Dir. John Ford. Starring Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Betsy Palmer
Some soldiers, just through luck or probability or God’s will, are doomed to be the ones to watch others die. Marty Maher (Power), though he enlists annually for decades on end and is in the service for both world wars, never actually goes to battle. All the same he is still the one who watches everyone else die. If he didn’t have to watch people like Red Sundstrom (William Leslie) grow into fine men only to be obliterated in combat on another continent, he would still be the person who watches his family drop around him. His father, Martin (Donald Crisp), which is predictable, perhaps even the way things ought to be, but still sad. His wife, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), who he met at West Point, whose attentions he failed to keep while she was watching a review, and whose attentions he lost forever when she died on their porch, squinting in the direction of the review she knows is taking place outside of her ability to see it. And his son, Martin, a baby who lived for only a few hours, dies while his birth is still being celebrated in his home. Not long before, some cadets gave him a saber for the child to accede to; upon hearing the news of his son’s death, Martin smashes the saber into pieces over a fence.
Mary cannot have more children, and a decision that the two of them had already made years ago is solidified: the cadets at West Point, who have been drawn to Marty since the beginning, will be their family. Choosing military officers in training as a kind of surrogate for a dead baby is, to say the least, a fraught decision, and there’s more grief when Abner Overton (Patrick Wayne) dies, or when Red’s son, James (Robert Francis) goes to World War II like his father went to World War I. Red and his future wife Kitty (Palmer) first began seeing each other over dinner at the Mahers; a generation later, Mary kisses their son goodbye as he leaves for his deployment, lingering, surely remembering what happened when she said goodbye to his father decades back. The younger Sundstrom survives the war—or at least the movie, which is the same thing—and comes back to the Maher home with his mother, but when he does, Mary’s not there. It’s not a statement about balance so much as it is about inevitability, that there is always some death reverberating at West Point, the place where young men learn to kill and die as efficiently as possible. Older men like Martin or Marty’s mentor, Master of the Sword Herman Koehler (Ward Bond), die offscreen without much fuss and bother; it’s the way of older men. When younger men perish, even in the perilous position that officers of the army are bound to enter, it can still be tragic.
Most jobs come with baked-in levels of repetition and rigmarole. The military has made a brand out of it, for obvious reasons; routine at a military installation is on a level it shares only with prison. While routine is certainly less invasive and consuming in teaching, the repetition of that career is emphatically part of the job. Similar lessons for similar people, following the cycle of a school year, over and over and over again. Marty Maher sticks with West Point, in various capacities, for five decades. Once he gets involved with Koehler’s physical education department, his life of ungodly repetition—the strict sameness of quotidian military life coupled with the yearly flow of life as an instructor and coach—becomes inexorable. Every now and again, Marty decides he wants to do something different. He’ll join his brother Dinny (Sean McClory) in New York City to make much more money in business. He’ll try to get sent abroad during World War I. And then…he stays at West Point, returning home to Mary, doing the same thing. In honor of his forced retirement, the cadets at West Point march so that he may personally review them. It is no wonder that after so much marching he sees his wife and his father, Koehler and Red and Abner. These are different young men than he knew in 1936 or 1916 or 1900, but seeing these identical men line up can’t help but bring back the sameness, the deadening routine, of years past. Watching Marty you get the sense that he is moved but not thrilled or joyed by the display. It seems sobering as much as anything. I was put in mind of the line from The History Boys that quipped, “At school you don’t get parole. Good behavior just brings a longer sentence.” If a microcosm such as what is presented to Marty at the end of the film appeared for any individual, scored with church bells and a brass performance of “Auld Lang Syne,” I think it stands to reason that the right reaction to it would be extreme sobriety.
