Pilgrimage (1933)

Dir. John Ford. Starring Henrietta Crosman, Maurice Murphy, Marian Nixon

Pilgrimage is built on three shots. Not scenes, not sequences, not moments, but shots. Pilgrimage, John Ford on a diet of F.W. Murnau, designed this film around three shots. The characters, the story, the beats, the emotions, the ideas: they are all sublimated to these three. Ford, one of those savant directors who shot movies to be finished products and not to be fixed up by an editor, made an enormous bet on this structure. If these three shots work, then the movie works. If two of three work, then the movie falters, and worse and worse from there. There are not other ways for this movie to function without these shots. Yet on the other hand, if these shots are great ones, then the film must follow that same path. These are not merely three good shots; these are the building blocks of a great film made great because of them.

1 / Pond:

Jimmy (Norman Foster) has just thrown a rock into a pond. The rock lands, creating a splash and ripples in the pond. The camera holds long enough to see the water settle, revealing a woman’s form. The camera pivots upward, righting the woman so that we can see Jimmy’s lover, Mary (Nixon), the object of his adoration.

2 / Flowers:

Mary hands Jimmy’s mother, Hannah, a small bouquet of flowers at the train station as Hannah prepares to go to France to see her son’s grave. The shot starts on Mary and her son and then pans up as she raises the flowers to Hannah, whose arm is originally within the train. The hand reaches out to take the flowers from Mary, but she never puts her head out. The hand comes down and Hannah’s gloved hand, now holding the flowers, remains in the window.

3 / Graveyard:

By length, one of the longest shots in the film. Ford uses the graveyard as a grid. Hannah begins at point A, while the camera begins at point D. Hannah walks up a vertical line AB, and then walks along the line BC. Meanwhile, the camera follows, tracking from D to C. The camera moves to meet her at C, cutting before she really takes in her son’s name on the cross.

The story of the film is here. A man falls in love with a woman; a woman shares that love with the man’s mother, who accepts it only grudgingly; the mother’s only way to reconnect with her son is to go to his headstone. And the story of John Ford’s bet is here as well: he won. The book on Ford will tell you that those three shots are “flourishes,” the little arty bits that he sneaked past the studio execs. I think this is almost precisely backwards. Ford’s “flourishes,” as they are in Pilgrimage, are the tethers on the rest of the picture, and they make the effect of the movie possible for everyone to read rather than being the pleasantly artistic treats for a discerning audience.

The pond shot is bracketed in the film by two shots which are, if anything, even more unusual than what Ford gives us here. Before Jimmy throws the rock into the pond, we get a look directly at his face as he looks into the camera, a little wild-eyed, his smile a smidge too toothy to be handsome. And then afterwards, once we know what he’s looking at, we get a close-up of Mary. Mary’s mouth is closed, her eyes narrower than Jimmy. There is ardor there, but it’s a constrained interpretation. Hannah was always going to fear Jimmy leaving her for the more pleasing embrace of a younger woman, but in that look (likewise delivered at the camera), the sympathetic among us can see what it is that Hannah could convince herself she was really nervous about. Jimmy is so taken with Mary, and Mary is keeping far more of that ardor inside. If she is the white trash out to seduce Jimmy—and for those of us on the outside, it’s difficult to know what the difference could possibly be between Jimmy’s family and Mary’s family—then that look is what allows us to see Hannah’s false positive. But the pond shot itself is what Hannah genuinely fears, that Jimmy really does see Mary as a rippling, mystical beauty, that Mary is not an amorous Arkansan but a kelpie or rusalka. She cannot see Mary outside of that water.

