THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940)

Director: John Ford
Writer: Dudley Nichols (from Eugene O’Neill)
Cinematographer: Gregg Toland
Cast: John Wayne, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick
Running time: 105 minutes.

The ominous waters of the Atlantic leap hungrily at the sides of your ship. Beneath the black waves lurk enemy boats ready to send you to the bottom of the sea. You are a merchant marine, towing a cargo hold full of munitions from Baltimore to the shores of England during World War II.

Your shipmates on the Glencairn are a varied lot. There’s the short-tempered Irishman, the laconic Yank, the immodest and alcoholic Englishman, and the gentle giant who wishes only to return to his mother’s farm in Sweden. Each of these men holds a secret, an inner demon that drove them to the sea.

Adapted by Dudley Nichols from four plays by Eugene O’Neill and based on the playwright’s seafaring life during the first World War (and updated to WWII), The Long Voyage Home presents the unglamorous life of mariners who are neither heroes nor soldiers, but archetypal men caught in dangerous times.

No director could be better suited for this job than John Ford, who shared with O’Neill the Irishman’s love for sentiment and drama. The Long Voyage Home was Ford’s first production after The Grapes of Wrath (the latter earning Ford his second Oscar for Best Director). Ford liked to work with ensembles, and here he gathered many of his most reliable players from previous productions. For the contemporary audience, perhaps no performance is more remarkable than that of John Wayne as Ole Olsen, the tender Swede. Wayne initially resisted Ford’s direction to play his part with an accent, fearing that it might lapse into farce, but with practiced coaching by Danish actress Osa Massen, Wayne convincingly portrays the complex and gentle character with subtlety and depth.

However, the most powerful character in the film is the dark and unmerciful ocean, skillfully brought to life through the dramatic black and white cinematography of Gregg Toland. The legendary cameraman had also worked with Ford on The Grapes of Wrath, and received his own Oscar in 1939 for Wuthering Heights. Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader wrote “this rambling, melancholy tale of merchant seamen and their lonely lives features arguably the best cinematography by Gregg Toland outside of Citizen Kane.” Toland’s meticulous style expertly brings the audience onto the ship and into the raging storm, masterfully conveying the profound peril and intimate isolation of a life at sea.

The Long Voyage Home was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), Best Film Editing, Best Original Score (Richard Hageman), Best Special Effects, and Best Screenplay. The script was adapted from four plays by Eugene O’Neill: The Moon of the Caribbees, In the Zone, Bound East for Cardiff, and The Long Voyage Home.


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