Repeatedly, the tragedies in Marty’s life lead him to question the worth of life, and repeatedly the order and stability of the parade re-enters to ease his mind, allowing him to lose himself in the escapism of American myths.
* * *
“Ah, what a fine ruin it will make!” exclaims Irish immigrant Marty Maher when he first sets eyes on the architecture of West Point Military Academy. On one level, he’s genuinely in awe of the grandeur of the institution’s design. On another level, the skeptical Marty is also gently mocking the self-serious rigidity and antiquated formality of the institution. The tragic irony is that the West Point building, along with the codes, regulations, and ideals that it symbolizes, is the only thing in the film that doesn’t deteriorate. Physical bodies age and break down; lovers die; students graduate and move on; dreams collapse into apathy; infatuations fade; friendships dwindle. The only constant in Marty’s life are the weekly parades. John Ford’s largely forgotten masterwork The Long Gray Line tracks Marty’s development from reluctant novice to respected fixture to, in the film’s final moments, part of the architecture itself, as Ford makes it clear that his legend will persist long beyond his physical death. Marty Maher Sr. spells this out when he says, “I’ve slept my first night in America on this post, and I’ll sleep my last night here. And if they’ve got a bit of ground in the cemetery, I’ll rest happy sleeping at West Point forever.” make clear
Marty isn’t a hero. He isn’t even an idealist. His aspirations are simplistic, and thoroughly conventional. He longs for a wife, a home, a steady paycheck, a child to carry on his legacy, and not much else. “Ah, a cut of fresh baked cake, a cup of black coffee, and a pretty girl to talk to,” he tells his beau Mary early in the film, in a moment of genuine contentment. As a protagonist, he remains largely passive, at times infuriatingly so. He arrives at West Point with no particularly strong feelings about the military either way, completes whatever job is asked of him without resistance; his desire to return to his home country is quickly put to rest as he and Mary are caught up in the excitement of a military march. For the first half of the film, Marty sees his life at West Point as being a transitional phase. Yet, he’s repeatedly drawn back in to renew his contract at the times when he’s set to leave. After his first term has ended and he’s scheduled to return to Ireland, he impulsively decides to stay on in the hopes of winning over Mary; when his brother persuades Marty to quit in order to move to the city to become a partner in his business, Marty finds out about Mary’s pregnancy; following the death of his son, Marty is so overwhelmed with grief he apathetically can’t bring himself to uproot from his present situation. Such is the existential stasis of Marty’s professional life. He can’t bring himself to leave the Point, but he also can’t progress up the ranks (he has never seen combat, after all), and he quietly backs down as his impulsive and half-hearted attempt to sign up for military service (and hence see battle first-hand, rather than just training cadets to do so) is rejected. Marty’s only true action is to step foot on West Point in hopes of finding work in the very first scene. Following that, he wanders passively from one instant in life to the next, allowing himself to be pushed around by others, a passive observer who watches as other men pass in and out. Marty is an outsider, occupationally, culturally, morally. He is both inside and outside the Point; he is constantly watching parades, without joining in; he stands guard outside a dance, while occasionally peeking inside; he supervisors swimming lessons even though he himself is unable to swim. Marty begins his life at the Point as an outsider, in terms of class and national identity, but increasingly becomes embroiled in the alien structures, rules, and regulations of this iconic American institution.
Marty’s life is a tightly structured one filled with rituals he dares never to step out of line with: lessons, parades, family dinners, pub sessions. He allows himself to passively fall in step with the rhythms of life set up for him by the people and institutions that surround him. What he never comes to realize is that he’s the most static figure in his own life story, remaining essentially the same even as those around him mature or perish. If the most iconic idea of a Fordian hero is a man who sacrifices his personal life in order to rebel against the rules pushed onto him and stand up for his ideals, even if these ideals may be wrong-headed, Marty is almost the inverse: a man who always takes the path of least resistance, and, in doing so, manages to balance a healthy domestic life and escape the overwhelming, life-endangering passions of Ford’s more active protagonists.
