The life story of a salt-of-the-earth Irish immigrant, who becomes an Army Noncommissioned Officer and spends his 50 year career at the United States Military Academy at West Point. This includes his job-related experiences as well as his family life and the relationships he develops with young cadets with whom he befriends. Based on the life of a real person.
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The essential theme of all John Ford films is goodness. That goodness usually comes in the form of bringing civilization to the frontier in his many classic Westerns, but at times goodness was explored on a much more intimate scale, such as here in The Long Gray Line. His characters illustrate our own clumsy efforts to be better people, not by performing heroic acts but by leading lives with honesty and integrity hoping to be an example to those we love.
The Long Gray Line is the story of Martin “Marty” Maher (Tyrone Power) who served at West Point, the United States Military Academy, for fifty years. Marty is an Irish immigrant who right off the boat from Tipperary is assigned a job as a waiter and dishwasher at West Point. Quickly realizing that he is an inept waiter, Marty enlists as a noncommissioned officer and is assigned to the sports department. Under the tutelage of Captain Kohler (Ward Bond), Marty begins to find a home at West Point, including a wife, Mary O’Donnell (Maureen O’Hara). Eventually Mary brings his father (Donald Crisp) and brother (Sean McClory) from the old country as well.
Ford avoids the trap of turning to this film into another “dedicated teacher” movie, like Goodbye, Mr. Chips. In fact, most of the scenes while Marty is teaching athletics are played for comic effect. This light tone gently leads us into the more dramatic material. We see Marty’s failures as a waiter and as a swim instructor who cannot swim. Tyrone Power does a masterful job at Marty’s Irish temper running hot but masking deep love. His performance deftly combines comic timing and genuine pathos. Donald Crisp is also a delight as the elder Marty who becomes both advisor to West Point superintendents and bookie for that fateful 1913 Notre Dame-Army game, where a young Knute Rockne unleashed the forward pass.
Marty’s goodness, though, does not come from blind obedience to the army’s code. In fact, he honestly struggles with the object of West Point’s education. When students he has taught (and we have grown to know) die in World War I, he places a black ribbon across their yearbook page. His position requires him to know all too well the human cost of warfare. Ford juxtaposes the death of a favored cadet with the armistice celebration, causing Marty to quit West Point. He only decides to return after reading the letters sent to the soldier’s widow. Marty realizes that these young men train to have other soldiers put their lives in their hands. For those who reach West Point it is not only the achievement of their young lives’ ambition but also the beginning of a lifetime of leadership.
As Marty ages and loses his wife, his dedication to West Point is returned by the institution, which is predictable, but maintains an element of surprise in the hands of Ford. The film begins with a flashback as Marty explains to President Eisenhower that he should not be relieved of his duties because he is turning seventy. It is only at the end of the film, that we realize Marty was told that story so he could have a presidential audience and a military parade could be planned in his absence. Note too a moment at the parade, as a General standing near Marty wipes a tear from his eye with his gloves. It’s the perfect touch from a master director.
Hollywood tends not to make films like The Long Gray Line any more. Marketers will tell you that there is no “audience” for movies about ordinary people leading good lives, and they may be right. But I think we’ve lost something. There are likely countless Marty Mahers out there, and if we want more of them, we need other John Fords to tell their stories.