Monday, December 15, 2014

Long Voyage Home, The (1940)

Director: John Ford

It can be considered the first World War II picture produced in America is John Ford’s film The Long Voyage Home. It adapts four short stories by Eugene O’Neil into a singular drama about a crew onboard a cargo ship crossing the Atlantic with a very dangerous payload. A gritty film that does not romanticize life as a crewmember onboard a ship, the feature becomes a tome about life as a wandering seaman where home is an idea they only have, because there is no real place to call their own. It is a picture with very little redeeming qualities to its plot, but leaves the audience in thoughts of how life seems to pass many by.

The Long Voyage Home is a drama about the crew aboard a freighter crossing the ocean during World War II and their emotional and physical battles with themselves, each other, and the people on land. The film’s story is about the ensemble of seamen who discover they are to ship explosives and artillery across the Atlantic during the uneasy time of World War II, which puts the crew in an uneasy state. The diverse crew includes the oft-drunk Irishman Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell) and young and strong Swede Ole (John Wayne), among numerous other gruff, colorful loners at sea. The crew deals with fear, desertion, suspicion amongst one another, and the loss of few members along their dangerous journey across the ocean. Upon reaching England the men decide to not renew as crewmembers aboard the ship and convince the young Ole to purchase a ticket home to Sweden for the first time in a decade, however a night of celebratory drinking leads to Ole being kidnapped. The men, led by Discoll, rescue Ole and set him on his way to Sweden, but Discoll loses his life in an event of kidnapping and sinking of a ship because of the war. Meanwhile the remaining crewmembers return to their lives crewmen on the same ship they arrived in, somewhat knowing these are the lives they lead.

It is a somber picture that glances over the lives of individuals who believe to have no purpose in life other than to work hard and spend their few moments of pleasure when they come. It is gritty film that ends on a sad note when we discover Thomas Mitchell’s character, Discoll, who has only good intentions in his heart is forced to work aboard a ship that is torpedoed by a German U-boat.  

In this picture John Ford creates an odyssey filled with then contemporary characters of 1940 where their lives move from one event to another. The men seem to not have meaning, but rather to live purely in the moment they are in, whether it is hard work, instants of silence, or raucous pleasure..

The film A Long Voyage Home was assembled by John Ford under his new production company, Argosy Pictures, adapting four separate short stories by Irish American author Eugene O’Neil into one comprehensive story. Although the original works took place during World War I Ford moved the time period to World War II to make the characters and events more relevant to modern audiences. By doing so John Ford produced what some consider the first World War II picture. This statement is to say it is depicting the horror of living in the world while the war was currently taking place. Of course there had been Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent and even Chaplin’s comedy The Great Dictator, but those films were not about the war, but events leading to war or characters surrounding the war. Here Ford presents a plot about war time needs of transporting ammunition with the threat and eventual attack by the Germans.

The ensemble cast of includes the like of the Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell and still young, up-and-coming John Wayne, both who worked on the popular classic Stagecoach with John Ford. Also featured in the colorful group are character actors Ian Hunter, Brian Fitzgerald, and John Qualen. This motley crew of quirky players made for the precise mix that complimented the idea of a crew of men from many backgrounds sharing quarters on a freighter and living life moment to moment.

To help publicize the picture produce Walter Wanger commissioned many artists to paint images inspired by the visuals of the film while it was still in production. Nine prominent artists would visit sets, watch daily rushes, and spend time studying various aspects of the production to inspire them to create paintings. The eleven final pieces that emerged then made a tour through museums across the nation and helped ad to the publicity of the picture.
Critically The Long Voyage Home was a well praised dramatic piece that continues to stand well with contemporary audiences. Box office numbers were not as kind as the film overall took a loss. John Ford’s new production company would not produce another film until after World War II, but that was due to the war itself, not the financial losses from this picture. Ford would be praised for his directorial work as he was awarded the best director award from the New York Film Critics for his work on The Long Voyage Home to go along with Academy Award for another 1940 feature The Grapes of Wrath, making him perhaps the greatest artistic director during this period.

With time The Long Voyage Home would fade in cinema’s memory, but remains can be discovered by fans of John Ford as a unique piece of résumé. The commissioned artwork would not be long remembered, but would connect the film to the art community unlike ever done before. The Long Voyage Home remains a very fine film to discover for students of motion pictures as it is an American feature that does not polish up the world as much as other Hollywood features tended to do.

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