If The Long Gray Line appears, on the surface, to be a celebration of the military, it’s only because we are seeing West Point filtered through the perspective of Marty as he reflects on his years there; on another level, the film actively encourages a counter-reading, implicitly poking at the essential heinousness of war. How can one overlook the scene following the death of Red, in which the young widow Kitty hands Marty a medal of honour and tells him, “payment in full for Red’s life, Marty.” As Marty opens the case, Ford cuts to one of the few close-ups in the film, implying a sense of grandeur that is immediately undercut by Marty’s underwhelmed reaction. Marty is sheltered from the reality of war, the land beyond West Point, and hence experiences life as a mere series of cycles. New recruits enter and leave, their ages and appearances remaining constant. In a moment of radical ellipses, Ford dissolves from Red’s crying infant to him grown into a young recruit, several decades later, saluting the very institution that sent his father to his death. Men sacrifice their lives in service of abstract ideals, their legends inscribed onto physical totems of their service. Faced with Kitty’s devastating grief, Marty’s allegiance to the Point comes under challenge; for the first time in the film he is forced to come to terms with the physical and emotional fallout of the war he’d previously only experienced in the abstract. Marty becomes overwhelmed with national pride as a means to justify his career: “They’re trained to do a job, Kitty,” he consoles her, “Some die young and some don’t, but they all give their lives for their country, they’re ready when they’re needed. They set the example – and their wives, Kitty!” Ford shows us these clichés of military valour, which feed Marty’s ego and help him insist on the clearness of his conscience, and contrasts these images and sound bites with images of psychological ruin, the very flatness of Marty’s existence, and invites viewers to draw their own conclusions from these contradictory tones. “The finest young men in the world,” Marty reflects at his lowest point. “We bring them here. Train them, teach them, then send them out to be killed.” Church bells play in the background, which in the previous scene had been celebratory symbols of the war’s end. Here, however, they take on a funereal tone.
The maintenance of such an ambivalent tone when portraying the ins-and-outs of military service – plunging the viewer into Marty’s rose-tinted subjectivity while simultaneously maintaining a detached, critical distance – is exemplary of Ford’s sophistication. “What is this place? Is it a prison, or a loony house?” is Marty’s incredulous reaction when he first sees the Point, and he later ridicules the rigidity of the soldier’s positions in a march, joking that “you could shoot off all their noses with one bullet!” Marty, fundamentally alienated from the conventions of military training, at first views the academy as being an absurd farce. Gradually, he becomes enchanted by its mythos, drawn in by its grandeur, and submits to its rhythms. Yet this isn’t a horror story of a man’s dehumanization at the hands of the U.S. Army, as is Eastwood’s American Sniper, which itself owes much to Ford. If Ford portrays certain aspects of the Point in a positive light, it’s the collective sense of camaraderie and a shared sense of purpose it creates within its recruits. In other words, Ford condemns the institution but has nothing but affection for the innocent men sucked into the system’s gravity. This is never more evident than in the scene following Marty’s discovery of the death of his infant son. After the doctor leaves Marty’s porch, Marty remains, framed in a medium wide shot, backed against a corner, and bathed in chiaroscuro lighting created by the shadows cast onto the porch by a nearby tree branch. Shrouded in these expressionistic patterns of light, Marty turns to the side and violently smashes the West Point sword previously given to him as a gift for his son. The colour scheme is muted, large chunks of dark greens and damp browns, combined with sharp, geometric streaks of cool navy – the same colours that have come to define the interior of West Point and its uniforms. It seems that at this point, Marty is making a conscious decision to reject his life at the Point, and the multiple disappointments, frustrations, and failures that have come with it.
Indeed, in the very next scene, we find him at a bar in a nearby town that is off-limits to cadets – the only sequence in the film that takes place off site, aside from the opening. A group of loyal students come in to talk him out of drinking himself into oblivion, and they form a curved wall of silver around him, visually dominating the composition and expressing the suffocating influence of the Point on Marty’s psyche.
With little persuasion, they talk him into returning with them, and leave the bar as a sea of silver. Marty’s father follows behind, transformed by shadow into a silhouette, signaling that the more embroiled Marty becomes in the mythos of the military, the further removed he becomes from his own cultural heritage. The Point tightens its grip on Marty a little harder, and Marty loses a little more of himself. The comforts of the community come at the price of one’s individual identity.
