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Long Gray Line

The Long Gray Line
Columbia TriStar
1955 / Color / 2:35 enhanced widescreen / 138m.
Starring Tyrone Power, Maureen O'Hara, Robert Francis, Donald Crisp, Ward Bond, Betsy Palmer, Philip Carey, William Leslie, Harry Carey Jr., Patrick Wayne, Sean McClory, Peter Graves, Milburn Stone, Erin O'Brien-Moore, Walter D. Ehlers, Willis Bouchey.
Charles Lawton Jr.
Art Direction Robert Peterson
Film Editor William A. Lyon
Writing credits Edward Hope from the book Bringing up the Brass by Marty Maher & Nardi Reeder Campion
Produced by Robert Arthur
Directed by John Ford

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

John Ford was perhaps over-taught in film school in the early 70's. I must have seen more of his pictures than anybody but Alfred Hitchcock. Critic Jim Kitses came and did a class on the Western where a Vistavision Technicolor original print of The Searchers was screened; I think the school hung onto the print for two weeks so everyone else could get a chance to see it too. Nick (Pete) Peterson showed a comprehensive festival of Ford classics, that the aesthetes loved and the politicos hated. For all the talk about Ford's going liberal on the issue of Native Americans, he was still a testy knot of traditional values that often seemed reactionary, especially where the U.S. military was concerned. The Long Gray Line is a sentimental and sometimes awkward hymn to the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point, and it is interesting because all of Ford's contradictions lie right on its surface.


Straight off the boat from Ireland, Marty Maher (Tyrone Power) waits tables at West Point, enlists in the Army, and becomes an athletic coaching assistant for the Master of the Sword, Herman Koehler (Ward Bond). Wooing and marrying Koehler's cook Mary O'Donnell (Maureen O'Hara), Marty takes such a personal interest in the cadets that he makes a career out of being sort of an on-campus scoutmaster for them; when Mary loses their baby in childbirth and can't have any more, the cadets become their figurative children. Decades pass while their 'babies' grow into famous generals; Marty never goes to war but sends generations of officers off to serve and sometimes die. But no matter what the loss, the Army provides a loving home that respects and honors its own.

Usually tagged as a minor Ford picture, The Long Gray Line makes for excellent discussion of this enigmatic director. Overlong, episodic, and weighed down by cartoonish characterizations and an excess of sentimentality, the film is pure John Ford. It shares with The Quiet Man a sentimentalized vision of Ireland and immigrants. The worst aspect of the show is its broad caricaturing of Marty and Mary before they are married. Marty takes silly pratfalls and behaves as such a dunce that he couldn't get hired as West Point's garbageman. As Mary, Maureen O'Hara takes her already simplified Coleen character one step further by being a wordless clown. The conception is okay for a Popeye cartoon, but when the story turns serious later on, it impairs our involvement. Mary, for instance, is saddened to hear of the death of Corporal Rudolph Heinz (Peter Graves), but it doesn't connect with the pre-marriage comedy section where she dated him -- when he was a creep who got Marty into trouble. Excellent actor Tyrone Power carries his role well, even the earlier blarney episodes, and almost makes the inadequate age makeup work. Just the same, this is perhaps the Ford film where his knockabout slapstick is the most damaging. The real Marty Maher, even if he began as the most ignorant immigrant alive, just can't have been the clueless, sentimental moron we meet here.

Ford diehards won't have a problem. The stock company gets a solid workout, with Donald Crisp and Maureen O'Hara back from How Green Was My Valley, and Harry Carey, Jr. ('introduced' in one picture after another just a few years earlier) portraying Dwight D. Eisenhower when the general was one of Marty's cadets. Jack Pennick makes his obligatory appearance; the drinking buddy with the mashed-up face must be in more John Ford films than anyone. Ward Bond makes most of the earlier half of the film function by playing straight man to the comedy, and it's one of his better roles.

The younger crowd gets a babyish Martin Milner, a shrimpy Patrick Wayne, and Columbia stock player William Leslie. The wonderful Betsy Palmer is the brightest face in the show. Her thankless Army wife role here is not as good as her saucy WAVE officer in Mr. Roberts, but she has her moments. She plays mother to Robert Francis, an ill-fated actor who died in a plane crash at the age of 25, after an auspicious start in this film and a standout role in The Caine Mutiny. Francis has been totally forgotten -- that other 1955 youth-actor James Dean got all the attention.

John Ford made a couple of dozen films about the military, and he tended to have two attitudes to the material. In pictures like They Were Expendable he told it like it was, honoring unsung combat heroes for their thankless sacrifices. In the realm of mythmaking, as with his Cavalry films and bizarre patriotic comedies like The Wings of Eagles, Ford paints a fantasy of the military as an Utopian society-within-society, where officers and men alike may enjoy endless rounds of drinking and brawling, but at heart are true-blue sentimentalists. The military is conceived of as a family that takes care of its own. It has communal rituals -- drinking, dancing, births, funerals -- that appeal to Ford, as well as constant partings and renunions as men go off to fight. Callow youth (Marshall Thompson in Expendable, Marty and all the cadets here) is provided with counsel and solid role models. To Ford it's the perfect society, even if the women mostly stay lonely or widowed. Because the cavalry films tend to be peopled by ex-Irishmen and scored with Irish music, they come off as an extension of the Irish pictures.

