The Long Gray Line (1955)
Director: John Ford
Writer: Written by Nardi Reeder Campion; Screenplay by Edward Hope (not sure of the difference between Campion and Hope); based on Bringing Up the Brass: My 55 Years at West Point by Martin Maher
Cinematographer: Charles Lawton Jr. and Charles Lang
Producer: Robert Arthur
by Jon Cvack
In a complete departure from the westerns and/or many John Wayne collaborations typically associated with the star, John Ford turned the camera a bit inward, focusing on the true story of Irish immigrant Marty Maher (Tyrone Power), who arrives at West Point Military Academy to become a cook, immediately enamored with the institution’s commitment to tradition and prestige.
The film is strikingly similar to Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) and therefore, by extension, the film I compared Goodbye, Mr. Chips to, Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995); all three involve the story of one person who gets whisked away by the spirit of education and having an impact on students. I’m not sure if the three films is the minimum for qualifying as a sub-genre, but like its brethren, The Long Gray Line doesn’t have much of a plot beyond following one man’s life throughout his many years, facing the occasional historical event, including both World Wars.
The movie starts strong, with the technicolor shining bright, and once again, after seeing El Dorado (1966), it made me wish that I had the high def version, as regardless of the simple story, some of the scenes are absolutely breathtaking, having mostly - if not all - been shot on the actual West Point campus. Maher decides to enlist in the Army in order to get the steady paycheck and better treatment. There’s an awkward class tension between Maher who starts off as a enlisted private, caring for the students who’re half his age and destined to be his superior. I’ve never really understood the strict line between the two positions, but from what I gather in a quick Google search an officer is someone with at least a bachelor’s degree who’s trained to eventually to supervise enlisted men.
We explore the campus along with Marty, discovering the duties of an enlisted officer at a prestigious university. There are ideas about honor and code involved, with the young cadets following a strict set of rules and rigid schedules, which upon being a minute late, could result in disciplinary action. Opening, closing, and scattered throughout, we see the students marching over and over and over again, with their legs moving in perfect synchronicity. Although I’ve seen many scenes with marches before, it was between this and a recent half-viewing of A Few Good Men (1992) and its introductory drill platoon, that I began to understand synchronicity as both an exercise and a metaphor. In both marching and drill, any single soldier that messes up makes the entire unit suffer - whether in image or performance, with A Few Good Men exploring this exact topic. In The Long Gray Line, the title says it all. We never get to meet the majority of the men, but we see them marching, and understand that their purpose is as significant as any of the others we get to know more intimately.
However, it’s shortly after Marty meets Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara) and their awkward romance blooms, involving Mary’s refusal to talk to him, resulting in Marty slapping her in the chin, not playfully, but hard, out of frustration, causing me to remember Ford’s prior film The Quiet Man (1952), and John Wayne’s equally abusive relationship that was meant to come across as innocuous. For whatever reason, after this slap, Mary starts talking to him, and thus begins a really annoying relationship where the two are chronically screaming at one another in a way that I suppose was meant to be playful and cute, but became near insufferable by the tail end of the film; that is until Mary’s passing, which again, seems drawn exactly from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (along with the child’s death). The fact that this is a true story makes the similarities all the more strange…
As opens the film so closes it, with Marty petitioning the President of the United States to let him remain at the academy in his old age, who I assume is meant to be Eisenhower (who graduated from West Point and was president during this filming), though we never see who it is. The government lets him stay, and so the students put on a grand show for Marty - reminiscent of Mr. Holland’s Opus’ closing scene where his present and former students finally play his composition. In this case the students march for him, in perfect formation, and for some reason Marty begins having hallucinations of Mary and his father standing before his home. It’s a very odd scene, nearly destroying all the emotion as it’s clear that they were inserting shots that simply didn’t match. I’m not sure what the point was here that wasn’t already known or imagined by the audience.
The film contains other flaws, chiefly in one of the most bizarre moments when a man who is clearly about 45 years, with a barrage of wrinkles and thinning hair, is confronted by Marty for making some incendiary remarks. Turns out the guy was plaing the youngest governor of New York at the time who was 22 years old. I’m not sure if this was one of Ford’s investors or good buddies or what, but the fact that we’ve spent time with all these soldiers who’re 18 years old, and that this old middle aged man was supposed to be only four years their senior left me rewinding the movie to make sure I heard it right. Even worse, is that some of the cadets who were clearly pushing middle age, such Chuck Dotson (Philip Carey) who was 30 years old at the time production, were meant to play an 18 year. So the old people are meant to be young, and the young are meant to be old and the entire thing really pulls you out of the movie, as so few look the age they are to the point of distraction.
Nevertheless, to get a glimpse into the life into this prestigious world was awesome to see, especially with Charles Lang’s incredible technicolor photography. I would love to check it out again, hopefully getting hold of a high def version. While the story often focused far too much on uninterest relationships (I haven’t even mentioned the father for this exact reason), it does contain some fascinating moments about the institution’s tradition of honor and code.
BELOW: Not much on YouTube, but here's a bunch of short clips that show how beautiful this movie is
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