#14 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
It’s interesting that a better title for this film might be Men Without Women and a better title for that film might be The Long Voyage Home. Still, here we are with the movie that John Ford made following The Grapes of Wrath, the second movie Ford had lensed by Gregg Toland, based on a series of one act plays by Eugene O’Neill. It’s the story of a tramp steamer making it from the West Indies to England in the opening days of World War II as the men aboard learn to spend one more voyage on the seas, the home to most of them, even if they don’t quite realize it.
This is the closest to an outright art film I think Ford ever made up to this point. Freed from the burdens of plot, what we get are a series of narrative events that highlight specific characters along the trip back across the Atlantic. It’s easy to see the bulk of where each of the plays really settled into the screenplay, but Dudley Nichols, the screenwriter, did a surprisingly good job stitching them all together into something cohesive. One event will dominate for a bulk of time, and we’ll transition to another, but there’s always an eye towards making the flow feel right and natural.
In a fair sized cast it is Thomas Mitchell who stands out as the main character in The Long Voyage Home. A veteran character actor who had been in his fair share of John Ford films up to this point (including Stagecoach for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), he anchors the film as Driscoll, a seaman of many years aboard the SS Glencairn. He helps to organize a goodbye party from the small island nation in the West Indies the crew is about to depart from, smuggling rum in the fruit baskets of the pretty girls he helps climb up the rope ladder with the officers’ implicit permission. At the edges of this party is Smith (Ian Hunter) who refuses the advances of the pretty girl pursuing him with a wistful look in his eye. There’s also Ole (John Wayne, complete with passable Swedish accent), a young man of only a few trips looking to return to Sweden when he gets back to England. The party is raucous, hiding a bitter sadness as the men know that not only will they not see women again for weeks, but they also know that they are sailing into the middle of a war zone and could die on the ocean.
At sea, the men paint all the windows black to hide their position at night, and at the same time Smith starts seeming suspicious. He is seen in the captain’s cabin near the code book. His porthole swings open in a way that seems like code, and he has a small black box that he never lets anyone see inside. Convinced he’s a German spy, the other sailors grab him and force open his box which is filled with letters. Having just heard how a German spy had used a cipher to send a coded message, Driscoll slowly reads through the letters where the sailors discover that Smith isn’t his real name, that he’s a former naval officer with a tragedy in his past that robbed him of all of his honor to the point that he ran from his family with whom he’s kept his wife’s letters, and is simply hiding away in his shame. The course of emotions as we ride along with Driscoll and the other sailors, wondering at Smith’s loyalties and learning the truth along with them, is surprisingly effective. It’s a frantic scene that steadily grows quiet and sad, and it works really well.
There are other events, but the last one is the biggest one and also happens to coincidentally feature John Wayne the most. They arrive in London, and the sailors are determined to not begin drinking away the entirety of their pay until they get Ole onto his boat for Sweden. He’s not one to live his life at sea. He must go home, and they are determined to get him there. However, there are forces on land that are determined, for their own ends, to not allow that to happen. It was here that I got a certain Felliniesque impression from the film, the entire movie being a loose series of events that ends with what could be a pseudo carnivalesque display as the handful of men get steadily drunk while Ole remains perfectly sober, innocent, and ready to go home. It’s a descent into drunkenness that ends in a fight and tragedy as characters use the situation to show the best of themselves. It really feels like a proto-Fellini film in an Irish idiom for a while.
The film reaches a subtle but deep sense of loss at the end as we learn the fate of one particular character. It’s a surprisingly affecting moment after the roughhousing that had preceded it, all made possible by the strong character focus the film had maintained from the beginning.
This is a largely forgotten Ford, but it was nominated for Best Picture and when John Wayne accepted Ford’s Oscar for Best Director on The Quiet Man, it was one of the films he listed as one of Ford’s best. Once again combined with the impeccable eye of Gregg Toland, the beautiful looking film about men surviving at sea is anchored by wonderful performances, especially Mitchell and Hunter. Wayne is fine in his role with limited lines as well.
It may not be one of Ford’s best films, but The Long Voyage Home is definitely worth not ignoring. There’s a surprising gentleness to the affair as men live the reality of a life at sea, the trials and inexorable return to the open ocean through danger. Wonderful to look at and filled with fine performances, it’s a Ford that should never have been forgotten.