Ford never really gets into full close-up mode when he films Marty’s review, as he never really gets into it in this whole movie. In that scene he favors shots from a low angle, looking up at the officers but looking up even more at the dead who prance into the frame. He could make this a significantly warmer film if he wanted to; he could use more close-ups, could choose to more often emphasize the small actions of individuals rather than making sure he gets whole rooms in every shot. The Congressional Medal of Honor probably gets the most loving close-up of anyone or anything in the movie, but when Mary dies, we’re at the other end of a corridor looking outside as Marty squats next to her body in the rocking chair; there’s a polite remove here, so as not to embarrass Marty, and yet the operative word here is “remove.” The distance of the camera is a distance from intimacy as surely as the perpetuation of the same routines and actions and expectations—interpreted as “discipline”—keeps Marty from ever really taking the time to inquire after himself. Marty finds fulfillment in playing his part in making officers, in building relationships and later friendships with them. Yet the movie’s big moments in which he makes passionate defenses or feels deeply are overwhelmingly about the military and not something more internal to him. For example, he lets a governor have it when the governor suggests the onset of World War II means that West Point ought to yield to practicality at the expense of tradition. How old do you think our officers are in Europe? Marty asks him. And how do you think people so much younger than yourself learn to command? It’s a stirring scene, but as a big emotional scene, it is a little surprising that the movie chooses to make it about the pedagogical decision-making at a military academy as opposed to about, well, the film’s main character. (As for the death of his son, which really is personal, we’ll come back to it in a second.) Even this keeps the camera basically at a distance; Power is framed in an American shot, with enough background to see the interior of the buildings he is defending so passionately.
If there’s a critique of John Ford movies that even I’m willing to make, it’s that not every movie has to include broad humor for the sake of including broad humor. Sometimes this works. The Searchers juxtaposes the basically humane day-to-day of John Qualen and Vera Miles, who are primarily saddled with the jokes, against the unnatural and savage lifestyle of John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter; it’s important to see what they’re giving up in trying to track down Ethan’s, uh, niece. More often it doesn’t, though, as in the case of Cheyenne Autumn (where it lasts forever and absolutely derails the movie) or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, where I assume Victor McLaglen was contractually obligated to punch out folks for reasons. Where The Long Gray Line diverges from the Ford humor model in a productive way is to put almost all of it at the beginning. If you go into this one blind, I think it’s easy to be swept along in the story of a friendly Irish immigrant who seems to land at West Point almost by accident. While there, he breaks every plate in the Army, gets beat up in the boxing ring over and over again, and falls for a beautiful Irish redhead who refuses to talk to him. (Finding out why this woman just absolutely refuses to speak to him or acknowledge that he’s talking is a genuine laugh out loud moment. At the point where they’re starting to lean into an engagement after a very one-sided courtship, she tells him that Koehler told her not to talk to him or they’d fight and ruin everything. Maureen O’Hara deserved a little more Tyrone Power and a little less John Wayne in her career.) At one point, Koehler moves Marty out of boxing instruction and into swimming instruction. Swimming instruction? he says incredulously. I can’t swim! He proves it in one scene where he’s surrounded by a few students after falling into the pool. He sinks to the bottom, the hat bobbing on the surface. There’s a few seconds where everyone peers into the pool. All of a sudden, Marty reappears just long enough to yell HELP and then bobs beneath again.
Power is funny again and again here, with a brogue that actually holds up over the course of the film, a gift for falling over in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible, and an equal ability to play both sides of a joke. It’s funnier to watch things happen to Marty at his expense, even if he does occasionally get the better of people. The scene in the pool is my favorite, but the film’s joke with the longest lead-in has to do with football. Ford gives an extended amount of time to the football game where Notre Dame unveiled the forward pass against Army in 1913; Marty goes into the game supremely confident that he’ll win a twenty-five dollar bet with his father, and when Notre Dame triumphs, Martin has advice for his son. Let that be a lesson to you on betting against the Church! Martin says, and while this is a funny enough line on its own, it’s Power’s facial expression that sells it.
Yet the majority of these funny moments happen in the first forty-five minutes or so of the movie, and Ford sweeps away laughter for a time with a chapter in the film which is harrowing and sad. It would be easy, I think, to make the tragedy of an newborn alive for only a few hours more melodramatic than tragic. The Long Gray Line makes no such mistake. The celebration is so far in order, the saber already turned over, Martin has done a little jig, and so on; it is inconceivable that a hand might reach out and take the child away now that everyone has acted so certain that the boy will live, grow up, become a West Pointer himself. The doctor arrives like a thunderbolt, though, and in a moment, simply from seeing his face, we know what has happened. The lack of buildup—which is to say, the buildup in the opposite emotional direction—is what makes this movie turn from a lighthearted comic biopic to a film in which a man has to replace the family he cannot have with other people’s sons, all of whom are liable to taken away too soon themselves. When he first came to West Point, he laughed in shock at the way the men all stood with such ramrod posture; you could shoot off all their noses with one bullet, he crows. At the end, after he has lost friends, family, and a son at West Point, an old man looks on and cannot raise a smile or frown for the show arrayed before him. Purpose he’s found, but it’s hard to see more than that on his face.