October 13, 2015
The Long Voyage Home (1940) was self-consciously an art film. An atmospheric bummer adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, it was the first movie made for John Ford’s independent production company Argosy (co-founded with Merian C. Cooper). This offered Ford an unusual amount of freedom, and co-producer Walter Wanger commissioned prominent fine artists (Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Luis Quintanilla, Georges Schreiber, and Ernest Fiene) to come on the set and paint whatever they wanted. In the biography Searching for John Ford Joseph McBride quotes the director as saying “I didn’t like the idea at first, but the artists proved to be a grand bunch of guys.” Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland did their own painting with light, making The Long Voyage Home his most visually experimental film. There is the deep focus that Toland made famous the next year in Citizen Kane, plus low-light chiaroscuro and trick shots like anchoring the camera to the floor of the ship so the audience has a plank-level view of a storm, the waves crashing over the lens. It screened on 35mm (a UCLA restoration) in the Revivals section at this year’s New York Film Festival, but it is also streaming on Criterion’s Hulu page, if you are digitally inclined. At points the film feels like a workshop, to try out techniques Ford was unable to use on his bigger studio pictures, which gives The Long Voyage Home its patchwork quality. And yet Dudley Nichols’ sensitive script is able to tie the anecdotal structure together, and it remains a profoundly moving experience of unmoored men at sea, fruitlessly trying to claw back to land.
The Long Voyage Home was shot in thirty-seven days for $682,495 at the Goldwyn Studios lot, as well as aboard the freighter S.S. Munami at Wilmington Harbor, CA. Eugene O’Neill was friends with Ford and proposed bundling his seafaring one-acts into a film. Dudley Nichols updated it to WWII, gathering a group of O’Neill’s dead-ender sailors on The Glencairn as they travel from the West Indies to Baltimore and on to England, transporting explosives through a war zone. It is an ensemble cast that includes Thomas Mitchell as Driscoll, a gregarious Irish rouster, John Wayne as Ole, a sensitive, big-hearted Swede, and Ward Bond as Yank, a bullet-headed brawler. In the digressive narrative room is given to the stories of Smitty (Ian Hunter), an alcoholic escaping his past, and Cocky (Barry Fitzgerald), a failure come to terms with his lonely life at sea. John Qualen and Billy Bevan are also on board to provide some nosy comic relief.
None of them have managed to figure out life on land, so they continually sign up for more journeys on the ocean, in perpetual avoidance of the “real” world on solid ground. Instead they drink and brawl and pine nostalgically for the old days of drinking and brawling. The crew pairs off in friendships, with Driscoll and Yank as best friends and world travelers, even if they can’t remember half of their trips. Smitty and Cocky continually end up on deck with each other, as the rest of the crew gets blasted. Smitty is nervous, sweaty and haunted, the most noirish character of the bunch. The crew invents an elaborate backstory for his secretiveness, one that expands in complexity until they start believing his is a Nazi spy. Most of their time is occupied inside of these fantasies. Smitty’s refusal to participate marks him as an outsider. The truth is sadder than any of them can comprehend. So they ignore it and move on.
John Wayne gives one of his most unusual performances, taking on a Swedish accent and playing Ole as a sweet, slow-witted goofball. He is a lovable giant, and the characterization runs counter to the All-American athlete persona he had been cultivating for years. But for John Ford he would do anything. Wayne was still finishing off his Republic Pictures contract, and had to shoot the drama Three Faces West for twenty days before taking on Long Voyage Home. Insecure at his talent for accents, he asked Ford for help. As quoted in Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Ford responded: “Well, Jesus, all right if you want to be a goddamn actor. You don’t need it.” But Ford hired Danish acting coach Osa Massen to help him out, and if the accent isn’t quite accurate, her instruction put Wayne at ease, and his performance of wide-eyed innocence is one of the most delicate of his career. Though it was a glorified supporting part, Wayne was still given top billing, probably due to the smashing success of Stagecoach in 1939.
Ole has plans to quit the seaman life and return home to his family in Sweden. It is the crew’s solemn vow that they will protect him on shore leave and make sure he gets on the ship home. He has failed many times before, getting caught up in drink, getting in debt, and returning to work to pay off his debts. But for all of the men, Ole is a symbol of freedom, the only one who could conceivably forge a real life on land. Everyone else has had their family and friends die off or disavow them. The ship is their entire world. And the way in which Toland shoots them it feels like a moving mausoleum. Toland reserves his low light shots for the bridge, the tools of navigation bathed in darkness. They hyperreal qualities of deep focus here emphasize the empty spaces, of lost crew members and phantom memories. The most representative sequence is the shot of the raging storm that crashes onto the camera, which anticipates the GoPro techniques of Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s immersive boat film Leviathan. There are no actors in the shot, it is emptied of everything but the water. The crew of the Glencairn are disappearing, and they will all eventually be subsumed in the ocean. The shot is a foreshadowing of future absence, and for most of the crew, not an unwanted one.