#36 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
This is bread and butter John Ford. A biographic film about a lifelong military man at West Point who never got to participate in any conflict despite living through both World Wars and dealing with the losses of war through his own personal contacts at the same time, The Long Gray Line is a sort of follow up to his early sound feature Salute, which is amusing since both have Ward Bond, first as a student and then as a teacher. It’s a nice film, painting a portrait of a very good man across the decades as he goes from Irish immigrant to beloved member of the faculty at West Point.
Using a small wraparound structure that starts at the White House with Martin Maher (Tyrone Power) having dinner with the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, reminiscing about his long years at West Point. His story begins when he shows up to the military academy in New York having just gotten off the boat from Ireland with a job in the kitchens as a server. He consistently is subject to breakage of plates before, a couple of years later, he joins the Army, subject to the guardhouse rather than docked pay, and quickly attracts the attention of the Master of Swords Captain Koehler (Bond) for his boxing ability, bringing him on as an athletic instructor when he quickly notices the redhaired Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara), Koehler’s cook. He becomes infatuated with her despite her never saying a word to him, only eventually saying anything when he proposes to her, saying yes and they instantly get into a small fight. It’s endearing, really.
The movie then enters what really seems to be the central point of the film which is the students at the academy being like Maher’s foster children. It’s centralized around the class of 1915, including a young Dwight David Eisenhower (Harry Carey Jr.) and, in particular, the first football game between West Point and Notre Dame University (another interesting counterpoint to the Army/Navy game that dominated the ending of Salute). There’s a nice bit of comedy here where Maher’s father, Dinny (Sean McClory), gets bets from the generals on the sidelines, organized by Maher himself, that all backfire when Notre Dame introduces the tactic of the perfectly legal forward pass that Army has no defense for. It’s a lesson in defeat for the boys, preceded by America’s entry into World War I. When Maher and Mary lose their first child hours after his birth it cements the idea that the men at the academy are the children that God has given them, and it helps deepen the emotions of the moment as the graduation of the 1915 class as well as the entry into The Great War.
The graduation ceremony is presented soberly, not with the great elation that the boys show on their faces. There’s a line of names read, and the implication of how it’s presented is that they are all going off to war, a war that will claim most of their lives. The next large block of the film is of Maher, stuck behind in West Point to help maintain some level of consistency at the school while people like Koehler go off to war, trying to maintain life while marking off the dead in his book of graduates, including Red (William Leslie), news reaching them on Armistice Day leaving behind a wife Kitty (Betsy Palmer) and infant son who shares his name.
Then the movie does what biographical films do and skips ahead decades to try and fill in a whole life in just a couple of hours. I instantly began to get annoyed, but there was method to this, reminding me of one of David Lean’s earlier films This Happy Breed. The death of the cadets in the First World War had colored a lot of attitudes, but Maher still believes in the tradition of West Point. If his country calls again, he expects his young men to do the fighting, but Red’s son Red Jr. (Robert Francis) has doubts and an issue. He married without his parents permission who forced him into an annulment. The question of duty is raised, and Maher’s talk with the young man, despite the wounds of WWI that claimed his father’s life and the break with the Academy that forces him out, Red Jr. decides to enlist as a private in the Army despite losing his commission.
The final part of the film really does have a point that extends from what came before, but I just don’t quite get invested in it like I do the first two-thirds of the film. The late introduction of Red Jr. as a new character to invest in, even if he’s ultimately a vessel through which Maher is able to express the ultimate form of his own beliefs, doesn’t work as well as it probably should. His conflict at the annulled marriage kind of comes out of nowhere very quickly after his introduction as a young adult. The basic point is Maher’s overall goodness and dedication to the military as well as his adopted country, which the episode feeds, but it relies on a bunch of new stuff coming in late that it doesn’t work overall as well as it should. It makes me wish that the movie had ended Maher’s reminiscences around the end of WWI, finding the point there rather than needing to establish a bunch of new stuff decades later.
Power is the center of the whole film, taking Maher from a young man to an elderly member of the faculty able to get dinner at the White House. He’s a thoroughly good guy who is dedicated to God, country, and his family. O’Hara is essentially played Mary Kate from The Quiet Man again, especially near the beginning when she’s most dominant. The rest of the supporting cast is solidly good as well. This was also Ford’s first film made in a widescreen scope format, and he doesn’t often seem to know what to do with the sudden extra space off to the sides, frequently just having his pair of characters conversing in the center of the frame with empty space surrounding them for no discernable reason.
It’s a nice film with a very warm heart, a tribute to a good man who served his country as best as he could, helping generations of Army officers.