21 July 2010 | secondtake
Lots of silly fistfights and drinking, but the threat of a story, too, and GREAT photography
The Long Voyage Home (1940)
Any movie with Gregg Toland behind the camera is worth watching, with an emphasis on the visual experience. From Wuthering Heights (1939) to the Little Foxes, Ball of Fire, and Citizen Kane (all 1941), in three years, Toland lifted (again) the standards of the best Hollywood could do. This isn't just me saying this, and of course there are other great cinematographers, but if you've seen these movies you know they are exceptional. I falls right in the middle of this great stretch, and it has the revered John Ford directing, letting Toland do his thing, right from the first scene.
This is a solid, sometimes moving, sometimes dramatic movie, for sure. But the long first part is a composite of manly clichés: drinking, fighting, and womanizing. It's all in good fun, in a way, and the exoticness is made to sell movies. But there's quite a lot of nothing going on beyond seducing native women in some unnamed distant land. The dancing and fighting are filmed with Toland perfection, but it turns quickly to farce, or stereotype.
Thomas Mitchell is a lively Irishman in his best form, and John Wayne is an improbable Swede, and doesn't stand out much from the bunch except toward the end, when he is a block of wood with a bad accent. The story is a series of misunderstandings and friendships, but since the plot is made of four different Eugene O'Neill plays (from 20 years earlier), there is a little discontinuity to it all.
All of this is set during that strange cusp between World War II beginning in Europe and the U.S. still not joining in. The ship is carrying ammunition, and hints of things that really matter are given right at the start, with some news reports crackling into the seeming isolation of the ship. As the captain says as they are to depart from New York with the military cargo, "If it doesn't get there it'll be missed. But we won't."
Isolationism gets a more famous treatment in Casablanca two years later, after the Americans are already at war, so in a way, a big name movie like this had more potential influence on American sentiment. It's fascinating to see this Walter Wanger/John Ford/John Wayne collaboration after their breakthrough Stagecoach the year before (producer, director, star). But the stakes are raised, and the production level is much higher.