THE LONG VOYAGE HOME A-
USA (105 mi) 1940 d: John Ford
As far as this job’s concerned, you men haven’t gotten any names. You’re just so many hands. —Captain (Wilfrid Lawson)
A grim yet revelatory work, beautifully shot throughout by CITIZEN KANE (1941, his next film) cinematographer Gregg Toland using a powerfully provocative German Expressionist style, almost completely told through light and shadow, where man is seen as little more than a silhouette on the wall. Something near and dear to the director’s heart, Dudley Nichols adapts Eugene O’Neill’s Sea Plays, a combination of four one-act plays all taking place at sea, including port excursions, The Moon of the Caribees, Bound East for Cardiff, In the Zone, and The Long Voyage Home, all written between 1914 – 1918 during the First World War. Ford, however, sets the action during the lead-in to World War II, weaving them all together into a single voyage, perhaps as a progressive notion to raise awareness for the war effort, because England was taking on Hitler alone at the time, where Andrew Sinclair, author of John Ford: a Biography (1979) points out, “Ford was using Irish-American plays and players to praise English patriotism.” The film became a personal favorite of both Ford and O’Neill, where this is but one of many Ford films built around a journey, such as THE IRON HORSE (1924), THE LOST PATROL (1934), STAGECOACH (1939), WAGON MASTER (1950), THE SEARCHERS (1956), and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), though often the object of the journey is never attained, like a mythical quest for the Golden Fleece, or immortality. There’s a near surrealist aspect to Ford’s vision, as the weary and rootless sailors of this beat-up freighter ship circle the seas endlessly in a Sisyphus notion, always with the hope that land will offer them renewed life or opportunities, but they’re forever seen dragging their feet back aboard ship again for the next voyage, disappearing into the night like ghosts at sea. Any O’Neill story is filled with a notable bleakness and sense of disillusionment, but these are ordinary men who lead hard lives filled with noble dreams, broken promises, and false hopes, having no one to blame but themselves for continually abandoning any possibility of hope.
Coming between the era of rampant unemployment during the Great Depression in THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) and the harsh setting of a small mining town in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), these form a powerful trilogy on the exploitation of workers, where ordinary people become victims of circumstances beyond their control, becoming easy prey for more powerful interests to swoop in and continually take advantage of their situation. It’s interesting that these all precede America’s entry into World War II, where our values of passive non-involvement reflect the nation’s lingering paralysis in coming to terms with Hitler and the war, leaving an unsuspecting nation vulnerable and unprotected for attack, which, for lack of a better plan, mirrors the hopeless predicament the men in this film continually find themselves. The film can be linked as well to THE INFORMER (1935), as both have Irish source material, including the lyrical and near musical enunciation of the language itself, but both are also set inside a hermetically sealed, artificially self-contained universe, a supposed safe haven where one can comfortably retreat, but which often becomes a trap of enclosing doom. Instead of a powerful lead performance, however, or even a unifying narrative, this is clearly a more abstract ensemble piece of collective voices, giving this the feel of an experimental work, where the striking expressionist look continually creates a murky atmosphere where figures on deck are silhouettes moving slowly through the mist, resembling the fog and gloom of Béla Tarr’s THE MAN FROM LONDON (2007). The closely constructed quarters onboard the ship resemble the claustrophobic confines of a submarine, where the men are continually stacked on top of one another, never more than a few feet away at any time, with no air to breathe, where privacy is a luxury that exists only in one’s head. Having spent several years at sea, Eugene O’Neill also suffered from alcoholism and depression, common elements that figure prominently in this film.
From the languorous opening in the steamy tropics of the Caribbean West Indies where women for hire are swaying in the breeze under palm trees, where a chorale of voices chant to the rhythmic sounds of pounding drums, a ship at shore sits with idle men leering over the deck smoking cigarettes, a truly exotic sequence which can be seen here: ThLngVygHmA - YouTube (10:01). After a night of alcohol and prostitutes, the ship heads for Baltimore where explosives are packed into the ship before they cross the open sea for England, secretly offering assistance for the war effort. This is a no frills version of another TITANIC (1997) like disaster of epic proportions, a portrait of endless life on a ship at sea, fresh meat for the officers, hash for the men, where the men’s nerves are frayed entering perilous waters in the Atlantic knowing the cargo they carry and how vulnerable they are to submarine attack. Like a scene out of HURRICANE (1937), a huge rainstorm takes them by surprise, with giant waves crashing over the deck loosening the anchor, where one poor sap trying to help gets submerged by thundering waves, puncturing his lung. His chilling death only magnifies their weakness and sets the men on edge, where the mood of camaraderie disintegrates, gradually turning into an eerily extended sequence of growing panic and psychological paranoia, where an overwhelming wave of fear turns them all against one man, creating a lynch mob atmosphere drenched with a malevolent suspicion until shame clears the air with a foul odor. Adrift at sea, in a perpetual state of soulless decay and dreary isolation, each man must face their own inner demons, where Ford’s direction continually accentuates character, blending the absence of adventure of the voyage with the collective interior wasteland of the men, so once they reach their designated port, they pessimistically ply themselves with alcohol, blithely divorcing all rationality from their inebriated brains, allowing themselves to get suckered once again, until all that’s left is a tragic portrait of a pathetic human condition, each one a beaten down shell of a man, lost souls destined to wander the vast and endless seas in a shadow existence.