‘The Long Gray Line’ or — A Neo-Con’s Wet Dream?

What the hell did I watch last night?! I feel as though I’ve been up all night drinking bad whiskey and speed-reading the National Review.

John Ford’s ‘The Long Gray Line’ (1955) is a deeply frustrating movie being possibly the finest example of an exquisitely and immaculately crafted lump of offensive offal I’ve sat through in ages. What’s even worse is that there’s so much to enjoy in here but it’s smothered under a combination of so much Irish blarney mixed with American conservatism that if that’s not your thing — and NEITHER of those are my thing in any way — that fighting through all the propaganda to get to the wholesome fun underneath is exhausting; it’s like watching a five-hour long episode of ‘Happy Days’ directed by Leo Strauss.

‘The Long Gray Line’ follows the life of Martin Maher, a chirpy Orish cliche who turns up at West Point military academy looking for work. He starts at the bottom and works his way all the up to the very middle in this dazzling tale of mediocrity. Over the years he falls in love and marries, trains cadets and sees two World Wars come and go. However, seeing as nothing else dramatically is happening this means that the film is simply a tale of inevitability as two World Wars come and go and everyone close to him dies so he can be alone with his true family — West Point.

So what starts as a sprightly, funny ‘antics in the army’ knockabout comedy — which is when the film is at it’s most successful — soon (actually, not that soon because this film can be a slog) descends into scenes of turgid melodrama with an unpleasantly pro-militaristic, almost fascist, stance. It’s like watching Paul Verhoven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997) with all the irony removed. This is a problem because if you don’t care about Maher’s devotion to the military then you don’t care about any of what happens. Although Martin’s blind devotion to the army is nothing compared to his wife’s Charles Mason-esque, psychotic, borderline sexual mania towards the cadets. It’s like Lady MacBeth and Donald Rumsfeld had a baby and she was the terrifying result.

It might sound as though all the above would make for a somewhat weird movie and that’s because ‘The Long Gray Line’ fucking is. I’m not sure I can think of another film I’ve seen recently that exists in such a bizarre and strange mental space as this one. This is accentuated by the fact that John Ford pulls of some remarkable feats of stunning wide-screen visual composition, these broadly drawn characters existing in highly detailed environments as though they’re moving through a Seurat painting. The effect feels like a dream or, more precisely, a reminiscence but Ford’s control over what’s on the screen is incredible.

Not that’ The Long Gray Line’ is without merit because for all the flaws, the sprawling banality and empty tragedy the film is technically firing on all cylinders. Every moment is clearly defined and filled with bits of business, like watching a machine functioning according to precise rules. It’s remarkable seeing all the pieces fitting into each other although after a while it does start to resemble watching troops on display.

‘The Long Gray Line’ is a weird film. It’s Walter Lippmann’s ‘necessary illusions’ fired through the lens of a fifteen foot focusing shamrock into weaponised form. What’s also weird is that it’s so conservative, so traditional that watching it made my anti-establishment, rebellious instinctively side kick and I’m now left wanting to take peyote.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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