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Apart from its title, two things have worked against the reputation of John Ford's underrated West Point movie, The Long Gray Line (1955). One was the 1960s, which took a dismissive view of the politics of the previous decade, mistakenly grouping liberal Democrat Ford with such right-wing cronies as John Wayne and Ward Bond. The other is the film's shameless blarney quotient. But Ford knew what he was doing in humanizing the story of the United States Military Academy by telling it through the humble eyes of longtime West Point staffer Marty Maher, who came there from Tipperary as a waiter, enlisted, instructed several generations of plebes in boxing, swimming and tradition, stayed at West Point all his life, and was buried there in 1961.
There are times, following Marty's marriage to Maureen O'Hara's Irish compatriot, Mary O'Donnell, and the arrival of his father from the Auld Sod to take up residence with them at the Academy, when The Long Gray Line makes The Quiet Man, Ford's 1952 Irish excursion, seem like Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996). On the other hand, certain moments of familial closeness remind you that Ford had directed How Green Was My Valley (1941). The sentiment comes across as the real thing, and so does the patriotism in the loyal hearts of the Mahers, who included Donald Crisp as the elder Maher, modeled, it is said, on Ford's own father (and echoing Crisp's How Green Was My Valley patriarch). O'Hara had of course starred opposite Ford regular John Wayne in The Quiet Man. Casting her in this role was a natural. She has never been more vibrant. Nor was it her first brush with West Point in the movies. In Henry Hathaway's Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942), she played an early 19th century Washington socialite who was instrumental in the founding of the USMA.
Ford not surprisingly wanted Wayne as Marty. But Wayne's protracted presence on another movie led Ford to cast Tyrone Power, his real-life neighbor (and ex-Marine). Power seems relieved and refreshed at being sprung from the swashbucklers that gave him most of his employment, especially as Maher mellows with the years. The passage of time, haunted by the wartime deaths of so many officers, enables Ford to sidestep the trap of allowing the film to veer into empty flag-waving. As with many American adults of the period, Ford's WW II experience (in the U.S. Navy) as a maker of documentaries darkened his view of life and the world. While Marty's view of the young officers as extended family is believable, so is his melancholy at seeing so many of them sent off to die. There's more darkness in this patriotic film than you might suppose.
Drawn from Maher's memoir, it's framed as a long flashback that begins in the Oval Office with an aging Maher asking President Eisenhower to intervene and keep Maher from being retired. We see Ike (Elbert Steele) only from the rear, ironically, in a scene that seems a steal from the opening of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), when Jimmy Cagney's George M. Cohan is summoned to a meeting with FDR, also seen in a rear view, and heard, but never frontally. The difference here is that Maher knew young Ike (and Omar Bradley, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur) as cadets, and addresses them with appropriate respect, but also with familiarity. (Harry Carey, Jr., a Ford stock company regular, plays young Ike; mainstay Bond plays Maher's gruff West Point mentor; John Wayne's son, Patrick, plays another cadet and, in a cameo, then Los Angeles Rams star Norm Van Brocklin plays a Notre Dame quarterback.)
In fact, the male-oriented West Point society resonated with the male-dominated microcosm on Ford's shoots. He took to Betsy Palmer, a stage-trained actor (like Power) making her Hollywood film debut as a spirited, open-eyed modern woman who eventually buys into patriotism, but not before questioning it after her husband dies in combat and her grown son goes off to war. Ford reserved his trademark caustic treatment for O'Hara, who angrily recalled it years later in her autobiography. But if it was his way of getting her Irish blood up, it worked splendidly, and didn't impede O'Hara's decision to avoid the maudlin in Mary's death scene by simply having her die quietly, even discreetly, as we see her seated on a porch from the rear, and her hand simply goes limp.
It's one of the film's few discreet renderings of sentiment, which reaches a crescendo near the end when Marty is being honored by rank after rank of cadets passing in review and the usual Sousa marches are replaced by a medley of traditional Irish tunes as Marty sees visions of his late wife and father on the parade ground. Still, even here, The Long Gray Line represents a triumph of conviction over stereotyping and shows few signs of Ford's complaints that he felt handicapped by having to film in CinemaScope, with the wider frame ratio distending and diluting his compositional approach. He can't have hated CinemaScope all that much. As an add-on, he filmed a 10-minute short with the cast selling U.S. Savings Bonds. He called it "The Red, White, and Blue Line." It, and the main event, are very much of their time and not much of ours. But while it's never going to turn up on John Ford greatest hits lists, it's nevertheless a mission accomplished.
Producer: Robert Arthur
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Edward Hope, Nardi Reeder Campion (book), Marty Maher (book)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Film Editing: William A. Lyon
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: George Duning, Morris Stoloff
Cast: Tyrone Power (Martin Maher), Maureen O'Hara (Mary O'Donnell), Robert Francis (James Sundstrom, Jr.), Donald Crisp (Old Martin), Ward Bond (Capt. Herman Kohler), Betsy Palmer (Kitty Carter).
by Jay Carr