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The Glencairn, a British steamer returning home to England from the West Indies, stops in Baltimore to pick up a load of munitions. The crew includes Ole Olsen, a young Swede who wants nothing more than to return home to his wife and is protected by fellow Swede Axel; Smitty, who carries the secret shame of losing his wife to alcoholism; and the brawling but loyal Driscoll. The voyage proves more dangerous than any of them could have imagined - with violent storms, a kidnapping and attacks by Nazi planes, not all of the close-knit crew will make it home alive.
The Long Voyage Home (1940) was adapted by Dudley Nichols, who updated and wove together four early one-act sea-themed plays written by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill from 1914 to 1919. Not only was Nichols a friend of O'Neill, he later directed a film version of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947). The result here, while rather free in its treatment of O'Neill's original material, pleased O'Neill so much that he counted it among his favorite films and kept a personal print of it which he viewed regularly. Director John Ford was under contract with Fox at the time but was allowed to make one film a year outside the studio. Together with his buddy Merian Cooper he founded the independent production company Argosy Pictures, named after his fishing boat. Walter Wanger, with whom he had collaborated so successfully on Stagecoach (1939), agreed to finance the film. Subsequent Argosy productions included The Fugitive (1947), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Wagon Master (1950).
One significant factor in the film's artistic success is undoubtedly its strong ensemble acting from John Ford regulars such as Thomas Mitchell, Ward Bond and John Qualen. For John Wayne the role of Olsen, the idealistic young sailor, was a particular challenge since it required him to adopt a Swedish accent and an altogether different persona from his usual cowboy roles. Danish actress Osa Massen worked closely with him to develop a credible accent. Wayne recalls, "The night before I went to work for the first day's shooting on that picture I worked until probably midnight on a picture that we'd made in six days for Republic. I had to play a straight part as my accent couldn't clash with John Qualen's, who was playing a comic Swede. I wanna tell you, that was quite a switch from the night before, knocking people around and jumping on a horse." Although some critics today consider John Wayne miscast in this role, particularly due to the Swedish accent, Wayne himself considered it one of his finest performances. Noted stage actress Mildred Natwick made her screen debut here as the prostitute. Natwick said of the production: "Ford was a wonderful director, and I think he knew how nervous I was. He really told me everything to do; it was marvelous coaching. When I had to make my entrance, I remember he said, 'Why don't you have your sweater down and sort of be pulling it up over your shoulder?' [...] He just made me so comfortable. He took a lot of time and nurtured me along."
Gregg Toland made The Long Voyage Home among the most beautifully photographed black-and-white films of the era, its low-key lighting and deep focus photography contributing to the pessimistic atmosphere of the film and directly foreshadowing his work on Citizen Kane (1941). Variety characterized Toland's work here as "a masterpiece." Wanger, who considered it an "art" film and hoped to appeal to an elite audience, commissioned ten paintings by various contemporary artists depicting scenes from the film and organized a traveling exhibit at cities across the country. Although The Long Voyage Home was praised lavishly by the critics - John Mosher of The New Yorker called it "one of the most magnificent films in film history" - it failed to turn a profit at the box office in comparison with lighter fare released at the same time such as the Betty Grable musical Down Argentine Way (1940). Nonetheless, the film received seven Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Black and White Cinematography, Best editing, Best Score, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects. Ford was so proud of the film that he displayed stills from it on the walls of his home.
Director: John Ford
Producer: Walter Wanger, John Ford
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, adapted from four one-act plays by Eugene O'Neill: "The Moon of the Caribees", "In the Zone", "Bound East for Cardiff" and "The Long Voyage Home"
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editor: Sherman Todd
Music: Richard Hageman
Art Designer: James Basevi
Principal Cast: John Wayne (Ole Olsen), Thomas Mitchell (Driscoll), Ian Hunter (Smitty), Barry Fitzgerald (Cocky), Wilfrid Lawson (Captain), Mildred Natwick (Freda), John Qualen (Axel), Ward Bond (Yank), Arthur Shields (Donkeyman), Joseph Sawyer (Davis).
by James Steffen