John Wayne gets first billing in The Long Voyage Home, but the picture really belongs to Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond and Ian Hunter. The film’s a combination slash adaptation of four one-act plays–which is somewhat clear from the rather lengthy sequences tied together with shorter joining scenes–and while Wayne gets one of his own, it’s Mitchell who’s the constant. I remember the first time I saw Mitchell in something besides It’s a Wonderful Life and was astounded he was in other pictures (to save a little face, I’ll point out I was fifteen or sixteen at the time… hopefully). But I don’t think any other film of Mitchell’s I’ve seen really showcases him the way The Long Voyage Home does. The film ends when Mitchell leaves; it’s impossible to imagine it without him, something Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols must have realized. The film begs for one ending–the John Wayne ending–but doesn’t give it, maybe the only time the film betrays its ominous foreshadowing.
The foreshadowing’s only a problem in the last act, when The Long Voyage Home gets tedious. There are some narrative surprises, but they come after ten or fifteen minutes of scenes Ford would have done better to cut or somehow recap in expository dialogue. They’re predictable and boring… there’s occasionally flourishes of life, but only because the cast is so strong. The film’s a downer, but it’s such a continual downer–following the opening sequence, involving the crew’s shipboard soiree with some Caribbean prostitutes (it’s frequently amazing how the film is able to depict code-prohibited ideas clearly), which is just a slice-of-life piece–it’s hard to get upset at any point. The ominous foreshadowing, even if it doesn’t ripen, slams the viewer so constantly, it’d be impossible to get the heart rate up. It’s clear nothing good’s going to happen in the picture.
I love John Ford’s films with cinematographer Gregg Toland (a friend once scoffed at this appreciation, telling me to compare it to Toland’s work for Welles) but The Long Voyage Home is better-looking than any other Ford film I can think of. The composition is so continually stunning, it turns the picture into a more abstract piece of visual art–the narrative isn’t important, just the way the film looks. I accidently muted the film for thirty seconds and didn’t even realize it. The visuals are incredible. It’s such a deliberate film (and knowing Ford was not someone to lollygag around when composing shots, it’s unbelievable to think he was able to pick these shots with any speed).
All of the acting is good. Wayne plays a Swede (something he was worried about) and doesn’t get a lot of lines until the end, when it wouldn’t matter if he were good or not (he’s fine), just because he’s such a familiar face as the character. Ward Bond and Ian Hunter are fantastic, Hunter with the more difficult role, though Bond does get the one of the film’s monologues. Barry Fitzgerald and John Qualen are both good. Wilfrid Lawson is also good as the captain, who doesn’t get a name. It’s a solid, familiar Ford cast all around.
At some point in the first twenty minutes, when the film’s established itself as being narratively sturdy and visually stunning, it’s clear it’s never going to pick up. It’s a tad boring (in, unfortunately, the pejorative sense) but still a fine film.
Produced and directed by John Ford; screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on plays by Eugene O’Neill; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Sherman Todd; music by Richard Hageman; released by United Artists.
Starring John Wayne (Olsen), Thomas Mitchell (Driscoll), Ian Hunter (Smitty), Barry Fitzgerald (Cocky), Wilfrid Lawson (Captain), John Qualen (Axel), Mildred Natwick (Freda), Ward Bond (Yank), Arthur Shields (Donkeyman), Joe Sawyer (Davis), J.M. Kerrigan (Crimp), Rafaela Ottiano (Bella) and Carmen Morales (Principal Spanish Girl).