“The best thing to do with memories is forget ‘em,” sighs a sad-eyed, weary sailor in John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home. It’s a wonderful line, indicative of the movie’s stoic fatalism and that special brand of boozy blarney favored by both this filmmaker and the author of his source material, Eugene O’Neill. The script was adapted by Ford’s frequent collaborator Dudley Nichols from four of O’Neill’s one-act plays, including the first to be professionally produced. (That would be Bound East for Cardiff, staged in 1916 at the Provincetown Playhouse in Massachusetts, where the author was vacationing and allegedly enjoying an affair with Louise Bryant, girlfriend of his host, John Reed. But for more on that you can go rent Reds.)
Inspired by O’Neill’s own adventures as a young man at sea, the loosely connected Bound East, The Moon of the Carribees, In the Zone and Long Voyage Home follow the crew of the Glencarin, a merchant marine vessel operating in the Atlantic. The plays take place during WWI, but Ford and Nichols updated them to then-present day 1940 for an all-new war in Europe on the eve of America’s belated involvement. It’s a troubling, uneasy picture full of foreboding — a nervous movie for a nervous moment. The Long Voyage Home is the best big-screen O’Neill adaptation, probably because it’s the most irreverent. Ford and Nichols tear the plays apart for their own purposes, threading their own dramatic throughlines into the four. As such, it isn’t nearly as self-conscious as other attempts to film the great dramatist’s work, which often creak under the weight of their towering reputations. O’Neill didn’t just cite it as his favorite of all the movies made from his plays, he’s said to have worn out his personal print.
One can’t blame him for re-watching it incessantly. This is an achingly beautiful movie, shot by cinematographer Gregg Toland the year before he and Orson Welles forever changed the way films look with Citizen Kane. Ford was so appreciative of the photography – Toland had also shot The Grapes of Wrath for him earlier that year – that in the opening credits he shared a title card with his cameraman, an unheard-of gesture implying almost equal authorship. (The legendarily immodest Welles would shock the world by doing likewise in Kane.) Ford had stills from The Long Voyage Home hanging on his office walls for decades, and in the deep-focus, chiaroscuro cinematography and multiple planes of action one can see the beginnings of not just Kane, but of most modern movies. (There’s an early shot of John Wayne reclining on the boat’s deck that Paul Thomas Anderson lifted wholesale for The Master.)
The movie begins much as it ends. The life of a commercial sailor is seen as a Mobius strip of bad decisions and botched resolutions by men who would rather hide away from the world, hundreds of miles out at sea. Sure, they always talk a good game about this being the final time that they’ll set sail; after this trip they’ll take their hard-earned money and head home to re-start their regular lives. They’ll do things right this time. But inevitably, they end up blowing it all on women and drink and come skulking back aboard for the next voyage with hungover heads held low. The cast is a gallery of some of Ford’s favorite rumpled, ruined faces, including Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter and Barry Fitzgerald. The only one they really hold out any hope for is the kid, a Swede named Ole played not unconvincingly by Wayne, barely a year after Ford’s Stagecoach brought him into his own as a movie star. The men of the Glencarin make it their mission to help Ole find his way back to the family farm.
This is easier said than done when you’re shipping a hull full of high explosives from Baltimore to England and the water’s full of Nazi submarines. At any moment the Glencarin could go up like a Roman candle, and the film’s interactions are all fraught with that knowledge, even as the sailors try to shrug it off. There’s a wonderfully enveloping atmosphere of doom in The Long Voyage Home, the fog that drapes the sets feeling like a death shroud. O’Neill’s plays were minimalist affairs on nearly empty stages, and Ford finds a fascinating balance between the cramped, close-quarter scenes below deck and a boisterous, big-canvas action picture upstairs. This has gotta be the only O’Neill adaptation with such spectacular set-pieces.
The Long Voyage Home was not a box office success, presumably because of the pervasive gloom and an almost total absence of female characters. (The studio’s hilariously misleading poster makes it look like a film about randy sailors cavorting with scantily clad native girls.) The film was nominated for six Oscars and lost them all, with Ford winning Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath instead. Indeed, if The Long Voyage Home remains somewhat unheralded in Ford’s filmography that’s probably because it came out the same year as his masterful John Steinbeck adaptation, which happens to be the year after he made Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln and the year before he won Best Director again for How Green Was My Valley. Only in the midst of such an unbelievable run could Eugene O’Neill’s favorite find itself overlooked.