The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Long Gray Line

Through all his films, a common, somewhat unexpected link bonds the movies of director John Ford.  It's not cowboys vs. Indians or John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Richard Widmark, but a sense of family and the importance of staying close to those you're related to. One of 11 children from an Irish family, Ford's beliefs filtered into his movies.  The stories, the settings, the characters, the famous John Ford stock company of supporting actors and actresses, Ford for all his aggression and belligerence was a family man.

When comparing his movies, it's easy to overlook his non-westerns.  When in front of a Congressional hearing, Ford even introduced himself saying "I'm John Ford, I make westerns."  But over a career that spanned decades and over 100 movies, it's unfair to just say he was a good director of westerns.  He was a good director for all his faults and tendencies that can drive me nuts at times.  Maybe the best example of a Ford movie -- non-western -- is 1955's The Long Gray Line, a departure from the expected Ford movie but still similar in many ways. 

An Irish immigrant fresh off the boat in New York, young Martin Maher (Tyrone Power) travels to the United States Military Academy at West Point in upstate New York. He enlists in the army and right away begins helping the cadets, some just as a mentor, others as an instructor in classes.  Marty can be a bit of a klutz, a bit of a doof at times, but when the chips are down, he's a good friend and a better man.  The years go by, and Marty continues to reenlist while also marrying Mary O'Donnell (Maureen O'Hara), a pretty redhead from Ireland. They send for Marty's family from Ireland (father Donald Crisp, brother Sean McClory) and life continues, the whole family together again.  And so the years go by, West Point unchanging as the world changes around it in the first half of the 20th Century.

When Ford gets it right, he typically hits a home run, and this qualifies in many ways.  One review described it as a "very Irish" movie.  And somehow that description is dead on more than just the main characters being Irish.  It's about family and sticking together through thick and thin.  More than that, it's the extended family you make in your life.  All those things that drive me up the wall are here, but whether he realized it or not, Ford reins it all in.  It never gets to be too much.  The story is downright sappy at  times, but I don't think Ford ever intended to do anything but that.  For the most part, it hits all the right notes, happy, sad and everything in between.

This was never an intentional slight, but this was the first Tyrone Power movie I'd ever seen from beginning to end.  I never had a negative idea of Power as an actor, but I guess it's fair to say it wasn't particularly positive either.  Above all else, Power's performance here as Sgt. Martin Maher is the reason to check this one out.  Marty is one of the most likable characters ever, willing to help whatever and whoever needs his help.  We see this over the years the impression he makes on his cadets who end up looking at him as a father figure, or at least a big brother looking out for their best interests.  Power gives Marty some funny bits, nails the emotional scenes, and handles an Irish accent that if handled poorly could have derailed the part.  A great performance to lead the movie.

Mentioned earlier, Ford's stock company of actors was a long list of actors/actresses the director worked with on repeated times.  If you've seen more than one Ford movie, you've no doubt seen these faces whether you knew it or not.  'Gray Line' is full of these folks, starting with O'Hara in a perfectly cast part as Marty's tough-minded wife Mary, an ideal match for the equally strong-willed and tough-minded Marty.  Crisp isn't in the movie for long but certainly makes quite an impression as Marty's old school Pops.  My favorite of the stock company has always been Ward Bond, and he doesn't disappoint as Major Keeler, Marty's commanding officer. Also look for Ford regulars Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne along with Robert Francis, Peter Graves, Philip Carey and William Leslie filling out some meatier supporting parts.

Only one complaint here, and I'll keep it brief.  A story that covers 50-plus years in 140 minutes can't help but feel a little episodic, a little disjointed.  Characters go in and out at will, no explanations offered, but the link through all the slower moving segments is Power as Martin Maher.  Throw the performances in with some great on-location shooting at West Point that help sell the tradition and honor of the academy, and you've got a winner if not quite a classic.

The Long Gray Line <---trailer (1955): ***/****

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