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about the writer

Chris Fujiwara is a film critic and writer. He is the editor of Undercurrent, FIPRESCI's magazine of film criticism. He is the author of The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber & Faber), Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press), and the forthcoming Jerry Lewis (University of Illinois Press). He is also the general editor of Defining Moments in Movies (Cassell Illustrated), aka The Little Black Book: Movies. His work has been published in many anthologies and such periodicals as Film Comment, Film Quarterly, and Cineaste.

Out of Circulation
The Long Voyage Home

By Chris Fujiwara

The Long Voyage Home: The pub

"Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill." These lines, from Robert Louis Stevenson, are spoken (by John Wayne) as a funeral oration in They Were Expendable (1945), and for most of the sailors of The Long Voyage Home (1940), too, home means only death. The places they came from are forgotten or forbidden. No one envisions any departure from the cycle of reaching port and shipping out, and only death ends "the long voyage." The exception is Ole (John Wayne). Alone among the characters, he has a home somewhere in another part of his life that still exists and that he will go back to, alive — but all that is almost theoretical. Ole alone may be linked to the world of the living, but John Ford does not want the audience of The Long Voyage Home to follow that link. Ole's home is only a vacant abstraction, thrown up by his own obstinate memory and by his companions' sentimentality as the necessary opposite pole to the death toward which the others are all moving.

If they can be said to move at all. Visually, of course, everything moves in a John Ford film, but in The Long Voyage Home it is even clearer than usual that movement is functioning as a metaphor for immobility. With an overwhelming beauty that becomes almost unbearable because lightened by few if any concessions to the pleasant or the pretty, The Long Voyage Home pays tribute to a group of ghosts who endlessly circle the seas of a dead, unturning world. The first shots of the film suggest this in a strikingly austere way, showing the S.S. Glencairn lying anchored and becalmed in the stagnant air of a Caribbean night, women leaning against palm trees as if attached to them in some Surrealist landscape. The world has the plainly studio-created look of a temporary installation, an artistic experiment. A hermetic, abstract artificiality is as apparent in The Long Voyage Home as in The Informer (1935) and The Fugitive (1947). That's the source of the antipathy some Ford aficionados feel for this entire wing of the director's edifice. Yet even in his seemingly least ambitious, most disarming works (Mogambo [1953], say, or Steamboat Round the Bend [1935]), Ford is a fabricator of distant, isolated, self-contained imaginary universes. Such as the pub in the last section of The Long Voyage Home. False yet real, it exists only as a trap for unwary sailors, a Potemkin pub, and except upon the sailors' being lured there, when it suddenly fills with music and overaged "girls," it evidently remains in a limbo of dreary silence.

The Long Voyage Home: behind the pub

In its harshness and transitoriness, the physical world of the film matches the condition of the characters, whose lives are not only bounded by but also defined by coming and going. Another aspect of their lives, which Ford sometimes shows directly but more often only implies through the way the men move and through their clothes and bodies, is work. (With The Grapes of Wrath [1940] and How Green Was My Valley [1941], The Long Voyage Home forms the middle part of a rather ferocious trilogy on labor.) This work transforms nothing but merely copes with an endlessly renewed, inexhaustible quantity of cargo — the assorted stuff of the world, shifted around from one place to another on the globe. The existence of this stuff could be considered more real than the existence of the men, since it has origins and destinations, but they have only stopovers. Among this cargo is a supply of explosives bound for England that at any moment could blow up the ship and all its hands. The ship's masters account this death matériel more precious than the men, who are deemed expendable (death material), as are all the workers who get used and used up in fighting the wars of nations (or "forging their life-lines," as the opening title has it).

The cargo indicates a large-scale commercial network, to which the ship's officers are duty-bound and of which the seamen know only rumors and myths. (The officers are glimpsed presences in the film, less real still than the crew; like adults hovering near a children's party.) News reaches the ship in snatches of different languages, in radio broadcasts, a magazine, a newspaper, but the news seems to come from another world, to believe in which almost calls for too much effort, from the audience as from the characters. History is just a rumor (even though this rumor can be fatal). Apart from the cargo, nothing circulates.

The Long Voyage Home: Yank's smoke ringAir circulates least of all. The atmosphere aboard the ship is choked and close, though the depths of the images seem endless. Dying in his bunk, Yank (Ward Bond) sees imaginary smoke seeping into the cabin. The smoke (which Ford does not show) is the fatal atmosphere of the ship concretized in the form of an image, just as, in certain shots, Gregg Toland contrives to make visible the streaming of light and the passages of cloud shadows over the deck. There is little or no movement around the images; all the movement is inside the images. Not that people don't come in and go out of the frame; but they come in from nowhere and go out to nowhere. Everything happens inside the frame: this is where the characters pay their respects to the notion they call life.

