#44 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is one of several movies John Ford made about things around World War I. He hasn’t made one about the war directly. Any look at battle has been short and quick with the focus of the films on events around the fighting itself. That’s no different here with Pilgrimage, his 1933 film, but I can’t help but comparing the similar output from Howard Hawks who made films about men in the thick of it, embracing aesthetics of different aspects of the war along with the experiences of those who fought it. Hawks trained men for combat during the war, and Ford made movies. I wonder if that’s part of the reason why he kept choosing and crafting scripts about people around the fighting instead of directly part of it.
It’s a curious story of a woman, Mrs. Hannah Jessop (Henrietta Crosman), on a farm in Arkansas and her young adult son, Jim (Norman Foster). The mother is dead set against her son’s romance with the neighbor girl Mary (Marian Nixon), daughter to a drunk. No woman will be good enough for her son, and to keep them apart she’s willing to draft him into the war effort, sending him to fight in France. In a bit of pre-Code drama, Jim gets Mary pregnant before they can marry, and as he’s being shipped off to war she informs him without enough time for a marriage. Yes, this is the stuff of melodrama.
Jim dies in France, the only young man sent to France from the town who died in combat, and ten years pass. Henrietta scorns Mary as well as her grandchild Jimmy (Jay Ward). This kind of heartlessness ends up feeling a bit broad in the beginning, but what changes is the actual, titular pilgrimage. The US government wants to send gold star mothers to France to visit the graves of their sons, and it’s important to the local governmental authorities that Henrietta goes, being the mother of the only local boy killed in the war. After some hemming and hawing, she decides to go.
This is about a third of the way through the film, and it gives the melodramatic opening a surprisingly effective air as Henrietta joins up with other gold star mothers on the boat to France. There are two in particular that get attention. The first is Henrietta’s cabinmate Mrs. Rogers (Louise Carter). Carrying around the framed picture of her deceased son, she’s mournful and shares her deep emotion with everyone. Henrietta is understanding but obviously offput. However, there is also Mrs. Kelly Hatfield (Lucille La Verne), a large lady from Texas who is happy to make jokes about smart cows refusing to live as close together as people in New York.
What ends up happening is that the movie jumps between tones for a while. With most of the women, it’s sad faces and tears, but with Mrs. Hatfield it’s light comedy and laughs. What’s surprising about the film is that it balances these two tones shockingly well, allowing just enough time from one major moment of sadness or amusement to pass before transitioning to the next. The ladies go dress shopping in Paris, quickly followed by them visiting a memorial service for the dead. This kind of jumping is hard to pull off, and Ford as well as his editor Louis Loeffler manage it shockingly well. It doesn’t feel like whiplash, it feels like a woman divorced from her own guilt about the fate of her son and being surrounded by the sadness she should be feeling finding ways out of it.
This is a surprisingly effective middle section, and it really feels like it’s going somewhere. And then a major contrivance strikes, and I never quite got invested at the same level again.
In a huff, Henrietta decides that she’s going to make her opinion of her boy known, that he wasn’t a good boy and that she has no desire to see his grave. She walks out onto the streets of Paris and finds a young American man, drunk, and slurring about his mother. Yes, this young man, Gary (Maurice Murphy), is in pretty much the exact same predicament as Jim had been in. He wants to marry a French girl, Suzanne (Heather Angel), but his mother won’t let him. They have a small adventure into the countryside, witnessing a small French festival, and Henrietta begins to feel the emotions she should have been feeling for her son towards Gary. This is emotionally where the story needed to end, but the late stage introduction of such a contrivance as a perfect match for her own situation made me roll my eyes a bit. A similar but not so on the nose situation would have probably been more appropriate. Like an American needing to choose between a career and his family, or something, along with introducing it earlier. I would have probably found it more satisfying if Henrietta had found her kind of solace without a last minute detour into another character’s story. Maybe having her and Mrs. Hatfield coming to some kind of understanding where Mrs. Hatfield has moved on from her grief, providing a sort of opening for Henrietta to walk through to find her own.
So, the ending is fine, not quite living up to the promise of the journey overall, but the movie as a whole, while feeling a bit patchy, ends up working overall. The opening is melodramatic, but it’s solid enough foundation on which to build Henrietta’s journey. The actual resolution gets her to where she needs to be, but it’s less elegant than what could have been. I was ready to love this movie by the time Henrietta was shouting at everyone about how her Jim wasn’t a good boy, ready for her to turn around in melodramatic fashion, but the actual mechanics of that resolution were just too obvious for my tastes.
Still, I liked the film overall. It’s imperfect, but solid enough.