The Life of a Seaman
Whilst John Ford and John Wayne collaborated to give us some of cinema's biggest and most popular movies, they were not all purely star vehicles for John Wayne. One which wasn't a star vehicle was "The Long Voyage Home" which whilst having John Wayne as top billed is in fact an ensemble piece with Wayne playing quite a small part with the likes of Thomas Mitchell, John Qualen and Ian Hunter having more prominent roles. In fact whilst John Ford directed "The Long Voyage Home" this tale of merchant seamen owes more to the cinematography of Gregg Toland who thanks to his use of lighting, shadows and camera angles makes it come to life. But that does mean that "The Long Voyage Home" is a movie not so much about what happens but about how it looks and the atmosphere.
"The Long Voyage Home" is based upon 4 nautical plays by Eugene O'Neill and as such whilst the story revolves around the merchant seamen aboard a boat transporting dynamite to Britain during the early days of World War II it is an episodic movie. We have an episode about one of the seamen getting hurt during a storm and as he lays there injured reminisces about the past with a fellow seaman who has been with him for many years. We then have an episode which focuses on the war and the suspicion over a new seaman as the men's paranoia is heightened by the fact they are transporting explosives. But whilst an episodic movie it does make an interesting observation about the life of a seaman being a cycle of working on a boat, heading to port with their earnings and when that has been spent on women and drink back out to sea.
The thing is that if you watch "The Long Voyage Home" because it is a John Ford and John Wayne movie with expectations brought on by their other movies you could be disappointed. As I already mentioned Wayne has quite a small role, one which sees him playing a Swedish seaman and yes that does mean we have Wayne delivering a Swedish accent of sorts. But get past that initial disappointment and the look at what is basically the life of a merchant seaman is still an interesting one with the likes of Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond and Ian Hunter all delivering very good performances.
But in truth the star of "The Long Voyage Home" is not an actor but cinematographer Gregg Toland. The combination of light, shadow and creative camera angles makes this a movie which captures your eye first and then your mind and some of it is truly spectacular especially the scene which sees the seamen walking up a lamp lit cobbled street glimmering from rain as their elongated shadows head off into the distance. It does mean that if you struggle to appreciate the look of old movies it will be hard going, almost laborious at times but if you can appreciate the skill of the cinematographer you will love this.
What this all boils down to is that "The Long Voyage Home" is probably not what most people expect from a John Ford and John Wayne movie but it doesn't mean it is no good. In fact the episodic look at the life of seamen is entertaining and the cinematography of Gregg Toland is spectacular.