Film criticism by Ian Kay.

Review: The Long Voyage Home (1940), dir. John Ford

Synopsis from IMDB: “Aboard the freighter Glen Cairn, the lives of the crew are lived out in fear, loneliness, suspicion and camaraderie. The men smuggle drink and women aboard, fight with each other, spy on each other, comfort each other as death approaches, and rescue each other from danger.

John Ford brings together a slew of his regular actors as a wonderful array of rough and tumble sailors in his excellent, thoughtful war-time film The Long Voyage Home.

There is always something very intimate in a John Ford film; it stems from a familiar naturalness in the people that inhabit his stories.  I think that’s what makes many of his films, including The Long Voyage, so damn good. He is, in essence, a straight-forward story teller.  He doesn’t play with the camera very often, moving it just to move it. On the other hand, he has some of the most memorable shots in cinema – mostly of the southwest; here, though, he has the immensely talented Gregg Toland shooting in the shadows of a grimy old ship and making use of deep-focus to give the film a melancholy, almost claustrophobic feel.

Other than the slightly over-acted character of Axel (John Qualen doing his famous Swedish buffoon, though with one too many ‘By dyevil!’s for my taste), everyone is gritty and fleshed out.  One of the fantastic elements here- and in most Ford films – is that the actions of all the characters are innately understood; there are few inexplicably black and white characters, despite the immediate appearance of Hollywood-level shallowness.  Nobody on board this ship is a saint, but their predicament and their brotherly bonds make them irresistibly sympathetic.

Ford tends not to judge the characters in his films; most times, he lets them judge themselves, or at the very least he allows the other characters to sort them out. John Ford’s reputation is that of the disconnected, conservative director. Yet there is an intuition behind his passive front that is an art beyond most directors’ attempts of active manipulation in “artier” films.

As for the acting, Thomas Mitchell as the fiery Irishman is a centerpiece of energy.  He not only seems to lead the men (more so than the captain), but he also gives the others a tornado to stand firm against. I can’t decide if John Wayne was fine for the part or straight-up miscast. His attempt at a Swedish accent is awful, but his physical presence as the simple, quiet Ole is spot on. Fortunately, they gave him relatively few lines, so it doesn’t really taint the picture at all.

What is most important is that cinematography, accents and artfulness aside, at the end of the movie we feel we understand the sailors; we get a healthy glimpse of the meaning of their self-exile,  we see past their drunkenness and gruffness and we truly feel the emptiness each time one of the brotherhood is lost.  Forget plot and intrigue; I could have watched a two hour movie about these men simply living their life aboard the ship.

Definitely one of my very favorite John Ford films.

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