Interestingly, Marty is the only major character that expresses an ambivalent attitude toward the Point, and he remains this way until late into the narrative. As he comforts the bereaved Mary in hospital, it’s Mary who wants to rejuvenate her spirits by watching the military parade out of the window, while for Marty it only serves as a reminder of his many impotencies. The scene in the hospital room is filled with ambiguities and contradictions. Mary’s grief for her lost child, combined with her self-hatred at her barrenness, coupled with a sense of guilt at not being able to father the son Marty had so dearly longed for, along with a quickly developing frustration at Marty’s stubborn refusal to comfort her. On Marty’s side, there is the sense of impotency and masculine rage at being robbed of a male heir; resentment at Mary combined with a desire to comfort her, and a sense of inner disgust at his own inability to give Mary the support she needs. All these complexities melt away when the sounds of the military drums overshadow the soundtrack, and the parade passes their window. Mary’s face is lit clearly, bathed in the sunlight coming through the window, emphasizing her uncritical embrace of the parade’s grandeur. Marty’s, however, is bathed in patches of shadow that immediately recall the aforementioned porch scene. Although the lighting of the film is mostly naturalistic, at key moments Ford uses everyday objects to cast expressive shadows.
Whereas Mary’s first instinct is to throw herself into the joyous rhythm of the parade and become at peace with “God’s will,” Marty’s impulse is to pull himself out of his circular existence at West Point. Marty, at this point, has not yet fully embraced the power of military tradition and the ideals it symbolizes, but gives himself over to the structures of West Point out of apathy. “This is no time to talk about it,” he says after Mary raises the question of whether the Point will only hold bad memories for him from now on. “With me just starting a new enlistment. What I wish or what I don’t wish.” As he and Mary embrace in a medium-close two shot, Ford dissolves to a wide shot of the grounds, a stream of unidentifiable cadets marching in lockstep within them. Formally, Ford establishes that Marty and Mary take comfort in feeling that they are part of something larger than themselves, that they are helping to support ideals that are much grander than their personal struggles.
This is one of several points in the level where Marty and Mary make a significant life decision while staring at the grand spectacle of the West Point parade, and, in each, Ford lingers on their faces rather than the march itself. What this framing makes clear is that The Long Gray Line isn’t simply about the honour of the armed forces, but rather how the abstract myths and ideals of America are internalized and perpetuated, and ultimately shapes the lives of those in thrall to them. Taken at the most superficial level, The Long Gray Line is a simple celebration of the very ideals of military service that Marty himself comes to embrace; on a deeper level, it’s a film that gains its power from formally indulging Marty’s romanticized vision of the armed forces while simultaneously undercutting this nostalgia to investigate the inculcation and cultural roots of patriotism in America, through ironizing a narrative structure that may seem at first to be lionizing the exact opposite to these matters. That Marty’s existence at the Point is conflated with impotency is expressed through the symbolism of the cannons, which Marty repeatedly is shown sitting on, but is never able to load or fire successfully. Ford’s framing of these echoed scenes expressionistically externalizes Marty’s feeling of entrapment. Even when Marty is roaming the grounds of the Point, Ford’s compositions render the space boxy and claustrophobic. The rigid parallel lines of the path, the carefully cut grass, and the cannons cleanly divide up the space along separate focal planes. Behind them, we faintly see the open natural landscape of mountains and wild plants, but a tight arrangement of thin trees act as a physical barrier, almost appearing like prison bars. Ford’s use of focus and aperture abstracts the on-screen space, making it appear as if Marty and the cannons are farther removed from the trees behind them than they actually are. Marty appears formally alienated from nature and, by extension, the outside world.
