John Ford may have been one of America’s greatest directors, but fuck if he didn’t do some utter shite from time to time. If The Long Gray Line was supposed to be a propaganda piece for the US military (as I suspect it was), it sure makes being a soldier look about as exciting as tap water.
We follow approximately fifty years in the life of Martin Maher (Tyrone Power), a fresh-off-the-boat Irish migrant who ends up at West Point military academy, initially as a waiter but quickly going into enlistment, where he stayed for most of his working life. Alongside meeting his wife, Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara), that’s pretty much the entire film. Maher enlists, he isn’t a good soldier, but keeps trying, he ends up becoming a part of the furniture, and that’s about it. Furniture isn’t very exciting though, and neither is Maher, nor is Tyrone Power, never one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most charismatic or engaging screen presences.
If there is a point of interest in the film, it’s mostly in its value as a propaganda piece. Released in 1955, at the height of Eisenhower’s Presidency and as the Cold War was kicking off, the film is essentially an extended advert for joining the US military. Look at how it depicts the forces; it’s an educative, unified force, a collective that impresses the value of education and physical education above, seemingly, actual warfare training. As Maher rises to the position of instructor, most of his work appears to involve teaching cadets how to box or swim, or encouraging them to focus on their studies. At no point does anyone even fire a shot in a practice range, let alone a training exercise. With the context of the times, it’s obvious The Long Gray Line was an attempt to reinforce faith in the military, and particularly its sense of male camaraderie and bonding, which the film is absolutely bursting with. And John Ford sure loved him some male bonding in his pictures.
But the fact is, even by the standards of propaganda, The Long Gray Line is just terribly fucking boring. There’s little to no dramatic impetus here: the fact that Martin Maher is a real-life figure, and the film was adapted from his biography is no benefit to the film. The fact that the screenwriters took extensive creative licence to spruce up the dramatic arc of the film yet still turned out an event-free turd suggests to me that, whatever his qualities as a human being, Martin Maher was not really worth making a film about. Certainly not a film that runs to two hours and twenty minutes either.
Aside from the fact that he’s an average guy who isn’t really physically built for the military, there’s nothing interesting about him; it’s the film equivalent of an under-researched undergraduate dissertation being stretched to the requisite word count. It doesn’t even pass as a slice-of-life film ambling through Maher’s daily routine because the scope of the film stretches five decades, too large a time period to apply the focus of such a perspective.
Film-wise, Ford does at least make the film look handsome enough, even if it’s still dramatically inert. Power is no great star, but at least Maureen O’Hara adds a bit of spice to her scenes, and Ward Bond, one of Golden Age Hollywood’s most reliable character actors, also does a fine job in the scenes he’s in. As a lesser film in Ford’s back catalogue, The Long Gray Line barely even manages to at least be compelling, of only passing interest even to Ford enthusiasts.