Revisiting "The Long Gray Line"
If you saw yesterday’s post on the poem, “Gratitude,” you know that my husband is not well at the moment. We will have a low-key thanksgiving at our house tomorrow, probably eating our dinner on Friday, and we may spend a quiet day watching a couple of great films. For stories of gratitude, you can’t beat “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” a must-watch film we have recommended before. Another is today’s suggestion, “The Long Gray Line,” which was our first Film of the Week at Word & Song, when we had only a few subscribers.
We wish you all a very blessed and happy Thanksgiving! — Debra
Our Film of the Week is The Long Gray Line (1955), John Ford’s beautiful tribute to West Point. It’s told as the story of Martin Maher, Jr. (Tyrone Power), a young Irishman who enlists in the Army and ends up spending his entire life at West Point, helping to train one generation of soldiers after another, living on the grounds with his Irish-American wife, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), and then also with his father, Martin the senior, come from the old country (Donald Crisp). The film is based on Maher’s autobiography, and we move with him in learning what the Army is all about, because at first Marty is baffled by its ways. But he does learn, and he is persuaded, and he gives all his heart to the Point. He and Mary have no children – I don’t wish to give out any more spoilers here – and so they adopt, so to speak, all the men of the Point as their sons. They live in their midst, they care for them, rejoice with them, and sorrow with them – for Marty’s life at West Point spans both World Wars, and many will be the remembrances of lost sons that Marty will set, ceremonially, in his family Bible.
As with any movie that John Ford directs, there are a lot of humorous scenes in The Long Gray Line, and yet they aren’t there just for a snicker or two. Old Martin the senior has been taking bets on a football game between Army and Notre Dame. The Irish have a coach, one Knute Rockne, who has instituted a sort of new play, the forward pass. Young Martin is so proud of Army, and so confident in her sons, and of course his father knows a lot less about that American game than he does, that he readily takes up that wager. We all know what’s going to happen. The Irish school full of proud American boys demolishes the public school full of proud American boys. And as old Martin gathers in his winnings, he says to young Martin, “Let this be a lesson to you, my son. Never lay money against Holy Mother the Church.”
And also, as with any of Ford’s films, music is central to the art of the story. I’ll mention one moment in particular, profoundly moving. The men are at chapel, and they hear the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All at once they rise, all those young men with their deep and resonant voices, and they sing, in unison, the final verse of “America,” our Hymn of the Week.
Our fathers’ God, to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing. Long may our land be bright With freedom’s holy light; Protect us by Thy might, Great God, our King!
I might describe the movie this way: it is a door opened into a world that we have largely lost, but that we might, in the grace of God, recover; a world of honor, devotion, cheerful patriotism, ultimate sacrifice, the sweetness of love between man and woman, genuine manly submission to the common good, and what is most humorously and genuinely American. See it, and let your eyes mist with gratitude.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.