Considering that so much of the dialogue of The Long Gray Line revolves around issues of patriotism and nationalism, it’s notable that Marty is only shown directly looking at the American flag once in the film, and the tone of the sequence is far from sentimental or jingoistic, two charges frequently made against the film by Ford detractors. After laying flowers at Red’s grave, Red Jr. pulls Marty aside and reveals to him that he has impulsively married before graduating, an act forbidden by West Point regulations. This causes Marty to chastise him harshly and compare him to his more diligent father. Marty delivers a rousing dialogue regarding the honour of the Point, military duty, and honouring familial traditions, which, for him, are intrinsically tied to institutional ones. After Red Jr. has left the shot, Ford lingers on an unusually long one-shot of Marty as he reflects on what he’s just said. Looking for solace, Marty’s gaze is directed to the ground, then points skyward. Ford’s framing doesn’t emphasize the grandeur of the flag, but its minuscule size. It takes up an incredibly small portion of the composition, and is surrounded on all sides by large chunks of negative space, which dwarf it. The trees that dominate the image are barren, lifeless, and their twisted branches partially obscure the flag itself. He searches for reassurance, but cannot find any. Instead, his sense of self-doubt is heightened – does the notion of protecting the ideals of this foreign land truly justify sending all these young men to their deaths? It’s a sequence that reminds me of what Jean-Marie Straub said of Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March: “You see magnificence, and the opposite is felt.”
Marty tells Eisenhower in the very first scene, when asked why he spent so long working for the Point, “it took me thirty or forty years just to get the hang of it”; it might be more accurate to say it took him this length of time to resign himself to a lifelong military career. As he grows older, Marty gradually sees himself transformed and flattened into an icon, a tradition himself. As Marty gradually gives up his humanity, his moral agency, over to the legend of the Point, he becomes enshrined into the realm of its icons, and the last portion of the film delves into a confrontation between myth and the particulars of everyday life, the cost of becoming a legend, the toll that public lives take on private ones. The individual will is subsumed into the community. Toward the end of the film, Marty meets the new governor, and finds himself defending the very traditions he mocked during his first visit to the Point. “Did it ever occur to you, as an American citizen, that a place can become so overcome with tradition that it loses touch with reality?,” the governor asks. “It’s time for more realism here and less tradition.” Marty aggressively points out that the generals leading the war effort “don’t just happen. They’re made […] They’re made right here at West Point!” The governor leaves, insulted, and Marty looks upwards at a stern image of a former colonel adoring the wall. “There’s no need to look at me like that, colonel,” Marty jokes. “You’d have said the same thing yourself.” Central to this shift in Martys’ attitude is Ford’s portrayal of West Point as being a huge family unit for Marty. Mary hints at as much when she suggests that, even though Marty cannot bear a son, he may take pride in considering all the cadets he helps to mould as surrogate children. As Marty and Mary reflect on the upbringing of Red Jr. late into the narrative, Mary explicates this fact, saying “that boy has been like my own son.” In many previous Ford films, the bonds of the family unit have been put in opposition with the tight homosocial bonds of military communities, but in The Long Gray Line, uncharacteristically, Ford portrays Marty’s professional and private life as existing in harmony with one another.
The Long Gray Line is structured around repetitions and parallels. The narrative can be split roughly into two sections, with the gaping ellipsis of Red Jr.’s childhood being the point that divides the two. The first part details the maturation of Red, leading up to his graduation and, soon after, death in battle, while the second tracks Red Jr. from his enlistment at the Point to being sent off to the front line. There are two weddings central to the plot, but neither one is shown on-screen: the first joining Mary and Marty, and Red Jr.’s marriage to Carol. Marty’s father gives his sons a simple piece of advice in the first, “subsist, subsist,” which is then repeated by Marty himself to Red Jr. in the second. The film features two scenes of Marty meeting with President Eisenhower, which bookend the narrative. The last place Marty Sr. appears in the film is sitting on the porch of the Maher house, which is the same place where Mary passes away – both funerals are notably elided.
