John Ford #2: The Long Gray Line (US 1955)

This odd film unites John Ford’s ‘Irishness’ with his love of the US military, but also finds him tackling his first CinemaScope feature. I watched the film for the first time on a recording I made from Film 4 but I see it is now available in a four film Blu-ray box set from Indicator celebrating Ford at Columbia. (The other three films are The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Last Hurrah (1958) and Gideon’s Day (1958), with a host of extras – I’m certainly tempted.)

The star of the film is Tyrone Power and this alone makes the film intriguing for me. Power (born 1914) was a big star in Hollywood from 1936 up until his early death from a heart attack in 1958. Like Ford he was American-born but his family history saw him related to a leading Irish theatrical family. As a young man he was a matinee idol, a great ‘swashbuckler’ and a handsome romantic lead. He was tied in to a long contract with Fox but broke away to develop his theatre career and by 1954 was free to sign up for Ford’s Columbia picture. His was a name I knew, but I have seen few of his films. We tend to forget just how many Hollywood films there were in the 1930s/40s and how so many films were very popular on release but subsequently forgotten. I remember him as a beautiful young Indian doctor in the melodrama The Rains Came (1939) but little else. It’s also intriguing that given Ford’s long association with Fox as a studio, he didn’t use Power before this picture.

Martin Maher (Tyrone Power) as the young Irishman, failing as a waiter in the West Point refectory

‘The Long Gray Line’ refers to the cadets at the American Military Academy at West Point. The film is an adaptation of a book by Martin (‘Marty’) Maher, an Irishman who landed in New York in 1898, aged 22 and became a waiter in the refectory at West Point. After various adventures he enlisted and somehow stayed at West Point, becoming an instructor, for a total of 50 years. He died in 1961 aged 84. Power plays him in the film and has to age from 23 to 75. (He was 40 when the film was made.) It’s clear why the film property appealed to Ford and he called up some of his regulars, notably Maureen O’Hara who has to be similarly ‘de-aged’ as she is meant to be a young woman off the boat (and she was 34 at the time) who falls for ‘Marty’. Ward Bond is more convincing as the sports coach Capt. Kohler who recognises Marty’s qualities as a possible instructor and Donald Crisp (the father in How Green Was My Valley) as Marty’s father, who comes over from Ireland to see his son ‘settled’. Harry Carey Jr. plays Dwight D. Eisenhower as a cadet and there are similar roles for John Wayne’s son Patrick and Ford’s son-in-law Ken Curtis.

Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara) with a bemused Marty

It seems that Ford and his scriptwriters changed several aspects of Maher’s story, but the film narrative is substantially the same. I surprised myself as I watched it. I didn’t really enjoy the first quarter of this long film (136 minutes) and I found the clumsiness and clowning of the young Maher just too much. But gradually I was drawn in. Maureen O’Hara received praise for her performance but I didn’t warm to her this time, unlike her earlier roles in Rio Grande (1950) or The Quiet Man (1952). However, I did begin to appreciate Tyrone Power and although Gallagher calls him ‘wooden’, I began to be captured by Ford’s sentimentalism. Despite attempts to resist I was in floods of tears by the end of the film. Ford does this to me even when I am not on the side of the US military or the broad brush approach to Irish cultural identity and I am all too aware of what Ford is doing as he manipulates my emotions. In the final scenes Marty is honoured by a parade of all the cadets. This in a sense looks back to Fort Apache as those close to him who have died during his time at West Point also appear to him. He is part of the Army, and those who were with him will never be forgotten, just like the cavalry soldiers who died in Arizona in 1876.

This was Ford’s first film in CinemaScope. (He made only three in all in a ‘Scope ratio, although he made three other films in various non-standard widescreen processes.) In 1955 this meant the very wide initial Scope of 2.55:1 before the replacement of a magnetic stereo audio track on separate projection prints by a standard optical track reduced the width to 2.35:1. Ford was initially sceptical and he stuck to the beliefs that the cumbersome ‘Scope cameras and anamorphic lenses were unable to achieve the range of shot compositions, especially for Technicolor, that might be achieved by ‘flat’ shoots on 35mm designed for Academy ratios. As a result the film uses long shots and long takes extensively. Fritz Lang famously mocked ‘Scope as fit only for “snakes and funerals”. The sweeping vistas of West Point (e.g the railway station and the Hudson River) and the long lines of marching cadets were actually ideal even for Lang’s blinkered view of the format. Ford has been seen as a filmmaker who often shot his pictures with detailed ‘master shots’ – i.e. characters brought together in relatively static compositions in long shot or MLS/MS. He couldn’t manage his usual swift cutting but he was able to get plenty of movement into the wide frame and some of his trademark low angle shots are used on occasion. There is only one shot I remember where the trap of ‘Scope caught out cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. This is where the two female leads, Maureen O’Hara and Betsy Palmer, are seated opposite each other across a table and the composition has one at each each extreme of the ‘Scope frame, leaving an uncomfortable large space between them. I didn’t feel that made sense in the narrative.

Marty at the end of his long career takes the salute of the parade in his honour

For me, The Long Gray Line is minor Ford, though it is quite beautiful to watch and develops as a form of family melodrama in which the military background becomes less important than the relationships between Maher and his family and the cadets as they grow older. Lindsay Anderson in his book on Ford sees the film as an example of Ford’s ‘professional’ drive to keep working and therefore accepting projects that are designed to suit the studio’s new policy of ‘Scope spectacles rather than Ford’s personal artistic interests. Monthly Film Bulletin comes to the same conclusion in a review by ‘GL’ – Gavin Lambert?: “Expert as it all is, the spectacle of this confident self-travesty is something one would rather have missed.” I can’t disagree with this analysis but its tone is that of the high culture critic who can seemingly ignore the pleasure offered by a professionally-made popular entertainment. (As an interesting sidelight in the review, there is an implication that the Leicester Square Theatre, where presumably a Press Show was held, was not able to show the full width of the ‘Scope print – and possibly not the 4-track stereo?).

Joseph McBride in his Ford biography is one of the few Ford critics to break ranks on The Long Gray Line. He acknowledges all of the film’s flaws, but also declares that it is Ford’s ‘schizoid film’ with a dark side to the image of West Point showing through in the overall context of an Eisenhower era, bright, light image. He’s right of course, but I don’t think this critique of the military emerges clearly enough from the sentimentality. McBride also reveals just how popular the film was, grossing $5.6 million (against a negative cost of $1.8 million). McBride too praises O’Hara and perhaps I should take another look at her performance. He reveals that she fell out with Ford on the picture and that Ford transferred his affection to Betsy Palmer, a young actress he used again in the ill-fated Mr Roberts (1955).

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