The Long Gray Line (DVD)

“It took me thirty or forty years just to get the hang of it, you know.”

The Long Gray Line (1954, Columbia) is a John Ford film that has never been rated among his most important efforts. The film is based on the autobiography (“Bringing Up the Brass”) of Marty Maher, an Irish immigrant who became a fixture in the West Point athletic department for fifty years. The military background and Irish angle appealed to Ford and he agreed to direct the film for Columbia which had acquired the film rights. Filming began in March 1954 and called for a 46-day shooting schedule, 20 of them on location in West Point. Things progressed quite smoothly, apparently, with the only hitch occurring when Columbia head Harry Cohn had the bright idea of changing the film’s title to Mister West Point. Ford rightly objected, suggesting that Cohn’s title made the picture sound like a “gagged-up, phony semi-musical type of picture…,” and managed to get his way in the end. The film didn’t do spectacular business, but the long, sentimental story has its moments and has proved to be a favourite for many.

Columbia has now released The Long Gray Line on DVD in a bare-bones version.

Martin “Marty” Maher, an immigrant from Ireland, arrives at West Point where he is assigned to work in the kitchen. He soon proves to be ill-suited to such work and quits only to enlist in the army. The head of the West Point athletics department, Captain Koehler (known as the Master of the Sword), takes Marty on as an assistant. Marty proves to be no great specimen of a sports expert, but he has a winning way about him in dealing with the cadets, whether it’s boxing, swimming or football.

Early in his time at West Point, he meets Mary O’Donnell who has come to work for Captain Koehler and his wife. After an exasperating period of courtship for Marty, Mary agrees to marry him and the two move into a house on the Academy grounds. Money is tight on a sergeant’s pay and Marty frequently threatens to leave the army, but something always happens that prevents him from doing so or changes his mind for him. Marty and Mary are eventually joined by Marty’s father and brother whom Mary has arranged to bring over to America from Ireland. The couple soon becomes well-loved and respected by the succession of cadets (including the likes of Dwight Eisenhower) that pass through West Point. Then Marty finds out that after 50 years of service, the army wants him to retire.

The Long Gray Line was filmed in Cinemascope (2.55:1) and it proved to be John Ford’s only experience with such a wide screen process (although he would experiment with others such as Cinerama [How the West Was Won] and Panavision [7 Women]). Ford apparently didn’t like it, feeling it to be unnatural and difficult to get close-ups with. The results belie that dislike though, for Ford makes excellent use of the wide screen with the vistas of the West Point grounds and the various cadet parades. At the same time, shots that need to convey coziness, such as the interiors of Marty and Mary’s house, are filled with people and the comfortable furniture and mementos of a home so that one never feels that any of the screen is unused or unnecessary.

The story that the film presents is one of vignettes of a man’s life tied together by several plot strands that involve the evolution of two families — Marty’s and that of cadet Red Sundstrom. It’s a long, sentimental story that manages to grab your interest despite a somewhat Hollywoodized view of how easy it seems to be to survive and prosper as an Irish immigrant in America. There’s no mistaking that this is a Ford picture, though. Many of the scenes of dances, soldiers parading, and the comic interludes between older, wiser soldiers and younger ones are reminiscent of Ford’s western cavalry films. Many of Ford’s stock players have parts including Harry Carey Jr. as Dwight Eisenhower, Ward Bond as Captain Koehler, Donald Crisp as Marty’s father, and Maureen O’Hara who is excellent as Mary O’Donnell. On the other hand, working with Ford for the first time was Tyrone Power as Marty Maher. Power is on-screen virtually throughout the entire film and is quite good in the role. He manages to make the character a likable one, yet with human frailties, and he ages realistically over the 50-year period. Other actors with memorable roles are Betsy Palmer as Red Sundstrom’s wife, Kitty, and Philip Carey as cadet, later general, Charles Dotson. As I’ve said, this is a sentimental story, and no part is more so than the ending which, despite its obvious attempts to tug at the heart strings, never fails to move one.

I’m a little mystified at Columbia’s treatment of this film on DVD. It would seem to be an obvious title for designation as part of the Columbia Classics line (whatever that means these days), but that’s not the case. For what was a major title of 1954 and a John Ford film to boot, we get a supplement package that consists of a full-frame theatrical trailer and…that’s it! No vintage advertising, no cast and crew information, no production notes, nothing else.

The disc contains a 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer that preserves the film’s theatrical aspect ratio on one side and a useless full-frame pan and scan transfer on the other. The widescreen transfer is somewhat variable in quality, aside from an extensive amount of nicks and speckles. Most sequences are excellent — clean with vibrant colours and good shadow detail. Some, however, are soft looking with muted colours. There are a few instances of noticeable edge enhancement particularly early in the film.

Columbia also gives us a bit of a curiosity on the audio side — a Dolby Digital 3.0 Stereo Surround track. It’s quite good. Dialogue is clear and free of age-related hiss. The music (primarily marching bands) comes across with some depth to it and even some good bass effects at times. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, Chinese, Korean, and Thai, but not Spanish and Portuguese as advertised on the disc packaging.

The Long Gray Line is a John Ford film that, while not one generally considered among his top efforts, is an entertaining saga none the less. It is buttressed by fine acting performances from Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in the lead roles and a number of fine supporting turns by the usual cast of Ford regulars. Long and sentimental it may be, but it’s a film that easy to like. In some respects, Columbia seems to have almost treated the title as a throw-away. It has a 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer that varies from excellent to average, but there has seemingly been no effort to remove a lot of nicks and speckles. More disappointing is the lack of virtually any supplementary content. The film would have been better served by doing away with the useless extra pan and scan version and delivering the film on a dual layer disc so that there would have been room for the supplementary package it deserves.


The defendant is free to go, but Columbia is given a long black line in the ledger book for its cavalier treatment of the film on disc. Court is adjourned.

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