We begin the review of 1940's Best Picture contenders with...
The Long Voyage Home
(based on the four Glencairn Plays by Eugene O'Neill)
John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfrid Lawson, John Qualen, Ward Bond
One of two John Ford films nominated for Best Picture in 1940, The Long Voyage Home follows the crew of the freighter SS Glencairn as they sail from the West Indies back home to Mother England with a shipment of explosives that they are secretly transporting to aid in the Allies' war effort. The motley crew consists of an Irish troublemaker (Mitchell), a simple Swedish farmboy (Wayne), a furtive ex-alcoholic (Hunter), a caustic steward (Fitzgerald) and a neurotic teetotaler (Qualen), amongst others. They battle through rough seas and enemy fire and, at one point, suspect one of their own of being a spy. Their onboard antics keep them sane, however, as they attempt to make it through ... (wait for it) ... the long voyage home.
Since the script is based on four one-act plays, the story feels decidedly episodic. All the "episodes" involve the same characters so there is still a sense of continuity, but at the same time, the picture is somewhat disjointed. However, taken on their own merits, each vignette stands up very well. In particular, the storyline revolving around the crew's suspicions of a spy in their midst is especially engrossing. Its climax contains the film's most moving moments.
There are several sections in The Long Voyage Home that play out with very few words spoken, making for some captivating cinema. Director John Ford is extremely adept at telling the story visually. In addition, the special effects employed during the storm sequence are effectively simple. Dumping vat loads of water on to the set is all it takes.
John Wayne, in the role of Olsen, is billed first, yet he hardly speaks two sentences until the final act. And the way the other characters treated him, I initially thought that Olsen was slow. Turns out he's just Swedish. Anyway, The Long Voyage Home is clearly an ensemble piece and the cast is very capable. Particularly memorable are John Qualen, Barry Fitzgerald and Thomas Mitchell (pictured). Qualen and Fitzgerald expertly provide the humour. And watching Mitchell has been one of the great joys of this project. Here, he adds to his other Matt vs. the Academy appearances with an absorbing portrayal of the unpredictable yet loyal Driscoll.