Monday, April 4, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Long Voyage Home" (1940)

"The Long Voyage Home" is a curious animal. It stars John Wayne, already a major star in 1940, who gets top billing in this adaptation of a Eugene O'Neill play about the salty, often cruel life of sailors aboard a merchant marine ship.

And yet Wayne's character is not one of the most important in the story -- in fact, he's essentially a bit player.

Wayne barely speaks more than a few lines of dialogue throughout most of the movie, finally getting to string a couple sentences together in a scene near the end. But for the most part, other members of the ensemble cast rotate in and out of the limelight, with Wayne off to the side and in the background.

Imagine "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Jack Nicholson in the Martini role (played by Danny DeVito) and no McMurphy in the ward. That'll give you an idea how strange it is to see John Wayne in the margins of his own movie.

True, John Wayne was not quite yet JOHN WAYNE -- having just had his big breakout role a year earlier in "Stagecoach," also directed by longtime collaborator John Ford. But still, it's one thing to see the star of a picture relegated to a secondary role, and quite another when they have barely any screen time and hardly say a word.

It's a good film, a less plot-driven movie than a meandering look at the nomadic men who make their life on the high seas for various reasons. The cinematography by the great Gregg Toland -- his next film was "Citizen Kane" -- is a gorgeously bleak swath of shadows and light that makes the ship seem like its own world rather than just a dingy old merchant vessel.

The S.S. Glencairn is a slow, decrepit, rusty ship making one more long trip across the Atlantic. "An old hooker" is just one of the many colorful epithets the captain and crew lovingly (we think) use to describe the ancient bucket.

As the story opens, the Glencairn is docked in the West Indies, but most of the crew has been forbidden shore leave due to the secrecy of their next voyage. In an arresting opening shot, the men stand on the deck casting yearning glances at the beach, where native women writhe half-dressed. The gal in the foreground wears a blouse that barely clings to her shoulders as she runs a hand over her considerable cleavage -- pretty hubba-hubba stuff for 1940.

It's a typically motley crew. Aside from the stern captain (Wilfrid Lawson), the man who seems most in charge is Driscoll, an Irishman with a fondness for drink and trouble. Having gotten into a scrape with the law on shore, Drisc barely makes it back on board, scrambling up the anchor chain, to make roll call.

There's also Cocky, the acerbic ship's steward; and Yank (Ford mainstay Ward Bond), a lusty brawler and Drisc's right-hand man; John Qualen as Axel, a Swede who's small but feisty; and Donkeyman (Arthur Shields), who's given up on the land and is always ready to sign on for another voyage, no matter how bad the last one was.

Wayne plays Ole Olsen, a big Swedish farmer who's been promising his mother for the past 10 years he'll come home after the next voyage. Invariably, he and the boys go ashore for "one last drink" to celebrate his departure, and the next thing he knows he's signed on for another.

When he does talk, Wayne does so in what must be the worst Swedish accent in the history of cinema. Coupled with the fact that he looks about as Swedish as Sammy Davis Jr., and you've got a strong nominee for Wayne's worst screen performance.

Wayne, as has often been said, was not an actor but a movie star. He was good at playing one character: Himself ... or, at least, what the public believed to be his star persona. When Wayne tried to stretch himself into more exotic roles, he usually crashed and burned. I've never seen 1956's "The Conqueror," in which Wayne plays Genghis Khan -- yes, really -- but I hear it's howlingly bad.

The Glencairn crew nearly jumps ship when they learn their next job is a hold full of ammunition for the British. That means going through the War Zone patrolled by German U-boats hunting for ships bringing supplies for the war effort, and a huge target on the ol' Glencairn.

"The Long Voyage Home" was actually based on three different plays written by O'Neill, one of which bore that title, that were set during World War I. It's not much of a stretch to change the setting to WWII, since the life of a seaman wasn't very much different in the intervening quarter-century or so.

Much of the first half of the film is devoted to piercing the mystery of Smitty (Ian Hunter), a crew member with a mysterious, haunted past. He speaks the King's English like an aristocrat, and tries to jump ship after picking up their explosive cargo but is arrested and brought back.

Driscoll and the others come to believe Smitty is a German spy, but after opening the mysterious black box he hides under his pillow, they discover he's a disgraced officer who has run away from his family. It's quite a poignant moment  where Drisc reads a letter out loud from Smittie's wife in which she refuses his request to tell their two children he is dead.

The last third or so of the movie is one long bar crawl, as the men from the Glencairn are set up by some unscrupulous club owners. Ole, his ticket for Stockholm and last two years' wages sewn inside his coat, is drugged and shanghaied aboard another ship. His drunken crewmates stage a daring rescue, but Drisc is knocked unconscious and captured, replacing Ole as a conscript. The next day, newspapers reveal the ship was sunk in the Channel.

What does it all really add up to? "The Long Voyage Home" is long on character and atmosphere, and not really concerned with telling a story. It's a worthwhile film, especially for those wanting to explore John Ford's non-Western oeuvre. Even if John Wayne, the ostensible star, is woefully misused.

3 stars out of four

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