The controversy comes when Ford decides that tradition and higher moral values require that the continuity of the corps be sustained through mythmaking and lies. This is the "when the facts contradict the myth, print the myth" argument codified in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In Fort Apache, commander Henry Fonda's bad leadership, responsible for the destruction of an entire troop, is covered up so as not to harm the status or future of the cavalry. In the 1950s the glorification of the military became a national priority, and The Long Gray Line seems to have been conceived as a recruiting tool. This is illustrated in one episode where cadet Robert Francis breaks his oath and elopes with a girl before graduation. Even though the marriage is quickly annulled (we never even hear the poor girl's side of things), the only ethical solution for Francis is to quit West Point just a few weeks before graduation and enlist in the regular Army! His mother Betsy Palmer had at one point resisted the idea of throwing her son into the system that took her husband of only a few days, but here she celebrates her son's decision and proudly gets ready to send him off to be a footsoldier. With this gesture toward the general infantry, the movie puts in a big plug for recruitment in the post-Korea years.

Like the James Stewart/June Allyson Cold War public relations films (Strategic Air Command, especially), The Long Gray Line creates the illusion that the structure and tradition of military life is rewarding for women dependents. Mary O'Donnell is more faithful to the Army than is Marty, and the constant flow of cadets are presented as a substitute for the real family she cannot have. Let me tell you from personal experience that '50s life in the military for dependents and families was the same as life on the outside, only with an artificial caste system provided by the ranks. The wives of Chief Master Sergeants were the unofficial inferiors of the wives of Majors and Colonels. With the low pay and often stifling surroundings, the women as often as not were cut off from a sense of belonging and given little identity beyond the rank of their husbands.

Nothing whatsoever is seen of civilian life in The Long Gray Line, with only Marty's contractor brother giving hints of a world outside of West Point. Being a military dependent is like this, especially if you live on-base; the feeling is that America is a military country whose business is preparedness for war and that anything else is a subsidiary activity. In The Long Gray Line there are never any troublesome issues to be concerned with, everything is a simplified absolute. The Army and the Country (in that order) represent total virtue, security, and unassailable Rightness. Army orders might as well originate from God himself. This is a hidden message behind '50s military films of all kinds, that Savant finds kind of oppressive and vaguely (stress vaguely) fascist: "Don't think, don't question, obey authority."  1

As for the idea that the military takes care of its own, the officer or enlisted man that didn't prepare himself (through family or connections) for a civilian life after his military career, would be surprised by Hollywood's fantasy, cradle-to-grave military Utopia. Ford grafts on an emotionally cloying coda with Marty's dead relatives and mentors returning en tableau, as he had done for the ending of The Quiet Man. You almost expect Yoda and Annakin Skywalker to show up smiling and waving alongside the ghosts of Marty Maher's past.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of The Long Gray Line will be the first opportunity most of us have had to see the film in its CinemaScope proportions, which is the best thing that can be said about this visually undistinguished film. Long lines of gray-suited cadets do indeed feature in the film, warping their way to the edges of the 'scope screen. In most instances the framing of shots doesn't have the tightness, intensity or depth that Ford brings even to "old man movies" like his final Seven Women. One exception is a death scene staged in depth, with the pertinent action isolated through a door in the center of the screen. It's a wrenching moment worthy of the best of Ford.

When we saw The Long Gray Line at UCLA the prints were washed out and grainy and it looks as if Columbia has done the best it can to revive a good image from faded Eastman elements. There is still some grain and a softness to the colors, but fleshtones are good overall, even in those troublesome optical sections around dissolve transitions. The audio is hearty and dialogue very clear; don't worry, nothing will get in the way of your hearing the repetitive Irish songs and Sousa marches.

A typo on the packaging incorrectly ID's the source novel as 'Bring up the Brass.'

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Long Gray Line rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 29, 2002


1. The general undercurrent of these movies is vaguely fascist. Ford was not a fascist, and I want to stress that I am not suggesting any such thing. Anyone who calls him one is an idiot, even the UCLA PC politicos who lumped him in with the establishment villains of the time. Even though Ford supported Nixon and the Vietnam War, he was being true to his convictions in his own way. People and movies and politics are too complicated to hang black and white signs on. Throughout his Hollywood career, many of Ford's actions were very left-wing, and he often opposed the Union-busting studios. In particular, along with other establishment icons like George Stevens, he very actively used his name and power to defy and counter the DeMille-led efforts to get the Director's Guild to support the blacklisting Commie hunts.

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