Archive for May 2nd, 2012

By Peter Lenihan

Finding Ford is a biweekly series on the films of John Ford. The next entry will be on The Searchers.

“Every time we get near the land you get that look on your face. When a man goes to sea he ought to give up thinking about things on shore. Land don’t want him no more. I’ve had my share of things going wrong, and all come from the land. Now I’m through with the land, and the land is through with me.”

Ford’s most extreme forays into expressionism (The Informer and The Fugitive particularly, but The Long Voyage Home and his more stylized silents as well) are often regarded as lesser works for lacking a sort of “authenticity.” Ford, conventional wisdom says, lives in the most unfussy and naturalistic frames, and what the director and Toland are up to in The Long Voyage Home is often thought of as a bit too “artistic” to be called truly great cinema (it’s also one of many reasons The Grapes of Wrath is generally regarded as the superior 1940 Ford—in that one, Toland really calmed down after the first fifteen minutes). It’s a position I’m not wholly unsympathetic to—and given the state of cinema in 2012, frustrations over deliberate artiness and forced aestheticization are arguably more understandable than they would have been in 1940—but the degree to which it encourages schematic readings of Ford’s work is more than a little obnoxious.

And then there’s The Long Voyage Home itself—made in the middle of what is considered by many to be the director’s most fertile period (although not, admittedly, by me), it’s an adaptation of several short Eugene O’Neill plays centered around the multi-national crew of the merchant ship Glencairn, commissioned during wartime to transport a load of ammunition to England. It’s a scenario that sounds more out of Hawks’ playbook than Ford’s, and there’s no question that this would make a marvelous double feature with the previous year’s Only Angels Have Wings—both films seem to exist at the end of the world, at some lost forgotten way station where fog clouds even the memories of the place. Men doing the only thing they know how to in spite of death—but while Grant at least has a bullshit line to pull out of his (gloriously ridiculous) hat, all these men have is whiskey, and indeed this often seems to be a film about drinking. Which isn’t to say that there’s a bottle in every scene, and it’s almost certainly not the drunkest of Ford’s films (although I have no idea which one is), but alcohol hangs over the picture as forcefully as the fog the sailors spend the movie cursing. (more…)

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