Sunday, March 9, 2014
Made during one of the more fertile periods in John Ford’s career, The Long Gray Line tends to be overshadowed by the surrounding masterpieces (The Searchers, The Sun Shines Bright) and popular successes (Mogambo, The Quiet Man). But dip into this slow-boiling vat of tears and you will find Ford’s nostalgia dissolving into a mess of contradictory emotions, ranging from despair to jubilation and every shade in between. A memory play in the mode of How Green Was My Valley and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the film follows the career of Marty Maher, a West Point lifer looking back at 50 years of dutiful service with a fondness hardly in keeping with the often-painful scenes he recalls. He begins his career as an inept waiter seemingly incapable of carrying a saucer two feet without reducing it to shards, and his whole life resembles one long pratfall. Shuffling from one failure to the next, he becomes a boxing instructor who can’t box and a swimming instructor who can’t swim. The film turns what is supposed to be a triumphant summation of a life well lived into an object lesson in falling upwards. One of the film’s running gags involves Marty foisting scalp cream upon a balding student—a young Dwight D. Eisenhower. Even with one of the teacher’s most famed and successful pupils, a hint of failure lingers.
Time turns all stories to tragedies, and Marty’s is no exception. The proud tutor of great leaders becomes the bitter factor of cannon fodder. His wife and father die. He argues with a plaque of his dead mentor in the school hallways. At Christmas time, his house teems with students and well-wishers as an old song transports him to years past. Surrounded by this vibrant community, Marty seems utterly alone. Military structures overtake individual lives: the Maher line ends with the death of his infant son, while the lines of gray-suited cadets seemingly stretch into eternity. Celebration and sorrow grow increasingly tangled until we reach the film’s climactic parade, where hundreds of students march in tribute to Marty as the man’s long-departed wife and father proudly look on. The other officers glance sideways at Marty as he reaches out to this vision, and it’s hard to tell if their worried looks signal mere confusion or horror at what appears to be encroaching dementia. But what shame is there living in the past? Each one of us will take up residence there in due time.