The Long Voyage Home by Eugene O'Neill

The Long Voyage Home (1940), dir. John Ford, w/ John Wayne (Ole Olsen), Thomas Mitchell (Aloysius “Drisk” Driscoll), Barry FitzGerald (Cocky), John Qualen (Axel Swanson), Arthur Shields (Donkeyman), Ward Bond (Yank).

Eugene O’Neill’s first professionally produced play, a one-act play entitled “Bound East for Cardiff,” premiered in 1916, first at the small Provincetown (MA) playhouse, then in New York.  The play has personal significance for me as it was my introduction to O’Neill, back in the sophomore year of high school.  Following that introduction, I went on something of an O’Neill binge, reading a large portion of O’Neill’s oeuvre, starting with his four “Glencairn” plays.  Following “Bound East,” O’Neill wrote three more one-act plays (“The Moon of the Carribees,” “In the Zone,” and “Long Voyage Home”) about the crew of the Glencairn, a merchant ship operating in the Atlantic during WWI.  These one-act plays were gathered together, adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols and released as The Long Voyage Home. Until I had a chance to see John Ford’s film (I saw it first about 20 years ago, and have seen it some half dozen times since), I never saw a production of the plays.  And, to this day, Ford’s film remains the only staging of the plays I’ve seen.  Ford’s film is a beautiful realization of the plays, and O’Neill claimed it was his favorite film rendition of his work. 

This film is rightly considered one of John Ford’s “hidden” gems.  Ford has some of his usual suspects on board for this film; John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Barry FitzGerald, John Qualen, Ward Bond and Arthur Shields all appear in other Ford films. Working with a stable of regulars enables Ford to get the very best from his cast. At this point in his career, Ford still hadn’t yet been typed as a director of Westerns, though Stagecoach, the quintessential Western that set the type for so many Westerns to come, had just come out a year previously, in the monumental year of 1939. 

O’Neill himself had served on ships and knew them and their men well. For O’Neill as a young man, the sea offered something of a respite from a troubling life on land. His own life was full of personal demons and time aboard ship, where sailors were judged on their ability to do their job, offered an escape, albeit temporary. While they were on board a ship, sailors could create a new narrative for themselves, hoping somehow to escape the uncomfortable facts that beset them on land. 

There is, though, as O’Neill presents it, no complete escape from the world and its troubles.  Troubles still lurk in the background to haunt the men, no matter what new identity the sailors create.  The freedom the sea seems to promise is illusory.  The sailors of the Glencairn are drawn to the sea, but they also yearn for a steady life on solid ground.  When they get to shore, though, they blow their pay, get drunk, and find themselves either signing up anew, or even getting shanghaied, for a new tour. Only Wayne’s Ole Olsen seems to have a chance to escape the sea and get back to the family farm in Sweden.  The rest know they’ll never escape, and accept their service on the sea with a stoic fatality, best expressed by the ship’s donkeyman, played by Arthur Shields. The donkeyman no longer puts up a fight; before he leaves the ship, he signs up for another tour, and patiently waits to set sail again.

The initial staging of the plays was very bare bones, as you can see from these photos of “Bound East for Cardiff.” 

There is a claustrophobic and a crowded feel to the staging, as the photos show.  And Ford’s film keeps some of that claustrophobic feel.  The film was clearly set on a sound stage, and is not brightly lit.  Ford’s ship set, though still seedy, looks realer, somehow, than the set of the Provincetown production.  The credit for this goes to the designer, James Basevi.

The cinematography by Gregg Toland, one of the greatest masters of black and white cinematography in the history of movies.  Though the subject of the photography is not beautiful, Toland’s photography is a work of art. Ford was so pleased by the look of the film that he kept stills from the movie on his office walls. And Orson Welles, who was getting ready to start on his first film, Citizen Kane, was so impressed by the look of this film that he brought Toland onto his team. Toland’s efforts are one big reason Citizen Kane is so acclaimed a film.

I recommend reading the plays, which are available through the library, but whether you read the plays or not, you owe it to yourself to see John Ford’s masterful adaptation, The Long Voyage Home