I was the world’s biggest John Wayne fan when I was growing up, but I never even heard of this movie until I was in college. Released in 1940, the year after Wayne became a big star in STAGECOACH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME didn’t make much of a splash despite all the top-level talent associated with it. That didn’t do anything to derail Wayne’s career, of course. He just barreled right on to become the biggest box-office draw in the world, year after year. That may be because THE LONG VOYAGE HOME isn’t what anybody would really think of as “a John Wayne movie”.
As a matter of fact, it’s very much an ensemble piece. Dudley Nichols, one of director John Ford’s favorite screenwriters, took four one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill about the crew of the tramp freighter Glencairn and fashioned them into the script for this movie, updating the setting to the South Pacific on the eve of World War II. Because of that, the film is pretty leisurely and episodic, and given its origins, it’s a little stagey, too, with a lot of scenes where characters are sitting around in a fairly confined area (the ship) and talking. A lot of it was filmed on a soundstage, but filmed in such beautiful black-and-white by the iconic cinematographer Gregg Toland that it’s a joy to watch. Toland went on to shoot CITIZEN KANE for Orson Welles, but for my money, his work on THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is equally as good.
This is the movie where John Wayne plays a young Swedish sailor named Ole Olsen and speaks with a thick Swedish accent. Critical opinion seems to be about equally divided as to whether he botches the accent or nails it. I’m no expert, by any means, but it sounds okay to me. And as always, Wayne is such a great physical actor, conveying as much with his movements and his stance as he does with his words. His role is actually a supporting one, although his character does wind up being pivotal to the plot. If there’s a star in the film, it’s Thomas Mitchell, also a great actor, and he’s backed up not only by Wayne but also by Ford stalwarts Barry Fitzgerald, John Qualen, Jack Pennick, and Ward Bond. It’s a fine cast with a great script, and Ford’s touch on this movie is just about perfect and lighter on the sentimentality than he often was, which is fitting given the darkness of O’Neill’s source material.
I’m not sure how I missed this movie growing up. The TV stations around here must not have shown it nearly as often as they did all those other classic John Wayne movies. But that’s okay. I wouldn’t have appreciated it when I was eight years old, anyway. I do now.