Based on Eugene O’Neill’s stage play, John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940) is a sentimental yet robust send up to the harrowing, isolated and often lonely lives of men in peril on the sea. Scripted by long time collaborator Dudley Nichols, the film is both an evocative and colorful celebration of that rogue’s existence and a vivid condemnation of the cruel circumstances that render men as homeless nomads. Nichols updates the material ever so slightly for the more immediate tone of WWII – adding several well paced scenes of conflict into what is essential an introspective melodrama with real heart and tough guts.
Ford stocks his fictional vessel, the freighter S.S. Glencairn, with a stellar roster of some of Hollywood’s finest character actors; including Thomas Mitchell as the fiery Aloysius Driscoll, Ward Bond (Yank), Barry Fitzgerald (gregarious Cocky), Ian Hunter (aloof, Smitty) and Arthur Shields (Donkeyman). As his star, Ford alumni John Wayne headlines as newbie, Ole Olson in an understated performance.
Meticulously crafted with evocative deep focus camera work by cinematographer Gregg Toland, the stark gutsy beauty of the open water takes center stage.
The tale opens with the Glencairn, helmed by its benevolent captain (Wilfred Lawson). The ship is docked off the coast of a tropical island where native women sell themselves in trade for a bit of sailor’s pay. Driscoll smuggles a small armada of babes and booze aboard. But the night’s festivities turn into a brawl and the Captain ejects his visitors without remuneration.
At port, the Glencairn is loaded down with dynamite en route to England to help with the war effort. On its second night out to sea, a terrible storm threatens to tousle the entire shipment overboard. Yank does his best to protect the cargo, is swamped by mammoth swells and suffers a punctured lung; dying the next evening.
Later, Driscoll and another crew member, Axel (John Quelan) – through unfounded principles of misguided deduction - begin to suspect Smitty as a Nazi spy. Brought to heel at the will of the crew, Driscoll discovers love letters written to Smitty (whose actual name is Thomas Fenwick) by his wife, Elizabeth (Mary Carewe). The ship is attacked by Nazi bombers off the coast of England and Smitty is riddled in a hailstorm of bullets. His body is returned to Elizabeth once the ship docks at port.
On land, Axel is determined to see that Ole goes home to his aged mother back in Sweden. To this end, the men chip in and buy Ole his passage on a steamer. However, the group is thwarted in their attempt to see Ole off by Limehouse Crimp, Nick (J.M Kerrigan) who leads everyone into a night of drunken revelry inside a pub/brothel. Bar wench, Freda (Mildred Natwick) baits the naïve Ole with small talk while his drink is drugged and, after he is unconscious, two thugs from the Amera, a rival freighter come to carry him off to their ship as slave labor.
In the nick of time, Driscoll smells a rat and saves the day but not before he is knocked unconscious by one of the crew members and taken below as Ole’s replacement. The Amera sails off into the night with Driscoll on board. Ole is packed off to Sweden and the remaining crew – having squandered their hard earnings on women and drink - returns to the Glencairn the following day for their next voyage where they discover that the Amera has been sunk by German torpedoes.
Richard Hageman’s poignant score has just the right touch of syrup to offset and augments Toland’s starkly haunted images. Ford’s direction – arguably always on point – is particularly masterful on this outing. Mildly criticized as being ‘stage bound,’ the film scores big in delivering genuine weight to each of its characterizations. True, Wayne’s performance is perhaps the weakest in the bunch – but Ford surrounds his young star with such a rich tapestry of immediately identifiable old hams that its easy to forget his shortcomings and bask in the culmination of the exercise; all the more heartrending and real.
Warner Home Video delivers an average DVD presentation. Though the B&W image can be nicely contrasted with a refined gray scale, at times the image seems a bit thick – with a sudden loss of fine detail and more than a hint of grain that is distracting from the stark beauty of Toland’s cinematography. On the whole, the image will not disappoint, but it is hardly as pristine as one might have hoped for. The audio is mono and adequately represented. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer and a rather engaging short featurette on Ford and his fascination with the sea. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)