John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home at the Pacific Film Archive

John Ford directed seven films in the three years preceding Pearl Harbor. That in itself wasn’t so remarkable in the days of studio assembly lines. But the quality of those seven show the power of a mature artist at his height. They include Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln, and How Green Was My Valley.

The Long Voyage Home, the fifth film in that remarkable series, isn’t as well known as the four I listed above. But it should be. A story of a small, commercial freighter in the early months of World War II, it balances multiple characters while recreating a way of life that most of us will never experience.

The UCLA Film and Television Archive recently preserved The Long Voyage Home, creating a new preservation negative and at least one 35mm projection print. I saw that print projected Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive.

Like Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. And like Stagecoach, John Wayne and Thomas Mitchell carry much of the film’s story. Both films were produced by Walter Wanger.

Based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach), The Long Voyage Home starts by introducing us to the crew. They support each other, drink, and commit minor acts of rebellion against the officers. But it isn’t all comradeship; when drunk enough, they fight with each other.

And they talk about giving up the sea and finding a life on land. But they never make it. When a voyage is done and they get their pay, they drink themselves broke, and have to sign up on another ship. Thus the title. Once you go to sea, getting back is nearly impossible.

But it’s 1940, and they have to ship munitions from the neutral United States to besieged England. Their ship has become a powder keg, and German submarines are combing the Atlantic searching for prey.

The John Wayne of this film is far from the iconic hero he was already starting to become. Here he’s a young, sweet-natured Swedish seaman; not quite a greenhorn but not all that experienced, either. But this time, he’s determined to get back to his mother’s farm. If you think that John Wayne with a Swedish accent is laughable, you’re in for a big surprise. He sounds subtle and natural.

Wayne got top billing (although he had to share the card with three other actors), but Thomas Mitchell probably has more lines and screen time. He plays a philosophical Irishman who knows every pitfall a sailor can fall into, yet always manages to take the fall. The rest of the cast is filled out by Ford regulars such as Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, and John Qualen.

Most seagoing movies of the studio era look horribly fake with their soundstage decks and tiny models. Not The Long Voyage Home. While watching the picture, you can easily to forget the film was shot almost entirely on soundstages. Ford and his film crew create a true sense of being out to sea.

Much of the credit for that success, I suspect, should go to the great cinematographer Gregg Toland; his next project would be Citizen Kane. As with Kane, Toland experimented with deep focus here. He also helped us see the textures of the ship, and the pieces of light and darkness inevitable when you’re living inside a machine.

As Welles did with Kane, Ford shared his credit with Toland, with director and photographer named together.

UCLA’s new print does Toland’s work justice. On my Sunday post, I described a 35mm print of Yumeji as “
a very strong argument for digital projection.” This new print of The Long Voyage Home provides an important corrective.