Mary and Marty are first joined on a porch, watching a parade, so it’s fitting that Mary dies looking out at a military march. She sits, now an elderly woman, on the porch, at first slumped over in exhaustion but roused to alertness upon hearing the familiar rhythmic drums. Ford cuts to the interior of the house, and we see Marty walk down the stairs with a blanket for her. He stops midway, and another cut aligns us with Marty’s perspective (the only point-of-view shot in the film). The frame is divided cleanly into three planes of depth: background, foreground and middle ground, as we look through a long hallway into a small rectangle of light, a patch of greenery illuminating the otherwise muted brown image. The camera remains static as Mary, seen from behind in the chair, becomes limp and her arm falls downwards. The camera lingers on the image for an unexpectedly long time, but Ford doesn’t reframe or cut in closer to mark the moment or accuntuate any particular detail of the image. It’s the sort of deeply resonant minor gesture that Ford is known for. It’s an unceremonious death of a major character, a draining of life from a physical body; the body will dissolve into the earth and become part of the natural landscape of the Point, the spirit will become enshrined in photos and writings, of the kind that adorn the borders of the image.
Marty runs over to Mary, and the scene dissolves to a statue of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus at a Church-set Christmas celebration. As Tag Gallagher notes of the transition: “An image of spiritual rebirth corresponding to the renewal of the seasons on earth, another tradition, a ‘response’ or ‘answer’ to the questioned posed by Mary’s death.” Following this cut, we see an unusually wordless passage. Marty trudges through the desolate snowy landscape, then wanders through the bleak, dark brown kitchen, pushed to the far left of a wide composition filled with negative space, the sparse mise-en-scene accentuating his internal emptiness.
The film ends with another lengthy parade sequence, over which classical Irish music is played, as opposed to the conventional military hymns of the previous ones. Marty is told that the march is being held in his honour, and we see that he is in the process of becoming one of the Point’s legends. Again, the composition is divided into three very clearly differentiated lines of vision: Marty in the foreground, the paraders marching in the middleground, and a line of calligraphic trees stretching across the background. Ford cuts to another angle, the soldiers marching from background to foreground diagonally. They previously appeared majestic, but now they barely take up a quarter of the frame; the upper portion is occupied with the ambient space of sky and leaves.
As Tag Gallagher notes, the cadets appear similar to “toy soldiers,” a slightly comical, “faceless, mechanical” march. Even though the parade is being staged in Marty’s honour, in good spirits, the scene is a reminder of the absurdity of institutions – the boxy compositions themselves make the greenery appear more similar to one of the Point’s claustrophobic interiors than an escape from them. “It’s been a great day for Marty,” Red Jr. says, to which his mother retorts “It’s been a great life for Marty.” On the surface, the sequence would seem to support this sentimentality. But a closer look at the framing suggests otherwise. Marty, caught up in the spectacle, conjures up visions of the dead: Mary, Marty Sr., Red, all appear as they were in the prime of Marty’s life. Ford alternates between shots of Marty looking out at them and them returning his gaze – one of the very few uses of shot-reverse-shot in the feature – but the angles are mismatched. The other figures in the scene are rendered identical, unidentifiable; it’s only these ghosts that are rendered with any real weight by Ford’s camera, and we realize that everybody truly close to Marty is now lost. As Marty looks out at them, he sobs gently, and extends his hand. Ultimately, however, he collects himself, dries his eyes, and stands to attention, gazing out at the parade. The Church bells kick in. Marty’s emotions here are ambivalent. Is he reminded of his barrenness, his lack of biological lineage? The fact that a large portion of these young men whom Marty has helped to train are likely to soon be marching to their death, as Red did? (Is that why Ford frames their motion so that the hoards of cadets are literally walking out of frame, into the abyss of off-screen space?) Is he reflecting on the flatness of his existence, the lack of permanent impact he’s made?
Ford chooses not to cut to a reverse angle of the parade, but to linger on Marty’s troubled, ambivalent expression. Is Marty truly becoming at peace with himself, or is he throwing himself into the mythos of military valour as a way of distracting himself from the many contradictions of an army career? Repeatedly, the tragedies in Marty’s life lead him to question the worth of life, and repeatedly the order and stability of the parade re-enters to ease his mind, allowing him to lose himself in the escapism of American myths. All that’s truly reaffirmed in this deeply ambiguous ending is the comforting stability that routine offers amongst a sea of incomprehensible tragedies.
Gallagher, Tag, John Ford: The Man and His Films. Oakland: University of California Press, 1992.
Note: All images are screenshots from the DVD of the film.