeply affected by Murnau’s use of camera movement, geometric compositions, and his dramatic rendering of light and shadow. The next year, Ford entered his own expressionistic phase with “Four Sons.”
Expressionistic elements are common in many Ford films after 1927, but “The Informer” and “The Long Voyage Home” mirror the German silent film more than any other American film until Woody Allen’s less than successful “Shadows and Fog.”
Like “Sunrise,” which was subtitled “Song of Two Humans, “The Long Voyage Home” is closer to music than drama. In Ford’s film, there is no main protagonist, and the four stories that make up the film play like the movements of a symphony. In Gregg Toland’s exquisite cinematography, light and shadow flow over the deck of the freighter as if orchestrated by some divine composer. Even the characters, who are all carefully delineated, work more as an ensemble or chorus rather than as individual players.
The land and the sea take on expressionistic meaning early in the film. Smitty (Ian Hunter), an alcoholic seaman, describes the local island as “the isle of the dead, ” and later Donkeyman (Arthur Shields) tells him, “When a man goes to sea, he should stop thinking about things on shore. The land don’t want him no more. I’ve had my share of things gone wrong and it all comes from the land. Now I’m through with the land and the land is through with me.” The sea has become a drug-like shelter from the harsher realties of ‘the land.’
It is the land that continually creates problems for the men. Women and rum, brought from the land, foment fistfights and a stabbing. Munitions, loaded on shore, and the war they represent, cause the crew to turn on themselves. When a flashing enemy code is seen emanating from the land, the crew accuses the secretive Smitty of being a spy. The confrontation builds to one of the film’s most powerfully moving moments.
Although the men become habituated to life at sea, they often dream of returning “home” to land. They all live vicariously through Ole (John Wayne), an innocent young Swede, who plans to return home to his mother and the family farm. Previously, he has failed three times in his attempts to return, and Donkeyman predicts that he will never make it. In Donkeyman’s eyes, once a man goes to sea, he is fated to die at sea. The other crewmembers see Ole’s long voyage home as a ray of hope in their own world of resigned disillusionment. In the end, Ole does make it home, but as if in retribution, the sea takes the life of Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell), the man who made Ole’s escape possible.
Despite the heady themes of “The Long Voyage Home,” the film is never stuffy and is full of the typical ribald John Ford sense of humor. Ford is extremely adept at mixing lowbrow laughs with highbrow subject matter. During a storm, Axel Swanson rushes across the deck to escape being thrown overboard. We see him slip and do a pratfall on the wet deck. For a second, it is very funny, but quickly his fall heightens the growing threat of the storm. In another moment, Ole is teased about becoming a pig farmer, and he does a silly pig call. Jokes are made about how the call would make the pig run the other way. Then, one crewmember takes the joke too far and tells Ole that the only farm he’ll see is through the bottom of a bottle. Ford elegantly shifts between comedy and tragedy without skipping a beat.
In 1940, John Ford and Gregg Toland created two masterpieces. This was not only the year of “The Long Voyage Home,” but also the year of “The Grapes of Wrath.” “The Long Voyage Home” was nominated for six Academy Awards but won none, “The Grapes of Wrath” was nominated for seven Academy awards and won two (Best Director and Best Supporting Actress).
The image quality on the DVD is quite good and is taken from the 1948 theatrical re-release, which is an improvement over the previous laser disc version taken from the original 1940 UA release. The print suffers a little from projection wobble in the titles, but improves by the start of the action. Unfortunately, no standard-def video release can match the beauty of a 35mm print of this film. The sound quality is as good as can be expected from the mono track, but is low fidelity by today’s standards.
“The Long Voyage Home” is available as a stand alone DVD and as part of the box set “The John Ford/John Wayne Collection.” There is only one extra on the DVD, a short documentary about John Ford’s sailing ship, the Araner. The documentary is interesting in its use of Ford home movies, but it production seems a bit amateurish and slapped together. Whenever still photos are shown, many of the faces are digitally blurred out, hinting that there was insufficient time to acquire proper releases.
“The Long Voyage Home” is not a film for everyone. The motion picture is more Art House fare, than action film. It is improper to judge this film by the standards of today’s ubiquitous realism, but Ford’s visual poetry ranks it among the director’s finest films.