The world of The Long Voyage Home has been stripped down, taken apart, and reconstructed as memory images. Toland's depth of field invites the eye to enter further and further and hints that it could lose itself in infinite explorations. All the action of the film has to do with memory. Smitty (Ian Hunter), pinioned and gagged, is constrained to remember his past (from which alcoholism has exiled him) while Driscoll (Thomas Mitchell) reads aloud the letters from Smitty's wife. Memory is like torture in this scene, and though the text of the letters is, in a sense, the text of memory, it is Smitty's enforced muteness (in close-up), his inability to prevent the extraction of this involuntary confession, that most vividly and painfully embodies the act of memory. Later, responding to the attack by German planes, Smitty's body remembers his past of efficient command and courage as it goes through the motions of naval heroism. Yank, dying, thinks of a woman in Cardiff who loaned him money once, and who is all he has, or all he cares to claim as his, on land. If she were ever asked about him, what would she say? Would she remember him at all? It's just like the woman in the white dress on the passing ship for Bernstein in Citizen Kane (1941) — an image of an alternate world, uselessly haunting a denizen of this one, who will soon die longing for it. Driscoll, entering the pub of doom, remembers being robbed in the same place, on another stopover. It is a fine acting moment by Thomas Mitchell (a character actor who, if anyone can be said to have it, has the lead role in the film), his recollection seeming actually to widen and fill the space.

The Long Voyage Home: reading Smitty's letter The Long Voyage Home: Smitty gagged

If the sailors' memories add up to a second-level narrative told from multiple points of view, the first-level narrative is also fragmented and dispersed. The absence of a single unifying narrator figure or authorial surrogate in The Long Voyage Home is striking. There is no person who has escaped (or who will escape) from the sailors' perpetual round to assume the privilege and the responsibility of speaking for his companions. (Ole escapes, but he shows no promise as a storyteller, in English, anyway; on the contrary, his speech is characterized by rudimentary grammar and a heavy Swedish accent. Let me, in passing, pay tribute to the perfection of John Wayne's performance, too often maligned.) The Arthur Shields character, Donkeyman, seems to have some of the typical characteristics of such an authorial figure, since he appears mainly as a taciturn observer and as a confidant to Smitty, but he is not that figure, as he proves when, on the Glencairn's arrival in London late in the film, he alone among the crew signs on again for the next voyage even before going ashore from the last one. Donkeyman has a self-insight, then, that is lacking in the others (and in this, too, he is like a narrator or author figure), but this very self-insight is part of what makes him incapable of carrying his knowledge off the ship and into the wider world in the form of a story. Narration itself doesn't circulate in The Long Voyage Home. Instead, narration is a matter of inclusion and containment. The opening and closing titles (added at the request of producer Walter Wanger, with Ford's approval, according to Matthew Bernstein's book on Wanger) lock up the stories within the film, as if seeking to ensure, by their formal symmetry, an impossibility of exit that is already clear from the design of the images. Everything remains inside, within the frame.

This closure points to a paradox of The Long Voyage Home, one that is, perhaps, a central paradox of Ford's work as a whole. Films that are built substantially around a journey or expedition are numerous in Ford's oeuvre, The Iron Horse (1924), The Lost Patrol (1934), Stagecoach (1939), Wagon Master (1950), The Searchers (1956), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) being just a few of the notable examples. In most of these films, the original object of the journey is either not attained, or attained in an unexpected way (as Blake Lucas pointed out to me regarding Two Rode Together [1961]) or else exchanged for something else. Many Fordian journeys are indeed voyages "home," but the meaning of home is unstable over the course of a film and undergoes a series of transformations.

Working closely with Ford, Dudley Nichols adapted the script for The Long Voyage Home from four one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill, weaving them together into a single voyage but leaving little doubt where the breaks between the original plays lie. The result is a type of episodic structure to which Ford returns again and again throughout his work, in which the part takes precedence over the whole. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Young Cassidy (1965) are each built as several episodes in the title figure's life, rather than a continuous trajectory. In many films, Ford uses episodes to complicate and retard journeys, and sometimes the journey is merely a pretext for the string of episodes that constitute the film. If any single work best epitomizes the Fordian episode, it must be "A Minute's Wait," the central story in the three-part The Rising of the Moon (1957). In this film, the stopover, repeatedly prolonged, of a train at a station in Ireland comes to engulf and replace the journey, so that the train seems to make its trip not for the sake of going from one stop to another, but for the sake of the stop itself. My Darling Clementine (1946) is a feature-length variation on the stopover idea.

The Long Voyage HomeThe Long Voyage Home combines both kinds of subversion — diverting the journey from its ostensible object (and even from having any object at all) and privileging the discontinuity of the episode. An anti-adventure film, a "sixteen-inch shell into the MGM glamour empire" (as Nichols wrote to Ford after seeing some rushes), The Long Voyage Home could well represent the ideal of the Fordian journey film.

Chris Fujiwara
© FIPRESCI 2009


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issue #5 (5.2009)


Contents
bullet. John Ford
bullet. Gerald Peary
bullet. Jem Cohen
bullet. Jeonju
bullet. Edition Filmmuseum
bullet. Mona
bullet. Frankly My Dear