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Aboard the freighter Glencairn, the lives of the crew are lived out in fear, loneliness, suspicion and cameraderie. The men smuggle drink and women aboard, fight with each other, spy on each other, comfort each other as death approaches, and rescue each other from danger. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
An expressionistic classic featuring John Wayne as a Swede? Can it be?
"The Long Voyage Home" may fall just short of classic status, but it is one of Hollywood's most visually expressionistic films, a tone poem of shadow and light presented by director John Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland. That is indeed the Duke himself, John Wayne, playing a Swedish hayseed named Ole Olsen who the other sailors aboard his ship want to see safely en route to home. He's not Meryl Streep as it turns out, but you will want to see this powerhouse example of Hollywood art anyway for Toland's camera-work, the ensemble acting, and Dudley Nichols' seamless adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's four one-act plays.
O'Neill's sea yarns are transported to the then-present. World War II is underway, and the Glencairn transports ammunition to England for the fight against Hitler. Will Ole return home? What is the secret behind quiet English sailor Smitty (Ian Hunter)? Why are women bearing baskets of fruit not to be trusted? Why is Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell) so suspicious of that bartender?
Pauline Kael once wrote up "Long Voyage Home" by way of addressing another film shot by Gregg Toland the following year, "Citizen Kane." Both Ford and "Kane" director Orson Welles took the unusual step of sharing their titles card with Toland, a show of respect for what Toland's eye brought to their films. I'd say Toland brought more to "Long Voyage Home" than he did to "Kane," as every shot seems suffused with a tenseness and mood that at the very least speaks as eloquently to the drama on screen as any line of dialogue or actor's performance.
That's true from the opening shot, a wordless pan shot of the Glencairn drifting across the water as women in the foreground gyrate sensuously to an unseen music. The images are contrasted with those of Glencairn sailors looking pent-up and frustrated. Are the women really there on the shore, or just being imagined by the crew? It's a classic bit of expressionist ambiguity that, once established, carries through for the rest of the film.
Take the case of Smitty, a fellow who no one can much figure out as he keeps to himself, at least until he is finally fingered as a likely German spy in a sequence that might appear contrived had not Nichols, Toland, and Hunter made it quite diabolically real. Ian Hunter is not a well-known actor today, but he carries the film as long as he's around, especially while confronted with his apparent treachery. Watching him grimace and shake with fury as his secret is slowly, gut-wrenchingly exposed is the strongest scene in this very strong film, and once the film moves beyond Smitty, it never quite recovers. Hunter also appears in "Adventures Of Robin Hood" as a similar figure of dual identities, and I won't make the mistake of underestimating him again.
I only wish Thomas Mitchell, the Oscar winner from Ford's "Stagecoach" the previous year, had brought some restraint to his playing of Driscoll here. Barry Fitzgerald and John Qualen, Ford vets both, seem to catch his overacting bug. It's not pretty, especially to those of us who have seen all three give better work.
Wayne, however, is effective despite his dodgy accent, and it's interesting to see him in a film, just a year after his breakthrough in "Stagecoach," where he is presented to us as one of the gang, something of a follower and not a lone-wolf leader. I don't normally associate Wayne with amiable go-alongness, but he carries it here.
John Ford is pretty much the Shakespeare of cinema, effortlessly moving from comedy to tragedy within a single scene, and "Long Voyage Home," while not perfect, makes a strong case for his visionary mastery.
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