Movies I Need To See Before I Die: THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940)

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(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have.  Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films.  But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to.  Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already.  I’m a film geek for God’s sake!  I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old.  I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time.  So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see.  Enjoy!)

About 8 years ago, I bought a John Ford/John Wayne box set.  It had something like 10 movies.  I’ve watched them all except for this one, so I thought I should finally check it out.  Another reason I wanted to see it was that it was nominated for Best Picture, the same year Ford won best director for THE GRAPES OF WRATH (which I found overrated, to be honest).  But I am a fan of Ford and Wayne, so I was curious to check out one of their films that wasn’t a western or a straight-up war picture.

This movie is based on 4 one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, so it does feel a bit episodic.  In a nutshell, the story is about the various exploits of the men who work aboard a freighter ship doing WWII.  There aren’t any main characters.  It’s an ensemble piece and it’s filled with a variety of eccentric characters.  There’s the trouble maker (Thomas Mitchell), the friendly swede (John Wayne), a belligerent American (Ward Bond), the closet-case drunk (Ian Hunter), and various others.

Since it’s based on four short plays, there’s 4 different storylines, one presented after the other. The first was probably my favorite as it involved the men sneaking women and booze on board the ship while stationed near South America.  The opening of the movie is effectively atmospheric as it begins with some beautifully eerie shots of the men staring out into the jungle from their ship, all set to some chanting by the natives.  Then there’s the typical Ford brawl.  I love these fights that appear in several of his films.  The men just start fighting each other for no reason (besides just being drunk).  It’s fast, it’s chaotic and it’s very funny.  But it’s not in a mean-spirited way.  It’s done in that, male bonding way.  They love each other, but sometimes guys just need to hit each other just for the sake of it.  There’s something charming about that.

Unfortunately, the film does get bogged down in the middle section.  It gets awfully melodramatic.  Some of it does work quite well, but I thought a couple of parts could have been trimmed.  One of the stories involves a storm and the death of a shipmate.  The other suggests that there may be a Nazi spy on board amongst them.  There are some great moments in both of these, but it does get a bit weighty.  The final portion is a return to the light spirit of the first half, which focuses on getting Wayne’s character Ole on a ship back to his hometown.  Of course things get complicated when they all go out for one last drink.

Like I said, the plot is sporadic due to its episodic nature, but the reason why the movie works is Ford’s ensemble of talented character actors.  I wasn’t sure about Wayne’s accent when he first spoke, but his performance won me over by the end.  He doesn’t have a whole lot to do until the final 30 minutes though.  I was kind of surprised he wasn’t in it as much as I thought he would be.  But it doesn’t matter, cause the other actors are a hoot to watch.  Thomas Mitchell essentially carries the movie, given the most screen time.  I love Ward Bond as the yankee.  The look of pure joy on his face when everyone starts fighting is priceless.  And Ian Hunter gives a moving and at times powerful portrayal of the drunken Smitty.  Watching all of these actors play off of one another is just a pleasure.

John Ford’s direction is also another reason that this is worth a look.  It’s sure and steady.  But he’s also helped by the absolutely beautiful cinematography of Gregg Toland.  The use of shadows sometimes give the movie a film noir feel.   The camera placements are very creative and unique, as it captures the spectacular set designs.  It definitely bring the film up a couple of notches for sure.  The script isn’t all that strong, as it does tend to meander a bit.  But I was surprised just how moved I was by the film’s quietly contemplative ending.

Those looking for a macho John Wayne vehicle will be scratching their heads.  But if you’re looking for a well-directed movie by an old Hollywood legend, then you should enjoy it.  It’s not the most focused and sustained movie, but the solid acting and elegant direction elevate this to another level.  What could have been a routine melodrama ends up being quite a classy production.  Honestly, I was going back and forth during the movie.  I wasn’t sure if I was liking it or not, but by the end, it did win me over.  I think it’ll even get better with repeat viewings.  ★★★ (out of ★★★★)

- Not Rated.  Contains some fists fights, a couple of bloodless deaths and some thematic elements.  Probably would be rated PG. 

- Running time: 1hr 45min.

(THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is not available to rent on Netflix at the moment.  It IS available on DVD and can be bought at various online stores)

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Categories: Austin Kennedy, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Movies I Need To See Before I Die, Reviews

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