The sadness in Pilgrimage has everything to do with how catastrophically wrong Henrietta is about her place in the world. It is not given to her to interfere with what her community believes to be the natural flow of a man’s life—to work at home, to wander away from home, to give his mother grandchildren to dote on—and yet she fails in the manner of a Greek tragedy. She makes the fatal error of signing Jimmy up for the military during World War I, a real “you can’t fire me, I quit!” decision made for a boy who was already flirting with enlistment, but in so doing she once again skirts the chain of decent action. It is Jimmy’s place to sign up and then to set his affairs in order, not his mother’s, and so it is that Jimmy’s child, her grandson, will have to bear the relative shame of illegitimacy in the years after the war. The story of Jimmy’s son (Jay Ward), named for him, is the first of two interludes in the story that doesn’t immediately seem to slot into the film. It doesn’t take so long to clarify what he’s doing, though. Jimmy plays with the same dog that his father was so fond of, walks a field of crops in the setting sun, gets into a fight at school to defend his mother’s honor; it’s as questionable, sickeningly, as Hannah always suggested it was.

Yet Hannah is forced to bear shame in better company, too. When she’s picked up to join a group of Gold Star Mothers seeing their sons’ graves in France, laying flowers on a symbolic cenotaph, she is chastened from the first suggestion that she might even go. She denies the opportunity, and then winds up on the voyage anyway. She meets a kindred spirit, Mrs. Hatfield (Lucille La Verne), who tries to comfort a seasick woman by giving her stories of the local mountain dew. But Mrs. Hatfield is really just about the only person on this trip who is like Mrs. Jessop. Ford emphasizes that many kinds of American mothers sent American sons to foreign graves: Italian mothers, Jewish mothers, German mothers who still only speak the language of the old country. (African-American mothers not so much, although this is as much a statement of the government as it would have been about Fox or Ford.) There are mothers from wealthier backgrounds than Hannah, and surely there must be mothers who are poorer. What Hannah understands from the first is that she does not belong with these mothers; none of them signed their sons’ death warrants. Circumstance killed their sons, but only Hannah made the circumstance come about for her son with such malice of forethought. The guilt that she must have been carrying silently for all these years is given the voice of a polite woman from Washington and the rough outlines of a local politician. And her thoughts, silent but more powerful, are given shape by the flowers she takes from the mother of her grandson. Accepting them is a step, but the fact that there is no look between her and the givers of the flowers is important. The fact that she’s on the train to go to the boat is everything; she can’t look at them because of her shame, not her perturbation.

The second interlude comes when Henrietta is in Paris. She runs into a young American who is unlucky in love, Gary (Murphy), and like young Jimmy his presence disrupts the course of the film like a rock dumped into a pond. Gary means to make like such a rock and dispose of himself in the Seine, but is interdicted by Hannah. She’s managed to find a man whose mother (Hedda Hopper) disapproves of his choice of lover, and so we are given an opportunity to see two sides of Hannah. First, the side of the woman who is given such a lovely second chance to redeem herself when given another young man to guide; this speaks for itself in the film. The other is Hannah as a mother and not merely as a nag. We watch her as she’s cooked up a real Yankee breakfast for this gadabout she’s pulled off the bridge, as she cleans up with him in the kitchen. This is Hannah in her element. A little rebellious, given that she’s supposed to be keeping to her tour group. Solicitous to the point of rudeness, as this willingness to meddle is not so far away from the same impulse that sent Jimmy to France. But it’s also Hannah with the good sense that must have kept her afloat for so many years, after her own husband died, after Jimmy’s death, and that hard-boiled, down-home wisdom is what makes things come out right for the other lovers.

The film ends a few minutes after Hannah has finally visited her son’s last resting place for what, on its face, is a fairly pat conclusion. She begs Mary for forgiveness; she accepts Jimmy with open arms. Yet that sequence, while it’s obviously nice for closure, is maybe a little extraneous. The most important thing is for her to make amends to a cross that cannot hear her. When Jimmy made his intentions regarding Mary known, she tore up his picture. Now she has no eyes to look into, no shoulder to touch, and what regrets she wants to pass along are going to be one-sided. All the same, it’s essential. She had to go there to come back.

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